New Delhi: As urbanization gathers pace in India, cities are generating increasing amounts of garbage, posing a challenge to municipal authorities for its efficient disposal and recycling.
This is nowhere more evident than in the national capital, which has the dubious distinction of being the largest producer of municipal solid waste in the country, generating 8,000 tonnes of it daily.
As much as 15-20% of the garbage can be recycled, according to a study by Chintan, a non-profit organization working with ragpickers in the city.
Delhi has some 80,000 waste pickers and recyclers, who make up an informal recycling sector. If they were to be employed by the municipality and paid minimum wages, it could cost the city at least Rs 15 lakh daily, Chintan says.
To avoid this expenditure, authorities have divided the city into six zones and have handed out contracts to private firms to collect and dump garbage.
“The private companies are competing with the informal sector since the only waste available as of now is from the waste pickers,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director, Chintan. “Through privatization, at least 1,000-1,200 waste pickers will be impacted.”
Ramky Group and SPML Infra Ltd are among the private companies that have been signed on by the New Delhi Municipal Council to collect and carry garbage to various landfill sites. The firms are not responsible for segregating the waste.
“Not only will this impact the people and the environment severely, but this decision to privatize waste management is myopic on the part of the government,” said Gopal Krishna, spokesman of Toxic Links, a non-governmental organization that works to increase awareness on the environment and waste management.
The disposal firms disagree.
The current system guarantees a single-point responsibility of managing the entire gamut of municipal solid waste activities by a single operator, said Tariq Siddiqui, deputy general manager, corporate communications, SPML. “This leads to more accountability and better efficiency due to effective utilization of resources and technology.”
The Pune example
Activists and planners say Delhi could learn some lessons from Pune, the fastest growing city in Maharashtra after Mumbai, which has managed to streamline waste collection, segregation and recycling.
The Pune Municipal Corporation in 2000 collaborated with an association of ragpickers and waste collectors—Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP)—to form Swach, a collective of waste collectors responsible for collecting household garbage from doorsteps. The city generates 1,400 tonnes of garbage every day.
The collective segregates the waste and recycles whatever it can from this and sells it for a profit. There are now 5,500 registered waste pickers in Pune’s municipal area of some 240 sq. km, of which 1,836 collect waste from door to door. Residents pay Rs 10 a month to the collectors.
“The waste collectors provide a service to the city and assist the municipality,” says Lakshmi Narayan, general secretary, KKPKP. “They are extremely knowledgeable about waste management and segregation practices.”
Pune now aims to move towards a zero-waste model where all waste generated within a particular district or ward is disposed of within that area by using it as compost or bio-gas, according to Narayan.
For the municipality, the agreement with KKPKP enabled it to bypass privatization and at the same time improve its solid waste management through a community that lived on the margins of urban society.
To be sure, the unique initiative was not without its bottlenecks. For instance, residents in some city neighbourhoods refused to pay Rs 10 a month to the waste collectors, who then declined to collect waste from their doorsteps. Municipality officials stepped in and resolved the issue through community meetings.
There are some wrinkles in the system. For instance, in many households, the valuable recyclable waste may be picked up the domestic help and the ragpickers won’t get enough recyclable material to make money.
Policy of exclusion
Instead of adopting the Pune model, where a marginal community was brought into the social mainstream, Delhi has turned towards privatization and the exclusion of ragpickers, some activists say.
“In an attempt to increase tonnage, these companies transport as much waste as they can without segregation,” said Shashi Pandit, secretary, All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh, an association of ragpickers in Delhi. “Not only do they make more money this way, but they also take away the recyclable material from the ragpickers.”
Activists are also opposed to burning or converting the waste into energy, which the ministry of new and renewable energy is promoting.
All private companies get a subsidy of Rs 2 crore for generating 1 megawatt of power through converting waste, according to Krishna of Toxic Links.
Household waste in India has a low calorific value—between 700 and 1,000 kilocalories—which is unsuitable for thermal technologies such as incineration and converting waste to energy, according to a Chintan study.
Incinerators have been shown to emit more carbon dioxide per MW-hour than coal or gas-fired plants, Chintan said. Besides, burning the waste also releases dioxins and furans, which can cause cancer.
The waste-to-energy initiative is a recipe for disaster, Chaturvedi said. “The impact will be at multiple levels and the problem extends beyond waste collection.”