Green Pammal: Transforming lives and society through waste management

Sumathi, a short, lean woman of dark complexion, wakes up every day at five am, wears her blue Saree and blue cap, which is also her uniform and goes to work in her designated area in Pammal, a town bordering the capital city Chennai of southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Work hours last from 6 am in the morning to 3 pm in the afternoon. That’s been her daily routine for last 10 years.

Sumathi, Green Ambassador at Exnora Green Pammal

But life was not always so well settled for Sumathi. She and her husband moved to Pammal, along with their two daughters, 10 years ago from their native place in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu due to crop failure. Both worked as daily wages agricultural labourers; scanty rainfall, water scarcity resulted in agricultural crisis forcing them to migrate in search of employment.

In Pammal she ran into another such migrant woman who was working for Exnora Green Pammal, an organization working in solid waste management in the Pammal municipality.

10 years of working at Green Pammal has completely transformed her family’s life.

Today she is known as a ‘Green Ambassador’ who collects waste from 200 households and educates people how to segregate their waste into bio degradable and non bio degradable waste.

Her husband too works with Green Pammal and their two daughters are getting educated in one of Pammal’s best schools.

“I want my daughters to grow up and become government servants. It is for them that all my struggling is for,” says Sumathi.

The most important highlight of her life, however, was being able to construct a home of their own in their native village back in Villupuram. The house cost them 350,000 rupees, something she believes would have been impossible as a daily wage worker back home.

Sumathi’s is just one of the stories. There are many more women whose lives have been transformed for the better by Green Pammal.

The beginnings of a clean Pammal revolution

Green Pammal came into being in 1994, when Mrs Managalam Balasubramanian moved to Pammal from Delhi, the Indian capital. She was appalled by the state of the area, the filth and the stench.

Being a veteran of developmental projects due to her work at the Danish embassy in India, she started to create awareness regarding waste management in her neighbourhood.

Armed with 20 motivated women she began a self help group, which would collect waste from 324 households.

Today Green Pammal has signed an MOU with the municipal corporation for solid waste management in 16 of the 21 wards. The corporation does the rest as rules for only 2/3rd or waste management work to be outsourced. The organization has a work force of around 200 workers.

Green Pammal is involved in waste segregation, recycling, composting, bio-gas production and up-cycling.

Her work in waste management has earned her the title ‘Garbage Aunty’.

Datawrapper – Daily waste segregation at Pammal Municipality –

Photo story link –

The Human Side

Most of the workers at Green Pammal are either migrants like Sumathi or were previously involved in illegal businesses like illicit liquor trade, which was rampant in a nearby locality.

“Every day I would give them 10 rupees for breakfast and send a vehicle to bring them here for work and back home,” says Mrs. Balasubramanian. This was her way to motivate women to move out of the illicit liquor trade.

Many of the migrant workers come from Andhra; their story is quite similar to Sumathi’s. “Many of them were involved in manual scavenging. They also had a small piece of land where they would rice,” she says. Water crisis destroyed their fields forcing them to move to Chennai to earn a livelihood.

Mrs. Mangalam Balasubramanian

“When they first arrive here for work we first give them informal training to assimilate them in the team. It is basically teaching them about discipline, how to behave with people etc.” says Mrs. Balasubramnian.

A lot of attention is paid to grooming. The first change men undergo when they join the organization is a haircut.

Till a few years ago she used to run a canteen which provided the workers a place for bathing and cooking their own food. “We made them take a good bath once they returned from their work at noon. We assigned a person from within themselves to cook food.”

Working for Green Pammal has changed the way in which society perceives them. “When we asked them what is your attachment to the organization, a lady said that when they came here and would ask for provision from grocery, since no would trusted them, they would have to pay first. But now they have accounts in these grocery shops, because they all know that at the end of the month they are getting their salary from Green Pammal,” she says.

Similarly finding a place to rent was also a challenge for most of them. Earlier no was willing to give them accommodation, hence most of the workers made the streets their home. However, that has changed due their working for the organization, now people are more welcoming when they house hunting.

“The liquor workers used to fear policemen because of the nature of work they were involved in. But now the same policemen salute them,” says Mrs. Balasubramanian, pointing out the radical change that their social recognition has gone through.

The Challenges

One of the challenges that the organization faces is also on the human resource side. Most workers come from lower income backgrounds and even with all the training and other facilities that Green Pammal offers they leave if anyone offers them 10 rupees more, says Mrs. Balasubramanian.

In recent years many scrap dealers have come in the area. These dealers offer them money for the day’s garage collected and the workers sell it all to them. “The scrap dealers exploit them as the workers are not aware of the market prices of the waste they collect. But the attraction of instant money is too much for them to resist,” she says.

The biggest challenge, however, is political. Waste management happens to be the number one responsibility of the municipal corporation. The elected representatives, however, have very little understanding or the inclination towards waste management.

“Over the last 15 years we have conducted many workshops on waste management, but their focus is just on collecting votes,” she says.

The municipal councillors also interfere in their day to day work by ordering around the workers as if they were their personal workers. Sometimes councillors want her to employ their people for work.

Recently she has been embroiled in a legal battle with the neighbouring Pallavram municipality as they were illegally dumping their waste in Pammal. “I knocked many doors, from the municipality to the secretariat. Everyone told me that no one is going to give me a Bharat Ratna for stopping the dumping,” she says. Finally, she had to take legal action to stop the dumping.

The way ahead

Mrs. Balasubramanian’s biggest worry is retaining her well trained workforce. “A few years from now such a workforce won’t be available to us. Their lifestyle has changed; their children available will become graduates and post graduates,” she says.

For the future she plans to impart formal skill training to the workforce that she has. Green Pammal is in talks with a Singapore institution that trains unskilled women so that they can enhance their skills, leading to better bargaining power for them. “Right now they will work for anyone who offers them 100 rupees more than what we pay,” she says.

Working for an organization like Green Pammal has transformed the lives of these workers. Today, they the society recognizes them as respectable individuals; their children are getting education, and have a bright future to look forward to.

They have a full time job, a place they can call their home and are able to support their families back in their native places.

What started out as a simple program to rid the neighbourhood of the stinking garbage has today become an institution that is helping marginal sections of the society enter the main stream. That is the probably the biggest contribution that Mrs Balasubramanian’s work has had on Pammal.

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