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When solid waste management takes a backseat in the race to construct toilets

By , October 2, 2018February 20th, 2024No Comments

A review on the fourth anniversary of Swachh Bharat Mission

The Mounting Waste Challenge

India is now among the top 10 countries generating the highest amount of municipal solid waste (MSW), primarily due to growing urbanisation and high levels of consumption, says a report by The World Bank. With around 50% of the country’s population projected to be living in urban areas by 2050, the volume of waste generation is projected to grow by 5% every year.

The waste generated by the states is usually seen to be directly proportional to its urban population. For example, of all states and union territories (UTs), Maharashtra generates the maximum amount of waste (16%) followed by Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu with a share of 11% each. The only exception is Kerala which stands as the tenth largest state with respect to its urban population but generates only 1% of the country’s waste.

Currently, the total amount of MSW generated in the country per day is over 150,000 tonnes, out of which only 24% is being scientifically processed at present and the rest is dumped in dumping sites and sanitary landfills by Urban Local Bodies (ULBs).

Backflow of Waste

Severe environmental, public health and hygiene hazards like air pollution, greenhouse gas emission, leachate generation, soil and water contamination, generational pregnancy complications and deformation in infants are associated with improper dumping and non-scientific management of waste. If this level of waste generation continues unabated, it will not only create epidemic situations causing loss of life, but also cause serious damage to property as huge land parcels will be required for the landfills, which will eventually be rendered unfit for any other use. This is the bleak future that has been projected for tier-I cities with populations ranging from 1 to 5 million, which have been estimated to generate around 80% of the country’s total waste at present.

Re-looking Policy Objectives

Exactly four years ago, the Government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM-U) for urban areas on 2 October 2014. The mission aimed to eliminate open defecation, eradicate manual scavenging, manage MSW in a modern and scientific manner, effect behavioural change regarding sanitation practices, generate health awareness and augment the waste-management capacities of the ULBs.

The SWM component of the SBM-U takes steps towards better management of waste by providing financial assistance in setting up compost plants, directing states to use plastic waste in road building projects, mandating bulk waste generators to process all their wet/biodegradable waste at their own premises and creating awareness campaigns promoting better waste management practices. The scheme has a target of ensuring solid waste management for 80% of urban population (allowing for a 2% increase year on year) and ensuring information, education and communication (IEC) and public awareness. Under SBM-U, various guidelines for the disposal of municipal waste hold the municipal authorities of all statutory towns responsible for developing infrastructure for the collection, storage, segregation, transportation, processing and disposal of MSW.

Missing Opportunities in Solid Waste Management

The SBM has been one of the most talked about schemes of the present government, especially with the media actively tracking associated metrics like the number of toilets constructed each year and celebrities posing with a broom filling the columns of tabloids. Through the years of implementation of this scheme, while the number of toilets has been the prime area of attention, one major component of the scheme which has missed out on much-needed attention is the Solid Waste Management (SWM) segment. The implementation of this vertical of the scheme has been extremely underwhelming

The notion of a ‘Clean India’ has been transformed to an ‘open defecation-free India’. While this approach treats the construction of toilets as an indicator for a cleaner India by aiming to eliminate open defecation, it underestimates the importance of actually ‘cleaning’ India by tackling the enormous problem of waste that is visibly widespread in towns and cities of varying sizes. The success of the mission cannot be measured just through infrastructural achievements but has to take a holistic human rights approach into consideration. In the present scenario, cities that claim to set up waste-to-energy (WTE) plants or cities that possess a fleet of GPS-enabled trucks get higher scores. People’s participation and social change don’t get counted in government surveys.

In this light, the aim and process of Swachh Surverkshan, an inspection system for reviewing the city’s performance under the mission needs to be questioned. The methodology for Swachh Survekshan comprises assessing the sanitation level and cleanliness attained by ULBs through (i) physical verification of service level progress with weight- age of 35%; (ii) direct observation at randomly selected public places with weightage of 30%; and (iii) citizens’ feedback with weightage of 35%. Though the survey claims to foster a spirit of ‘healthy competition’ among towns and cities to improve their service delivery to citizens, in reality, to achieve better rankings in the survey, municipalities speed through activities a few months before the Swachh Survekshan, focusing on infrastructure rather than outcomes.

In order to earn top positions, local governments are competing with one another, often at the cost of human well-being. There have been multiple reports of informal communities in Indore being forcibly evicted and rendered homeless to earn the first rank in 2017 (demolishing settlements with no toilets just to improve statistics). In other cities, cases of arrests and punishments have been recorded for those defecating in the open when there are no or few toilets in those areas.

Another persisting criticism of the survey is that the inspections are not a surprise. The cities get intimated in advance. City-wide cleaning starts three days before the surveyors show up. These instances indicate the hollowness of the monitoring processes under the mission.

Implementation so Far

Among the steps taken to promote SWM has been the Central Government grant covering 35% of project cost for setting up compost plants to recycle waste. These plants have also been tagged with fertiliser distribution companies in all states. As a result, waste-to-compost production has increased manifold within one year, from 1.5 lakh metric tonnes in March 2016 to 13.13 lakh metric tonnes. Currently there are 145 functional solid waste processing plants in the country and another 150 are under construction. A total of 67,085 wards have achieved 100% door-to-door waste collection as on 30 September 2018.

Additionally, the Ministry of Power has revised the Tariff Policy 2006 under the Indian Electricity Act, 2003, making it mandatory for power distribution companies (DISCOMS) to purchase power from WTE plants. 7 WTE plants are currently operational, with a combined capacity of 88 mega­watts, and another 56 plants are coming up with a capacity of 415 megawatts.

Only Funds are not Enough

Activists claim that there are several affordable and innovative techniques available to treat garbage which will lead to 100% treatment of waste but these are not being adopted by civic authorities because of the rampant corruption involved in the current processes of waste management, wherein the task of waste management is given to private contractors. The authorities spend several thousand crore rupees every year for this work. However, the waste is just being dumped at landfills without further treatment by these contractors.

The fundamental principle of waste management is to reduce, reuse and recycle waste and the waste management infrastructure has an important role in delivering sustainable results. This situation can be changed if we start looking at garbage as a resource, as a means to create fertilisers and fuel. Thus the idea of realising a dumping yard-free society is possible but it cannot be achieved without the government’s will to promote innovative solutions to waste management.

On the completion of 4 years of the mission, it is a critical time to also review the mission from an objective lens. Though the government has made a few strides towards its goal of Clean India, a more holistic approach in tackling the sanitation issue is the need of the hour for the country. Eliminating open defecation is not just about building latrines but creating integrated efficient systems for collection and treatment of waste to ensure its logical end. Moreover, the government’s emphasis on building toilets should not involuntarily contribute to violating the fundamental rights of others (such as those specific caste groups engaged in manual scavenging, or those who are marginalised such as ethnic minorities living in remote rural areas) or reduce efforts to manage other aspects of cleanliness (like solid waste management). It is laudable that the government has earmarked dedicated funds for the mission, but just dedicating funds is not enough and proper implementation of all the components of the mission is needed.

Shaguna Kanwar — Project Coordinator & Brishti Banerjee — Project Associate

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