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Vol. XXX No. 21, March 1-15, 2021

Marina’s proposed Smart Carts turn problematic

by our Special Correspondent

The Greater Chennai Corporation plans to introduce ‘smart carts’ to the Marina beach. The move is part of a larger beautification plan in line with a 2019 Madras High Court directive to transform Marina Beach into a world-class beach – it aims to regularise the beach vendors by capping the number of smart carts at 900, which will be placed in designated vendor zones throughout the area. Given that the Marina is said to harbour roughly 2000 vendors under the current system, the ‘smart cart’ plan has predictably received strong pushback from the thousands who currently depend on the beach for their livelihoods – the drastic move comes at a time when vendors are already under constrained economic circumstances from the pandemic, reeling under a year’s worth of lost revenues.

The issue is further complicated by the smart cart allocation process, which details two categories under which the smart carts will be given to vendors via a lottery system. Category A covers the allotment of 540 smart carts and gives priority to existing vendors, while Category B covers 360 smart carts and invites new vendors to apply. The finalized vendors will take up the smart carts on a rental basis and are expected to abide by cleanliness regulations failing which their license will be removed and awarded to the next applicant in line. The allotment process for both categories was conducted as a draw of lots earlier in January, which was live-streamed by the GCC on its social media channels. The list of successful applicants was subsequently published on the GCC website, but has since been removed with no comment.

Meanwhile, the Chennai-based NGO Arappor Iyakkam is demanding the cancellation of the smart carts tender, alleging corruption in the tender award. The organization has reportedly filed a complaint with the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption. A quote from representative Jayaram Venkatesan published in The Hindu reads, “…The Corporation floated a tender for the supply and installation of 900 smart vending carts with a value of Rs. 16.47 crore. The tender publishing date was October 10, 2020, and the scheduled bid opening date was November 10, 2020. The firm A Quad Enterprises did not have the required pre-qualifications. Therefore, a series of amendments were made to the criteria to try and make the firm eligible… They put in a clause in the corrigendum giving themselves permission to reopen the tender while in the first place no corrigendum is allowed after the opening of the tender. After this, the tender was re-opened within a few hours around 5.44 p.m. and A Quad Enterprises was alone declared qualified and the tender was awarded to them.” News reports say that the Corporation has denied corruption in the smart cart tender, explaining that the award to A Quad Enterprises was made by the High Court Bench following the withdrawal of a competing bidder.

As the ‘smart cart’ scheme comes under fire for multiple reasons, one wonders that not much has been published about the carts themselves or their innovatively ‘smart’ capabilities. Most available information speaks to Marina ‘beautification’ as a result of relegating the proposed smart carts to designated beach zones and ensuring uniform spacing between them. As for the carts, it is said that they will not have wheels, will come in a variety of colours and may have solar panel roofs in the future. Given the apparently weak range of functionalities, one is forced to wonder about the positive impact that the smart carts can be expected to bring – will it justify putting hundreds out of their livelihoods, especially in these hard times?

One feels that the Marina beautification efforts can do much better than smart carts to strike a more efficient balance between environmental cleanliness and commerce. It might serve the public better to focus on waste management, maintenance of restroom facilities and access to drinking water, instead of disrupting daily wage earners who make a living at the beach. Surely, we have the funds to work out more creative, impactful solutions – after all, the administration recently spend a whopping Rs. 24 lakhs on a selfie monument at the Marina beach.

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