The growing incidence of violent confrontations between peri-urban communities and municipal authorities in big cities over mindless dumping of garbage underscores the urgent need for environmentally sustainable solutions. Concentrated consumption in urban centres has resulted in solid waste volumes running into thousands of tonnes each day, and shrinking disposal choices. In much the same way that some industrialised nations export their trash to poor countries to keep their metros ‘clean’, Indian cities are increasingly looking at remote suburbs as dumping grounds. The sites chosen are invariably those that do not possess the political muscle to oppose top-down methods. Any opposition is met with a hardline response and even the use of force. Such an approach to garbage management is not just violative of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2000, but unjust and environmentally toxic. Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai and Bangalore have been witnessing protests by communities over decisions to locate new and bigger suburban dumpsites in their localities which are certain to affect groundwater, air quality and public health. A similar pattern of resistance has been witnessed in China, most recently near Shanghai. Clearly, the response to public concern must be in the form of genuine green solutions, not violence.
Transporting and disposing of waste in landfills is expensive. Germany does not resort to landfilling, and several other European countries recycle everything except about four per cent that they dump. Other solutions in the West include scientific landfills capable of removing methane emissions, and waste-to-energy projects which are expensive and carry significant environmental risks. India’s own response should therefore be to prioritise elegant solutions — such as composting of segregated wet waste, which forms the bulk of the garbage. This is possible at several levels — individuals, apartment complexes, gated communities and municipal wards; the rest of the waste can be recycled as envisaged under the MSW Rules. It is heartening that many citizens are ahead of local governments in adopting such green initiatives. Others can be encouraged to take charge of their waste and segregate and, if that fails, compelled to do so. Chennai offers a good example in the form of its compulsory rainwater harvesting requirement for buildings, which helped improve the groundwater table. But the key really lies in shunning a ‘use and throw’ lifestyle modelled after the United States, which generates the highest waste per capita and has 1,900 landfill eyesores. That is not the model India needs.