The municipal corporation is the largest local body in Delhi with the responsibility of providing basic amenities. It also deals with solid waste management (SWM) through the traditional practice of collecting garbage at the household level, followed by dumping in bins and dhalaos (waste dump in a residential area), from where the waste is transported to landfills. Curiously, such a system does not provide for either minimization or recycling of the waste. In 2000, the Union ministry for environment and forests issued rules that introduced segregation into this chain so as to extract recyclables and reduce the total amount of waste to be disposed of. The impetus came from the fact that, since 1975, 20 sanitary landfills have been created, of which only three are currently operational, and these too are close to exhaustion. The capital is now faced with the daunting task of finding 100 sq. km of landfill space to meet its needs until 2050. This land is not available either in Delhi or in the neighbouring states.
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In addition, there are no provisions for the informal sector, which constitutes the core of the recycling process. In 1996, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) had 337 dhalaos and 1,428 dustbins, which were the sites where segregation and collection of recyclables took place. Now, under a new “green” policy, even these sites are being dismantled. There are no official policies for minimization, particularly for packaging waste. In fact, the real potential lies in the fact that over 50% of the waste generated in India is organic—which can be composted—and 30% is recyclable.
Officially, Indian waste is supposed to consist of 11% metal, rubber, textiles etc.; 5% paper and paper products, and 1% plastics by weight. But actual collection at kabadi shops (which trade in cast-offs) in Delhi indicates that paper and paper products are fast overtaking metals, while plastics are now almost one-third of paper.
With the increase in sources such as hospitals, nursing homes, laboratories, offices, electronic devices and industrial units, there is also an increase in hazardous waste in the city.
Since the local municipal authorities are unable to deliver the services, their tasks are being fulfilled by a more than 100,000 waste pickers who, if paid the minimum wage, would cost the city a minimum of Rs 1 crore every day. To make this workforce a part of the formal structure of waste management, it is necessary to conceive an alternative system of waste management.
Such a system has been proposed by the waste pickers themselves, who have asked for space at each dhalao for six to 10 waste pickers engaged in door-to-door collection and segregation at source.
The organic waste could then be processed by them in local compost pits and sold in local markets for use in parks and gardens. The recyclables could be transported by small kabadi associations on cycles or rickshaws to big kabadis and recycling units. That only leaves 20% of the waste for eventual disposal at landfills.
Such a system is manifestly logical, eminently doable, and can result in significant reductions in land and energy costs and in pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases. All it entails is recognizing the social and economic value of the work of waste pickers and providing them with identity, space and credit.
However, this legality is exactly what frightens the babus of the corporation and they would much prefer the privatization of waste management so that the higher profits can be equitably distributed among the conglomerate of decision makers, technocrats and corporate firms. Believe it or not, this is precisely what “corruption” is all about!
Dunu Roy is the head of Hazards Centre in New Delhi.