Binless in Indore

Shriya Mohan | Updated on November 30, 2018

Recycling furiously: At Indore’s Central Processing Unit in Devguradia, plastic is cleaned, shredded and moulded into tiles that are used in sidewalks and drain pipes   -  SHRIYA MOHAN

What makes India’s cleanest city tick?

MP09GG9541 can be seen parked near the Pardesipura Police station. “0%,” says the white label beside it, explaining that it is yet to cover any part of the distance on its target route. It’s been flagged red, which means that it’s either stuck or delayed. “It might be a flat tyre or engine trouble,” says Kamal Sharma, supervisor of the Indore Municipal Corporation’s control room. Not far away, MP09GG6809 is in Sarvahara Nagar, on its way to Janta Quarter Stadium Ground. It is on schedule, like most others, all blinking their way swiftly from one location of Indore’s satellite map to another.

Swearing by GPS: At Indore Municipal Corporation’s Control room one can track 863 waste vans in the city   -  SHRIYA MOHAN


On one of the several large screens at the control room office at the city’s Palika Plaza, MTH compound, mostly green and a few red halos encircle waste collection van icons, giving you everything you need to know about how Indore’s garbage disposal vans are going street by street, picking up garbage in real time before depositing it at a transfer station. A 10-minute delay in the scheduled movement and the icon starts flashing on the screen. A report is prepared every day. Van drivers who are repeat offenders are suspended.

“A part of you needs to be in love with garbage to be taking it this seriously,” says Javed Warsi, head quality and solid waste at Eco Pro Environmental Services, an Indore-based empanelled consultant of the Centre’s Swachh Bharat mission. Since 2015, Warsi and his brother Asad have been working with the Indore Municipal Corporation (IMC), to put in place technologies and systems of better waste management.

At the control room, six bright faces stare intently at the screens. One of them is 22-year-old Harish Borai, who studied engineering in Indore. He and his group track 863 vans across Indore’s 19 zones. In a few minutes, Borai will pick up the phone and dial the driver of MP09GG9541 and ask about the delay. A replacement van will be sent if needed. The pride of Indore as a clean city rests on the shoulders of those such as Borai who take their job as seriously as the nationwide cleanliness survey, Swachh Survekshan, that pegged their city on top of the charts (of the 4,203 cities surveyed). For two years in a row — 2017 and 2018 — Indore has been judged the cleanest Indian city. Assessments are underway for the 2019 survey. The Warsi brothers and their young team are determined to pull off a hat-trick.

A drive around Indore underlines their optimism. There are no bins in residential areas and no roadside dumps that hit you as in most parts of Delhi. In bustling places such as Sarafa and Chhappan, Indore’s iconic street food hubs, there isn’t one overflowing garbage bin or plastic cutlery that’s fallen on the street side. With penalties for littering ranging from anything between ₹100 and ₹1 lakh, the IMC is filling its already wealthy coffers. It is reported to have collected ₹1 crore from fines last year alone. In cleanliness surveys Indore rose from 180 in 2015 to 25 in 2016 and finally bagged the number one position n 2017.

A new drill

Two years ago, Archana Sirvi still remembers how difficult it was to get people into the habit of segregating waste within their homes. Sirvi is a social worker with Basix Waste Management, an arm of the NGO Basix, known widely for its microfinance arm and which works in Indore on sanitation. NGOs such as Basix have played a key role in getting residents to separate their dry waste from the wet. Wet waste comprises organic matter that is quick to decompose, such as food waste; dry waste includes paper, plastic, glass, rubber, etc. There is also a third category of bio-medical waste, introduced last year. This includes sanitary pads, diapers and medical waste. All waste collection vans come equipped with separate compartments for wet and dry waste. A small drum installed at the tail of the van is for bio-medical waste.

Money matters: Barli Bai earns ₹500 a day segregating dry waste   -  SHRIYA MOHAN


On reaching the collection points, a song on Swachh Bharat — Clean India — plays on loudspeakers attached to the roof signal their arrival. The residents deposit their waste in the respective compartments. There are usually three pick up slots in each locality spanning the day. “Earlier, when people would forget to separate, we would lay out a tarpaulin sheet, give them a pair of rubber gloves and ask them to segregate their waste right there. They felt humiliated doing this in public. Soon they learnt,” laughs Sirvi.

The vans then go to a transfer station where a GPS-enabled camera automatically punches them in. They drive through a weighing bridge where each van’s weight is recorded. Each van has a total waste-carrying capacity of 1 tonne, which is usually the waste generated by 1,000 households. It then dumps its wet and dry waste into an auto-tipper which tilts the waste neatly into two separate hook loaders. The waste is compressed and weighed once again before it is driven up to the Central Processing Unit in Devgurodia. The entire process so far has very minimal human contact with waste.

