Time to put garbage on the table

With no long-term planning and policy reforms, the country’s burgeoning waste management problem is set to become a health and environmental crisis

May 18, 2013 12:25 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:11 pm IST

In 2012, for the first time in its history, India saw nationwide public protests from the northernmost Jammu and Kashmir to southernmost Tamil Nadu against improper waste management. A fight for the right to a clean environment and for environmental justice led people to large-scale agitations, which resulted in remedial responses by government authorities. However, the waste management problems lay unsolved and might lead to a crisis if the status quo persists without long-term planning and policy reforms.

Hunger strike

Since Thiruvananthapuram started transporting its waste to Vilappilsala village in July 2000, respiratory illnesses there have increased tenfold, from an average of 450 cases a month to 5,000. People who regularly swim in the village aquifer have begun contracting infections while swarms of flies have become pervasive. Currently, there is not a single household that has not suffered respiratory illnesses because of the waste processing plant and the adjoining dumpsite.

In August 2012, about 500 police personnel had to accompany trucks to the waste facilities against which the president of the village went on a hunger strike and the villagers blocked the vehicles by lying on the road. As the facilities could not be forced open, following the Vilappilsalaprotests, Thiruvananthapuram’s residents had to sneak out at night with plastic bags full of trash to dispose it of behind bushes, on streets or in waterbodies. For months, they had to burn heaps of trash every morning. In response to a similar situation in Bangalore, where piles of garbage were rotting in the streets for months, a landfill had to be reopened soon after its closure against the will of local residents because the city could not find a new landfill site.

Public health

Improper waste management causes public health and environmental hazards like climate change, air and water pollution, soil contamination, spreads odours and disease, and breeds vermin including flies, mosquitoes, rats, dogs and monkeys.

Municipal waste on streets and at dumpsites is a significant source of food for stray dogs. Rabies due to stray dog bites is responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in India every year. In Srinagar, 54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in the last three-and-a-half years.

Kolkata recently experienced an outbreak of a dengue fever with 550 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. This outbreak coincides with a 600 per cent increase in dengue cases in India and a 71 per cent increase in malaria cases in Mumbai in the last five years. Transmission of mosquito-related diseases is caused by non-biodegradable litter, which causes rainwater to stagnate, or clog drains, which in turn create breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Open burning of waste is one of the largest sources of air pollution in Indian cities. In Mumbai, it is the cause of about 20 per cent of air pollution (particulate matter, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.) Trash fires also emit 10,000 gram TEQ (toxic equivalents) of carcinogenic dioxins/furans every year in Mumbai alone. (In comparison, France’s 127 waste-to-energy facilities together emit only four gram TEQ of dioxins from combustion of 16 million tonnes a year.)

More than a dozen years after the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management & Handling) Rules 2000 was issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, no city complies with it. Open dumping, open burning, landfill/dumpsite fires, and open human and animal exposure to waste are common.

Local governments, which are responsible for waste management, will not be able to provide immediate solutions. Finding new landfill sites around cities is nearly impossible because of the sheer lack of space for locally unwanted land uses due to population density and the scale of India’s increasing urban sprawl.

This is also due to the track record of the operation and maintenance of municipal waste facilities in India, coupled with the “not in my backyard” phenomenon.

There are 71 cities that generate more waste than Thiruvananthapuram does. As these cities grapple with increasing quantities of waste with limited infrastructure, the public health of Indians will continue to be jeopardised, the quality of life will degrade, and environmental resources will be polluted. This will lead to a waste management crisis if government authorities fail to leverage the current public awareness to bring about long-term reforms.

Response and planning

In 2005, the government of India responded to the challenge of solid waste management by investing Rs.2,500 crore in public-private partnerships initiated by local governments under its Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM). In his 2013 Union budget speech, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, announced support to municipalities that will build waste-to-energy projects. Even though JnNURM was phenomenal in stimulating industry and local governments, it was inadequate in addressing the scale and extent of the problem. Financing of waste management projects is not accompanied by adequate education and training of human resources. Importantly, new initiatives undertaken by various municipal officials often fail because of frequent transfers.

Waste picker cooperatives which provide healthy working conditions are already recycling waste in various cities and have the potential to expand further.

Thiruvananthapuram started penalising institutions that dump waste openly. It has also increased subsidies for decentralised waste management options. Bangalore started initiatives to encourage separating garbage at source, the results of which will be seen only after years of consistent efforts.

In response to the dengue outbreak in Kolkata, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee went door-to-door to create awareness of waste management. For good or bad, many cities have already started or initiated steps to ban certain types of plastics.

What’s next?

In order to provide immediate and much-needed relief to communities impacted by improper waste management and to buy themselves time to plan better, corporations can, and should, take measures: to reduce open burning and landfill fires, cut pollution due to leachate and reduce odours, and divert waste from dumpsites by increasing the informal recycling sector’s role.

In addition to discussing what should be done and the ideal state of waste management for our country, we should examine achievable goals and the incremental steps that can be taken to achieve those goals. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of good. National and local governments should work with their partners to promote source separation, achieve higher recycling rates and produce high-quality compost from organic waste. While this is being achieved, provisions should be made to handle non-recyclable wastes that are being generated and will continue to be generated. We should not be lost in ideological debates while the health, quality of life and the environment of fellow Indians are at stake.

The impending waste management crisis should be approached holistically. While formulating integrated solutions, it is important that we consider the time period associated with various technologies and methods, and their applicability. Planning at the national and local levels to deliver long-term solutions should maintain focus on addressing the immediate problems.

(Ranjith Annepu is Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council–India coordinator, Global WTERT Council.E-mail: ranjith.annepu@caa.columbia.edu )

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