How Are Our Cities Managing Waste?

The Swachh Bharat Mission launched in 2014 brought waste management into the public conscious. People contributed to and lamented about the mounds of garbage and litter at the end of the street. Swachh Bharat attempted to bring about a behavioural change among the citizenry.

Subjects which were part of hush-hush conversations such as urinating on the roadside, staining walls by spitting chewed tobacco and betel nuts, defecating in fields and near train tracks, and throwing garbage on the roads became topics of conversation at home. People started to discuss this with their peers, colleagues, friends and relatives.

To incentivise states and people to perform and take up cleanliness as a habit, the government initiated the Swachh Survekshan Awards to award cities based on cleanliness. Regular Swachhta Pakhwadas conducted different activities promoting hygiene, cleanliness and waste management.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan achieved success in achieving a behavioural change to a large extent. The administration set up garbage bins across cities and improved public sanitation. The implementation of these steps saw people being conscious of disposing waste into bins. Not littering in public spaces. Using public toilets for urination and defecation.

However, the management of the disposed waste is still a large problem. The rate of growth of garbage generated from urban areas is a cause for concern. The issue is systemic in nature. Problems lie along the entire waste management supply chain from gathering waste to recycling and reusing it.

All the garbage collected across cities and urban rural areas gets dumped at landfills. To understand the extent of the crisis, data from Statista on the number of landfills in India (statewise) for the year 2020, pegs the total number of landfills in India at 1358. The chart is topped by Maharashtra with 320 landfills and followed by Karnataka with 199 landfills.

The 0’s on the map do not denote a lack of landfills in these states. The zeros on the map are only evidence of a lack of data on landfills in the respective. This data set for the financial year 2020 has the landfill data on Union Territories – Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh combined together.

Despite this growing consciousness on proper waste management, our waste is still ending up in landfills. The root of the problem starts at the first step of the waste management process. Segregation. Failure in segregation of solid waste means the different waste items like food scrap, paper, liquid waste will mix and decompose. The resultant leaching and run-offs into the soil and release of harmful gases into the atmosphere ultimately take a toll on our health.

If the garbage does not reach the landfill, this ends by the wayside on the roads. Any unattended large space becomes a garbage hotspot. The waste from the locality gets dumped here. During the pandemic, as schools went online, the area was left unattended. The entrance to the lane which housed the school became a garbage dump yard. The local authorities responsible for waste disposal encroached upon this area.

The other site for garbage disposal are barren stretches of land. Walk down the streets in your locality. In the plots of land that are fenced or have dense foliage growing without any construction, the place is littered with polythene bags, clothing, plastic and other solid and liquid waste. The situation is the same across cities in the country.

Down to Earth, the fortnightly magazine produced by Centre for Science and Environment gives an insight into the currents state of affairs of municipal solid waste management in India. According to its estimates, urban India generates up to 0.15 million tonnes of solid waste per day. On a per capita basis, this amounts to 0.30 – 0.45 kg of waste generated per day. If the current behavioural patterns and policies of waste management continue, the volume of waste generated is expected to touch 165 million tonnes by 2031. And 436 million tonnes by the year 2050.

This waste needs to be segregated, collected, transported, incinerated or recycled, treated and reused. There are issues at every stage of waste management process. But since the building block of waste management, segregation itself is a stumbling block in the process, success is a destination far away.

Here, as the accountability is ascertained, the blame game begins. The inept administration, the corrupt bureaucrat, the unskilled waste collector and the indifferent citizen, the scapegoats, all point fingers at each other. The truth is all of them are responsible for the prevailing apathy towards building a robust waste collection mechanism.

From anecdotal experience, in the initial days of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) distributed waste baskets to households. Each household received a green and a blue waste basket. Green basket for wet waste. Blue basket for dry waste. This was the idea of the urban local body to promote waste segregation at home.

The idea, however, met with failure. It failed to meet its objective of bringing a behavioural change. In my opinion, the idea failed for two reasons. Even an ordinary educated literate citizen has very little knowledge about waste segregation. They lack a proper understanding of the difference between wet and dry waste. As the urban local government embarked on this initiative, there was no educational awareness campaign. People did not know what to do with. In my home, my grandmother used the waste baskets as a bucket. The buckets were used by the maid to mop the floor.

The people familiar with concept were enthusiastic about proper waste management. They diligently put the wet waste in green baskets and dry waste in blue baskets. Some gave up as the novelty of the idea died after a while. Others lost hope when they saw the segregated waste being dumped together in the garbage collection truck. This exhibited a lack of proper planning by the municipality in implementation of the policy.

This is the situation in just one city. The anecdote talks about household waste. Add biomedical and e-waste, the magnitude of the issue presents itself. Down To Earth provides a few figures to highlight the magnitude of the problem. Of the 62 million tonnes of waste generated annually in India, only 68 percent of waste is collected. From the 68 % of waste collected, only 28 percent of waste is treated by the municipalities of India.

Taking the data from rural parts of India into consideration, the percentage of waste being treated falls down to 19 percent. The remaining 80-81 percent of waste is disposed off in an unscientific manner at dumpsites. The case study on the Ghazipur landfill site published in the International Journal of Applied Environmental Sciences has the following observation. The dumping yards in urban areas have become health hazards for the people residing in surrounding areas.