“Our transfer stations are all green stations,” explains Warsi. The stations are lit by natural sunlight with a ventilated solar panelled roof inbuilt with wind powered exhaust fans to keep out the foul odour.

Indore generates 1,000 tonnes of waste each day. This is carried through 535 vehicles that go to residential areas and 84 compactor vehicles which pick up waste from commercial areas. Compactor vehicles have a larger capacity and go to pick up bulk waste, generated by restaurants and other enterprises. “In Indore, anybody who generates over 20 kg of dry waste a day is considered a bulk waster,” explains Warsi. These units have to process their own wet waste. There are 424 bulk waste generators who do their own wet waste treatment in the city.

On a sustainable road

The Choithram Mandi in Indore, spread over six acres, is one of the largest wholesale vegetable markets in the region. Until February this year, all the waste of the wholesale market used to be sent to Devguradia and left to rot in the landfill. A recent initiative targeting the green waste generated in Choithram and two other city markets — Nandlal Pura and Rajkumar — has proved to be successful. While the green waste at Choithram is sent to a biogas plant built with the help of automobile company Mahindra, the other two mandis do their own composting on a daily basis. Every day, Choithram generates 20 tonnes of wet waste, which is used to make 2,400 cubic metre of methane gas which in turn is compressed into CNG and loaded onto a CNG dispenser right beside it.

“This is enough to fuel 20 buses a day,” beams Warsi. The city plans to build three more biogas centres by the end of 2019 near sources of organic waste.

Numerous activities take place here. Waste from all the transfer stations arrive in large tipper drums. The green waste is converted into khad or organic manure to be sold by the government for ₹4 a kilo. The dry waste is further segregated into nine categories that include paper, glass, rubber, cloth and different qualities of plastic. “We don’t need to wear gloves because the dry waste is clean and already comes segregated,” says Barli Bai who earns ₹500 a day segregating dry waste into further categories.

Plastic bags go through a blower, which removes the dust, and then through a shredder. Finely shredded plastic goes through a human operated machine that melts it and moulds it into plastic gattas or bricks. These are sold back to the government at ₹28 per kilo and further reused to make pavement tiles and drain pipes.

Binning it right: Waste segregated at source gets compressed at green transfer stations

Binning it right: Waste segregated at source gets compressed at green transfer stations   -  SHRIYA MOHAN


Devguradia also has 7.5 lakh cubic metres of what the IMC terms “legacy waste”. The area used to be just a mammoth landfill. IMC has now installed 12 trommel sieving machines that segregate the old waste, separating dry from wet waste. “Of this, 65 per cent is already decomposed and has become organic soil; 15 per cent is recyclable and the remaining 20 per cent remains in a landfill,” says Bharat Singh, operation chief at Devguradia, zooming into the large display screen installed in his room from where he can get a 180-degree view of the expanse to monitor every activity in the vicinity.

An expensive proposition

It all looks spectacular on the surface. But some believe the scale is too small for a city that large. There is also a big price tag to the Indore experiment. The government spends ₹150 crore in annual operation expenses and has already spent another ₹160 crore in capital investment. For a city with a population of two million, that appears steep. Government officials and citizens justify the cost by speaking of improved health indicators. Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter was 145 microgram per unit in 2015, while it is less than 70 now, well within the safe threshold of 100. In Coimbatore, a city with a population of 1.6 million, the air quality index averages at 110. Chennai stands at 82 and Delhi exceeds 525.

City environmental activist Kishore Kodwani is not convinced that Indore is going the right way. He claims that while innovations are in place they aren’t scaled to make a difference.

“What we need is localised solutions, not expensive foreign ones that we copy and paste,” says Kodwani, who believes India requires a more eco-friendly and less mechanised way of processing waste that won’t bear a heavy carbon foot print. Underlining poor sewage management, Kodwani mentions that Kahn and Saraswati were two of Indore’s precious rivers that turned into stinking sewers. “Now the government wants to put up walls and creepers to block our view of these rivers. Is this Swachh Bharat?” asks Kodwani, who filed petitions with the National Green Tribunal in 2014 for cleaning Indore’s rivers.

The Indore environmentalist and social activist has been fighting a legal battle from 2009 in a bid to improve the IMC’s waste management practices. Following a court order, Kodwani spent 72 hours with three officials at the Devguradia trenching ground that the IMC calls Central Processing Unit in 2016. The team found several lapses, he says. “Over 85 per cent of the waste that came in from different parts of the city were being dumped into the landfill, unprocessed,” he holds.

Apart from better solid waste and liquid waste management, he stresses that the city needs fewer cars, a total ban on plastic and more trees, lakes and other water bodies to store rainwater.

“What we need is to go back in time,” he says.

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Published on November 30, 2018
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