Ooty: Sublime Success


Altitude: 2240 metres above sea level
Location: Nilgiris District, Tamil Nadu
Population: 1,91,960 
Number of Households: 52,767 
Established: 1819
Area: 36 sq km
Temperature Range: 10.6–22.9 degree Celsius

Supriya Sahu recalled an unnerving experience she had as the collector of the Nilgiris district between 1999 and 2003—she and her team had found dead animals, including cows and elephants, with plastic bags in their intestines. ‘It was alarming, and we got everyone together to brainstorm, because back then we just didn’t know what to do. This was not widely written about like it is today. There was no policy, no systems and just no interest in it,’ she said.

‘We got the panchayat and some NGOs to come together, formed a committee and, after some planning, we got a gazette notification published saying that we are banning plastic. Especially four items: cups, plates, bottles, bags. Back then a stringent ban like this brought on widespread opposition from traders and the hospitality industry,’ said Sahu, today the principal secretary of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Forests, Government of Tamil Nadu.

Shobhana Chandrasekhar, the founder of The Make Ooty Beautiful Project, a volunteer group that is closely involved in the waste management efforts of the hill station, said, ‘There was hardly any form of waste management about a decade ago. There were large bins all over town, but all the waste was mixed and the bins were overflowing. At first the ban was for plastic under a certain micron of thickness, but soon we realised that any thickness was bad. So we studied Karnataka’s plastic ban, which was quite comprehensive, but it needed to be tweaked to work for our district. We added several items to this list, such as polypropylene bags, thermocol decorations/ tableware, and paper cups. We have also been very vocal about not allowing bioplastic bags and tableware into the Nilgiris.’

The stakeholders eventually came together in 2005 and hosted an exhibition featuring vendors and SHGs who offered plastic alternatives, like jute bags and menstrual cups. The hotel association and restaurant groups took part as well.

Vendors demonstrating biodegradable food ware in Ooty to government and private players

Chandrasekhar recalled a time when the anti-plastic committee had only government officials. ‘Initially there was confusion about what was banned, and there was a need for specific detailing. For example, the committee was walking into stores and fining shops for having chocolates in hard plastic boxes, which were not banned. We wanted citizens represented on the committee to balance it out. Now we have a core group, which has a mix of stakeholders to report plastic misuse. This group now helps the government team conduct raids.’

Raids being conducted on businesses misusing plastic, by the government-run teams.

Sahu highlighted the comprehensiveness of the programme. She said that eco-clubs were launched in schools and barricades were put up at all entry points in the district. Ooty’s green warriors would be stationed at these barricades to take away plastic bags and provide jute bags instead. The jute bags were sponsored by SBI. Stickers declaring ‘Proud to be entering a plastic-free Nilgiris’ were put on cars.

Fast forward to 2017, when Innocent Divya became the collector for the Nilgiris district. She launched the ten-point environment protection programme Unnadha Udhagai, or Sublime Udhagai (Ooty). Unnadha Udhagai comprises a complete ban on plastics and a community-driven sanitation programme that includes meticulous waste segregation and solid-waste management. The programme won the Green Award from the Tamil Nadu government in 2018. Divya is the collector as of July 2021 as well, and her work encompasses Coonoor.

Divya said, ‘As of today 18 types of plastics are banned. Our waste collectors now only get plastic containers for food, for which we are now looking for eco-friendly alternatives.’ Only 5 litre cans of water are allowed now, as these have a significant cost deposit and are hence valuable. There are now 64 water ATMs, which are managed by a single agency that allows for people to refill water at Rs 5 per litre. Furthermore, every week government officials and community members come together for an event called Sweep Blue Mountain Thursdays, where they clean up the hillsides that are beyond the regular waste management system.

One of the Water ATMs in Ooty: Photo Credit: Greennest.in

‘The key is enforcement. We created Green Brigades that fine people who do not follow regulations. We did this regularly for the first six months till the system was set in place. Now we only do surprise raids to remind people,’ said Divya. ‘I believe that all municipalities in hill stations should set aside at least 25% of their budget for waste management. Currently it is often less than 5%. Because of these low budgets we sometimes have just one person collecting waste from 150 houses. The added challenge of the hill gradient makes it much more expensive than the plains.’

Read more about the challenges to read the Common Lessons across all hill stations in our Overview, and the unique lessons from each of the towns by clicking on the links below:

Unique Lesson learnt: Create systems that allow businesses and citizens to provide auxiliary support to the daily operations of waste management.

Jacob Cherian

Jacob Cherian, Editor of the Environment & Wildlife section also runs TerreGeneration.com, a content and events company committed to positive environmental impact. He lives between Bengaluru and Prakasapuram.

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