Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The making of an eco-city

Namakkal town, in Tamil Nadu, reinvents itself and gets the country's first ISO 14001 certification.
It took three years to put in place a system that has brought Namakkal international recognition.
I REMEMBER it as a dirty and noisy town where dogs roamed the government hospital and stories about them carrying away newborn babies circulated. Then the roar of lorries and stories about people with HIV/ AIDS in Namakkal grabbed national headlines.
This time around, I could not spot any stray animal. Residents, instead, talk about an effective administration, cleaner roads, quieter environs and an ISO 14001 certification — the first of its kind to any town in the country.
Namakkal, a southern district in Tamil Nadu with a population of 53,000, took three years to put in place a system that brought it international recognition. The certification is given to any organisation that uses technology and maintains internationally acceptable standards in services and develops an environmental management system in which water, air and sound quality are maintained.
Initial hiccups
S. Gandhiselvan, the municipal chairman, recalls: "We wanted to do something good. So former commissioner Umapathi and I visited every house in the Anjaneyar Koil (the most congested area) and took up three wards as an experiment. People laughed at us. But we continued. For four months we talked to people, issued notices and finally showed them results of garbage removal."
Gandhiselvan says that the movement included women and has remained "completely apolitical".
"Soon neighbouring wards wanted to be integrated. We privatised garbage collection and trained a group to form `Annamalai Associates'. We have six slums and we never thought they would cooperate. They also joined the group and the success is because of them. When we projected our work at meetings in other districts, people did not believe us. We asked them to visit us," says a proud Gandhiselvan.
Profitable too
Annamalai Associates segregates garbage, prepares vermicompost and recycles non-biodegradable waste, such as tyres and tubes littered around this town known for its lorry "body-building" units. All this fetches the municipality Rs. 4.5 lakh a year, says municipal commissioner P. Kanthaswamy.
"Using GIS (Global Information System) we do route optimisation to save time and fuel. It also ensures 100 per cent removal of garbage," he says.
The effects were there for me to see: Lower noise and pollution levels despite a heaving bus station, a touch screen computer at the municipality for residents of the 30 wards to check their property/ water tax arrears, birth certificates in 15 minutes and an upgraded government hospital with flowerbeds. Gardens and solar electrical fencing have been laid in the town's crematoria. Since its garbage segregation drive, local agriculture does not use chemical fertilizers.
Attitudinal changes
The drive has resulted in attitudinal changes. G.M. Saraswathi, a homemaker who has lived here for 50 years, says: "Initially I did not segregate garbage. One day I saw a woman who came to collect garbage with cuts on her palms. That's when I decided not to dispose sharp items like blades. Now of course the women wear gloves."
The municipality's efforts came into focus when the Supreme Court acknowledged its achievement. The Asian Productivity Organisation based in Tokyo, Japan, introduced the concept of green productivity to enhance efficiency and improve the town's environment and over-all social economic position. The National Productivity Council of India pitched in to develop Namakkal into an "eco-city", the first of its kind in Asia-Pacific region.
New goals
Namakkal is not likely to rest on its new-found status and recognition. Efforts are on to build a Chandigarh-like rock garden in this town, which is in a rocky belt with perennial water shortage. "I remember a summer when even the coconut trees began to wither," recalls N.B. Kala, a resident. But political parties are still finding it difficult to change their ways.
During a recent sports meet, the town's main road was filled with cutouts of a political leader. This despite the municipality levying charges for removing garbage from commercial establishments, hotels and marriage halls and not allowing hoardings unless they carry its mandate for a "beautiful" town.
But, Gandhiselvan and Kanthaswami have even bigger plans. They want computers for the four municipal schools, a swimming pool for the town and a couple of libraries. The ISO certification may be a beginning.

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