The Centre notified new solid waste management rules—Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016—in April last year after 16 years, but India’s waste management problem has continued to worsen mainly due to the non-implementation of rules. The Mumbai floods, caused by the littering of plastics blocking the drains, and Ghazipur’s landfill collapse that led to the death of a man, have brought the focus back on the issue. The Sunday Guardian spoke to various stakeholders to understand the history and reasons why we have failed in managing solid waste.

According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, India generates 62 million tonnes of waste annually, out of which 5.6 million tonnes are plastic waste, 0.17 million tonnes are biomedical waste, hazardous waste generation is 7.90 million tonnes per annum, and 15 lakh tonnes are e-waste. The per capita waste generation in Indian cities ranges from 200 grams to 600 grams per day.  The Ministry had itself underlined last year that 43 million TPA is collected, 11.9 million is treated and 31 million is dumped in landfill sites, which means that only about 75-80% of the municipal waste gets collected and only 22-28% of this waste is processed and treated. Prakash Javadekar, then Minister of State in the Environment Ministry, had said, “Waste generation will increase from 62 million tonnes to about 165 million tonnes in 2030.” 

“The whole problem can be explained in plain terms. We treat our garbage as garbage and that is why we fail,” said Sunita Narain, a well-known environmentalist, who is also the director general of the Centre for Science and Environment. Reflecting on the current problem, Narain said, “Garbage has to be disposed of. We cannot allow it to pile up. With the use of modern techniques, it does not need to pile up. If we segregate waste, a large part of it can be reused. But all this needs an entrepreneurial perspective to change the way we understand garbage.”

The first time India recognised it had a “waste problem” was after the 1994 plague of Surat. Along with the cleaning drive in Surat, several commercial cities recognised the shortcomings in waste management. A 100-city Clean India Road Campaign, led by Captain J.S. Velu and Almitra H. Patel, environmental policy advocate and anti-pollution activist, highlighted the enormous problem of cities across India without proper dumpsites. Later, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court by Patel and this led to the formation of a committee that constituted four of the country’s best city managers and three Central government officials under the Ministry of Urban Development. An interim report was presented for discussion at four one-day workshops in the north, south, east and west of India, to which a total of 400 city officials from 300 cities accounting for over 100,000 population were invited for comments. Feedback from these workshops was included in the March 1999 report of the committee constituted by the Supreme Court of India, titled “Solid Waste Management in Class 1 Cities”, which has become a widely-accepted manual on waste-management practices in the country. Meanwhile, India’s Central Pollution Control Board prepared waste-management rules based on the interim report. At the Supreme Court’s direction, these were issued by the Government of India’s Ministry of Environment as the country’s first Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2000, issued under the Environment Protection Act 1986. These rules were revised in 2016 by Prakash Javadekar, then Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Among the key features of the revised 2016 rules, one was that now these rules were made applicable beyond municipal areas and extended to urban agglomerations, census towns, notified industrial townships, areas under the control of the Indian Railways, airports, airbases, port and harbour, defence establishments, special economic zones, state and Central government organisations and places of religious and historical importance. 

The rules established the responsibility of generators to segregate waste into three categories—wet, dry and hazardous.  According to the 2016 rules, the generator has to pay “User Fee” to the waste collector and a “Spot Fine” for littering and non-segregation, the quantum of which is decided by the local bodies. In the case of hilly areas, land for construction of sanitary landfills was directed to be identified in the plain areas, within 25 km. Narain added, “India has no land to dump waste. If people in Delhi are protesting against authorities who want to create new landfills behind their homes, then they have every right to say no. Nobody would like their backyard to become a dump-yard. Though we have a policy that gives us a lot of weight, the municipal bylaws have not yet been changed. This allows the municipal corporations to evade responsibility when it comes to mandatory practices of waste collection and segregation.”

Chitra Mukherjee, head of programmes at Chintan, an NGO that works with waste-pickers and recyclers, said, “Integrating the informal sector is the biggest challenge. Across the country, waste labourers go door-to-door to collect waste, which is not segregated. With the help of wheelbarrows, that waste is collected from different areas and dumped into landfills or dump-yards. Educating rag-pickers is crucial to waste management. If waste is segregated at collection, it can be separately treated and recycled. This is the first-step for an immediate solution for the present and future challenges.”

However, as far as the existing dump-yards are concerned, Mukherjee said: “For the ones like in Ghazipur, I cannot see a plausible way out. Incinerators are useless because burning of garbage generates harmful gases. The waste-to-electricity model has not proven that successful either. We can use rubber and plastic waste in construction of roads and ensure the rest of it decomposes effectively.”

“Safai Sena”, an organised group of adult waste handlers, operates in Delhi and educates waste-pickers about green practices and also provides an opportunity to educate them about environment protection. Local rag-pickers have become environment-protectors who ensure door-to-door collection of waste to deliver to waste management companies who recycle it.

Roshan, founder of Waste Ventures India, a Hyderabad-based waste management start-up, said, “Consumer behaviour is a real challenge. We talk to corporates and housing societies and their question is if recycling or segregating waste is mandatory. Since the law does not abide citizens to do it, the citizens do not do it. I don’t think it is an impossible thing to do. Waste collection, segregation and recycling should be made mandatory. Common people will fall in line. Right now, all that they lack is compliance, because nobody wants garbage to pile up and they know garbage can be recycled, but they are just being careless about taking an initiative themselves.”

 Waste Ventures is the only private waste management start-up in Hyderabad and is currently recycling 150 tonnes of waste monthly.

Roshan added, “The local bodies are ineffective. There is no political will to address this practical issue. In Bangalore, the individual citizen initiatives had led to organised waste management that eventually forced the local urban bodies to adopt and streamline the collection, segregation and recycling. Another good example of waste management is Pune. However, other than these cities, most of the metropolitan cities fare badly. Private waste management start-ups are good alternatives that can help in solving the whole problem, but government needs to recognise and promote waste management start-ups.”

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