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Ghazipur Landfill Case Study

The mounds of waste at these landfills release interstitial water and by-productions from decomposition of waste percolates into the groundwater. The percolation of this leachate pollutes groundwater. And the people living in the vicinity of these landfills suffer from skin ailments, respiratory and waterborne diseases.

Of the three landfills of Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur situated around the National Capital Region (NCR), the Ghazipur landfill commissioned in 1984 has received 14 million tonnes of waste over the years. The other landfills of Okhla and Bhalswa commissioned, a decade later in 1994, have exhausted their capacity to hold waste. And the Ghazipur landfill is being cleared and flattened for a large part of the last decade.

This landfill spread over 29 acres has a 65 metre high waste mound. Over the years, the landfill has caught fire many times. In 2022, fire broke out at the Ghazipur landfill thrice in the first 4 months of the year. This landfill on the Delhi-UP border in the NCR has become a point of political debate. The clean up of the landfill has been going on for years. Every election cycle, the parties have promised to clear the landfill.

The most recent electoral promise to clear the Mount Everest of garbage dump happened during the recently concluded Delhi MCD election. The Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal asked for another five years to clean up the landfill. While the politicians were making promises, the situation worsened with each passing year.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had to step in to address the issue. In its order on September 29, 2022 , NGT noted that only 21 percent of the legacy waste approximated to 59 million tonnes across the three landfills in the NCR – Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa was bio-mined and processed. The remaining 79 percent of waste still lies in the landfills.

And this is the story of just one city in the country. In Kochi, the Brahmapuram landfill is on fire since March 2, 2023. The domestic waste of the city dumped here caught fire. And it continues to burn. The Kerala High Court had to intervene in the matter. The Court stated the citizens of Kochi are residing in a gas chamber. The toxic fumes hovering over the city have made life hard for the residents.

Source: NDTV
Bhramapuram landfill in Kochi catches fire

Hearing the issue on the Ghazipur landfill, an NGT order in 2021 stated all legacy waste sites in India need to be remediated to reduce the release of methane, foul smells and leachate. In April 2022, the statutory environmental body noted the garbage dumps in Delhi and other Indian cities are like time bombs because they generate explosive gases like methane which pose a constant threat of explosion.

The NGT advocated for using scientific methods to collect, process and dispose the waste in these garbage sites. The remediation and safe disposal of the waste from these landfills is one of the mandates of the Swachh Bharat Mission launched by the Indian government.

However, it is not to say there have not been success stories. Post the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, there have been positive changes. Dustbins are now a common feature of the cityscape. Public toilets have been made available for use and hygiene standards are maintained. Of the many success stories of the Clean India Mission, cities which have ranked high on the Swachh Survekshan rankings have prioritised building local models of waste management.

The city of Indore has made the headlines every year for being the most cleanest city in the Swachh Survekshan for the last six years. A much bigger success story emerged from the town of Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh. The city has developed a unique model of waste management.

Ambikapur embarked on a new waste management initiative on April 14, 2015. The initiative included cleaning the landfill in town and focus on waste segregation at the point of collection. To kickstart the new initiative, the district administration roped in 31 women self-help groups. And impressed upon the people and made them aware about the importance of waste segregation.

The approach of the Ambikapur administration succeeded. The 45 metric tonnes of waste generated by the city does not end up in landfills. The women from the self-help groups collect the waste from the 2500 households in the city. The segregated waste collected by these women is further segregated into 38 categories for recycling, composting and other kinds of processing depending on the waste product. The recycling of waste has provided the local government with a new revenue stream. Waste recycling generates a revenue of Rs 13 lakh (1.3 million) for the city every month.

And the city converted its landfill into a park. Inaugurated in May 2016, the Sanitary Awareness Park now houses trees and ponds. Also, the city formally declared itself as a zero-waste city.

To convert the behavioural change into a habit, Ambikapur incentivised waste management. It created a barter system with plastic waste as the commodity to exchange for being provided with a service. You can use the segregated plastic waste you collected as a form of credit. The plastic waste replaces the credit and debit cards. The best example of this change is witnessed at a popular local eatery ‘Garbage Cafe’. People can have a meal here in exchange for one kilogram of plastic waste.

Source: Times of India
Garbage Cafe in Ambikapur

Now, its has been over eight years since Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was launched. People have understood its important to throw the waste in the bin. But waste management is a huge problem across the country. There are other success stories from the smaller towns in the country such as Chandrapur (Maharashtra) and Taliparamba (Kerala). But such stories are few and rare. While these small towns have found a way to manage their waste, the metropolitan cities are unable to do so.

The urban local bodies in these metropolitan cities have no concrete policy to tackle waste management. They come up with waste to wealth treatment plants. But they are few in number. A large part of the waste generated in these cities ends up by the roadside or in landfills. How many more tonnes of waste need to pile up on the streets and landfills before waste segregation and management becomes a priority? And their reluctance to act robs these cash strapped urban local bodies of much needed revenue. The big cities of India have a long way to go in addressing their waste management issues.


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