(The following is an excerpt from Not in my Backyard: Solid Waste Management in Indian Cities written by Sunita Narain and Swati Singh Sambyal of the Centre for Science and Environment. The book will be released on July 11, 2016)
Urban India faces an enormous challenge: managing its gigantic load of solid waste. It is not just a public health issue, but also turning out to be a serious law and order problem as people resort to violent methods to protest waste being dumped in their backyard.
But cities simply do not have the space or the wherewithal to dispose of waste. The challenge is going to be tougher. With India's urban population growing at 3-3.5 per cent annually, the waste generated by cities is expected to increase by 5 per cent every year. How are our cities managing this challenge?
A survey by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) attempts to find this out.
In a unique method, CSE first solicited nominations from people and environmentalists on cities they think are managing their wastes well. Once the list of nominations was ready, researchers visited these cities to comprehensively analyse their waste management practices. The criterion of terming a city clean has not been a superficial assessment of the city's look and feel but the sustainability of its ways to manage waste.
In the final report, it comes out clearly that there are examples worth emulating to make cities clean in a sustainable way. There are also examples that show how not to manage waste. The survey divides the cities analysed into three categories: those that collect, segregate and process waste, indicating a holistic way to process waste (rank 1 to 4); those that collect, but only have partial segregation and treatment facilities (rank 5 to 8); and those that collect but do not segregate or process waste (rank 9 to 14). Alappuzha, Panaji and Mysuru, as the survey says, are India's top three clean cities because they give priority to segregation of waste at the household level, and its reuse.
What direction should India's waste management take?
Finding the right technology for waste processing is not the challenge. The challenge is to integrate the technology with a system of household-level segregation, collection and transportation of waste, and all this in ways that are both affordable and manageable by invariably weak and financially stretched city local bodies. India’s waste management needs to be reinvented.
To minimise use, impose a landfill tax, build sanitary landfills for disposing of residual waste so that there is less pollution. Ensuring a zero-landfill future has to be the aim of a reinvented waste management system. It must be made mandatory for citizens to perform segregation at source. Door-to-door collection and transport must ensure that this segregated waste is not mixed.
Even when the waste is to be incinerated to generate energy, segregation is the key. But ensuring segregation at source requires tough compliance systems.
It is also clear that municipalities will need to put into place systems that will transport segregated waste and then ensure processing is done. In our survey, the only city that has truly adopted segregation is Panaji.
Informal waste recycling sector is the real game-changer for India’s waste story. It is said (the data is weak, however) that recycling of dry waste provides employment to about 1–2 per cent
of a city’s population, often the poorest women and children.
Waste management contracts must be structured to ensure segregation happens at all costs. Ideally, the contracts should not pay for quantum of waste collected, but for the quantum of waste processed and recycled. Any waste that is taken to the landfill must be charged through the landfill tax.
Last but not the least; India should be celebrating its own NIMBY. For long, we have used the backyards of our cities, where the poor live, or villages. This can happen no more.