* Bengaluru, Alappuzha, Tiruchi, and other cities with decentralised resource management systems are performing better

* In Tiruchi, 64 out of 65 wards practise 100 per cent source segregation

Despite the heavy tourist footfall, Goa’s capital Panaji has registered only six Covid-19 cases, while further south, Tiruchi, in Tamil Nadu, accounts for only 116 of the state’s escalating 30,000-plus cases (as of June 9). What is common between these two cities is their successful record in 100 per cent waste segregation at source, prompting experts to wonder if there is more to this than just coincidence.

Bengaluru, Alappuzha, Tiruchi, Panaji, Ambikapur and other cities with decentralised resource management systems are performing better in Covid-19 responses as compared to cities with similar population sizes but centralised waste management.

Panaji has been source segregating since 2005, separating its waste into five different categories: Biodegradables, plastics, paper, metal and non-recyclables. City commissioner Sanjit Rodrigues, who developed this system, had one objective — a landfill-free city. This has been paying off during the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown in force to contain it. The robust decentralised collection system ensured that medical waste from quarantined homes was collected in sealed designated (yellow) biomedical disposal bags by workers using personal protection equipment or PPE. The waste then went to the Goa Medical College’s (GMC) incineration facility.

Non-governmental organisations conducted awareness sessions for the front line sanitation staff on safe practices and use of PPEs. Looking ahead, the city wants to decentralise further by working on the Zero Rupee Shop model (a barter system where you can exchange waste to buy daily essentials) and asking hotels to treat their kitchen waste on the premises.

In Tiruchi, 64 out of 65 wards practise 100 per cent source segregation. The decentralised waste processing is supported by two bio-methanation plants, one compost plant, 31 micro-composting centres and two bio-digesters, which supply fuel to community kitchens.

With the help of its 400 self-help groups, the city launched innovative schemes to incentivise people to adopt source segregation and zero-waste efforts. There’s a lottery scheme to award a one-gram gold coin to residents who segregate their waste; homes that compost organic waste are rewarded with gift vouchers worth ₹1.5 lakh or 5-15 per cent discounts on grocery shopping or ₹1 lakh Mediclaim policy.

A special SHG unit that works routinely for control of seasonal diseases is currently in charge of surveying the containment areas. Municipal commissioner S Sivasubaramanian, who actively implemented the decentralised waste management, has deployed the same organised systems to control Covid-19 cases in the city.

Further north, the hill station Panchgani in Maharashtra has not reported any Covid-19 cases despite being a tourist centre in close proximity to Pune, one of the hotspots. Again, Panchgani is a model in decentralised waste management — nearly 7 tonnes a day of segregated waste. The town of 14,984 residents also actively segregated PPEs and domestic hazardous waste to strengthen its Covid-19 response.

“Residents are asked to hand over their PPEs separately during the collection. All the PPEs are safely stored at the Swachh Bharat point, the processing site, and sent to the biomedical incineration facility fortnightly,” says the mayor Laxmi Karhadkar. The municipal council has imposed ₹500 fine on anyone who steps outside without a mask.

Ambikapur, in Chhattisgarh, is another city which has adopted a low-cost decentralised model. Here, 447 SHG members — known as Swachhata Didis — manage the collection of segregated waste and sort it into over 156 fractions at secondary and tertiary centres.

For added safety during the pandemic, the municipal corporation has ensured the women collectors change PPEs five times a day. Also, members were trained to locally prepare a sanitiser based on WHO guidelines and cloth masks both for their own use and for sale to residents at nominal prices. The 17 decentralised material recovery centres — where the wet waste is composted and the dry waste sorted into 17 categories — and the tertiary centre are sanitised twice a day.

In Kerala, which has long been at the forefront of decentralisation efforts, households in cities such as Kochi, Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram manage their wet waste at source and only dry waste is collected. Local volunteer groups have been mobilised to not only spread awareness on Covid-19 but also the importance of segregating and safely disposing PPEs.

Waste management, including domestic hazardous waste, is an essential service that must continue unhindered during a pandemic. However, lakhs of informal workers, such as ragpickers, in the waste management value chain are not seen as essential and their livelihoods have become even more precarious now as they struggle to find recyclers during the lockdown.

Decentralisation of waste management not only ensures localised resource recovery and provides waste collectors access to recyclers, but also strengthens advocacy for workers’ welfare through appropriate linkages.

Swati Singh Sambyal is a national waste management expert and Vaibhav Rathi is a technical advisor, climate change, GIZ India