Home / Opinion / A large accumulation of small defeats

The toxic haze that enveloped Delhi for two weeks after Diwali has diminished. But it would be foolhardy to think the moment has passed. How do we go on from here, knowing that next year, too, farmers will burn crop stubble, people will burn garbage and burst Diwali firecrackers, diesel generators will remain in use, environmentally harmful industry practices will prevail and private vehicles will still be the preferred means of transport?

The causes of October’s smog highlight the intersectional nature of pollution in cities—how one mode of pollution interacts with and worsens another, which is why it is difficult to come up with a quick fix to bad air. The measures to curb air pollution in Delhi must necessarily tackle the city’s solid-waste crisis as well.

India produces about 62 million tonnes of solid waste annually, of which 75-80% is collected, and only 22-28% is treated. The rest lands up in open dumpyards and landfills or is burnt. According to a 2016 study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, on Delhi’s air quality, the burning of municipal solid waste accounts for 7-8% of particulate matter pollution. Landfills, on the other hand, release noxious methane fumes into the air and leachates into the groundwater, presenting a permanent challenge to tackling pollution in cities. Yet landfills continue to be overlooked by flagship policies. The Swachh Bharat (Urban) scheme focuses on water, sanitation and hygiene, with scant attention being paid to the solid waste coagulating unchecked in landfills. The National Urban Sanitation Policy 2008 was concerned with access to sanitation facilities for the urban poor, but landfills remained outside that conversation. Landfills were limited to the ambit of the erstwhile Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling Rules), 2000.

Every big city usually has at least one landfill. Delhi has four. Mumbai has three. Chennai and Kolkata have two each. Bengaluru had two before they were shut down after community protests. There is something very sobering about the vastness of a landfill, the spectre of city after city struggling with the problem. But the bigger issue is that landfills continue to be the solution, both for untreated municipal solid waste and for the scores of workers in the informal economy seeking to make a living in cities.

It is easier to not see both solid waste and the informal worker, because we still haven’t arrived at a development narrative that will accommodate both. Solid waste is the by-product of a consumption economy. The informal worker exists outside the regulated, legal, organized economy. Both exist on the outer fringes of a city’s growth story. Both converge on the landfill.

The economic potential of municipal waste in Indian cities is fettered by inadequate segregation of waste, thereby rendering it unfit for conversion into refuse-derived fuel. Waste-to-energy incinerator plants are still an inefficient response to solid-waste management because municipal waste is marked by high moisture content (up to 65%) and low calorific value (520-3,766kcal/kg), which means that things don’t burn well enough to generate the energy that would justify the plant.

A worker in the informal economy poses a tougher challenge. Urban areas account for 28% of employment and 55% of the output, according to a 2014 study by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru. It found that employment generation in cities has taken place largely in the informal sector, where the quality of work is poor, with low wages and little social protection. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, 2009, describes a class of “socially discriminated, educationally deprived, and economic destitutes", for whom the growth process has yielded “very little expansion of their employment and enhancement in their earning capacity". Since waste workers tend to hail from the most marginalized castes in India, caste, gender and age intersect in such a way that the burden of making a living from landfills falls disproportionately on women and children.

On the bright side, the recently notified Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, emphasize segregation of waste at source and greater decentralized processing of biodegradable waste. They also mandate the integration of kabadiwallahs and ragpickers into the formal economy. This is vitally important since most of the waste-sorting and recycling is done by informal workers before the unrecyclable waste is transported to a landfill. They bear the brunt of our failure to segregate our household waste; they do so under hazardous conditions and for negligible pay.

A landfill is a fracture in the stories we tell about our cities. The home page of the urban development ministry website carries a permanent declaration—“The growth story of India shall be written on the canvas of planned urban development." Almost as an afterthought, there is a second declaration, “And shall be scripted through the instrument of planned mobility."

What stories come out of landfills? They are reports of the landfill fires that continually smoulder, the deaths of ragpickers, the tonnage of waste being dumped, the dreary profiles of municipal waste. They remain narrative versions of things that you don’t look at directly or for too long. The presence and persistence of landfills ought not to be taken lightly when contending with air pollution.

We need to move towards environmentally sound policymaking, and away from the formulaic inter-governmental squabble that seems to pass for crisis management. Without this, a city, as Jeet Thayil describes in Narcopolis, isn’t much more than “a large accumulation of small defeats".

Rihan Najib is a staff writer at Mint.

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