Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | No time left to waste on waste

Cities are already beginning to run out of land on which to dump their waste and have begun throwing it in the backyards of smaller towns, suburbs and villages

Last week, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) took the radical step of issuing notices to a slew of residents who did not segregate their household waste—perhaps, the first time any civic body in the country has launched an attempt to impose fines on citizens.

Delhi’s garbage woes have been hurtling towards some sort of an endgame ever since a portion of the landfill at Ghazipur, on the city’s eastern edge, collapsed onto an adjoining road and buried two people in September 2017. A temporary ban on dumping at the site was immediately announced, but the Ghazipur garbage mountain is already nearly as tall as the Qutub Minar, as the Supreme Court caustically observed recently.

With the quest for another dumpsite going nowhere (as nobody wants a mound of garbage next to their neighbourhood), there is no clarity yet on what to do with the thousands of tonnes of solid waste Delhi generates every day. That quandary, in part, led to the SDMC’s unusual move.

The impasse in Delhi is a reflection of India’s troubling relationship with waste. India’s cities already generate over 150,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste every day, with Mumbai being the world’s fifth most wasteful city. The waste heaps that dot the edges of India’s cities are set to double in size by 2025. Only one-third of the waste undergoes even rudimentary treatment, according to the urban ministry’s optimistic assessment, and hardly any of it is segregated, which would make processing easier.

As India’s economic growth accelerates, the garbage problem would only get bigger, unless immediate solutions are found to delink growth from garbage generation.

According to the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, cities are already beginning to run out of land on which to dump their waste and have begun throwing it in the backyards of smaller towns, suburbs and villages. Thus, garbage may soon become a flashpoint that sets off recurrent conflict across the urban landscape.

The only big national idea on offer has been to incinerate or burn the garbage. That is what the NITI Aayog had proposed in its medium-term three-year vision for the country, which was released in August 2017. By burning the waste, a small amount of energy could also be produced, at least in theory. Currently, about 3% of urban India’s daily garbage output gets fed into waste-to-energy incinerators. A minuscule amount of energy is generated, but there has been very little debate on whether incinerators work in the Indian context.

Unlike the Western world, a large chunk of India’s waste is still organic kitchen waste—almost 40% of the total volume. Since segregation of waste is yet to become a reality, incineration is a highly inefficient solution. In the Indian context, there is also very little certainty on whether the harmful gases, which are a byproduct of incineration, are adequately contained and treated.

A 2017 report by GIZ, a German government agency working on waste and sanitation, states that mixed municipal solid waste in developing nations is by its nature different from that in industrial countries and has specific characteristics in every city. This diversity must be considered in any technology assessment.

Apart from incineration, the other big idea that several cities have tried is bioremediation, which effectively involves the use of living micro-organisms to degrade the contaminants in a landfill into less toxic forms. While the technology is somewhat effective in dealing with existing landfills, in an ideal future, the waste processing chain should abolish the need for a landfill to begin with.

That is the path that several smaller Indian towns have already embarked on—from Alappuzha in Kerala to Mysuru in Karnataka, both of which endeavour to build a “zero landfill" city. Segregation and composting are a big part of the mix of solutions that are being implemented. Their experience in inducing collective action among ordinary citizens to segregate waste may hold important lessons for India’s large cities.

Global examples show that the national mood changes under the influence of an adequate trigger, which makes a radical change in collective behaviour possible. In New York, for example, the magnitude of the waste management challenge became clear when a barge loaded with 3,100 tonnes of garbage set sail from the city in 1987 to find a resting place, only to be rejected by six US states and three neighbouring countries. The barge’s ordeal became an overnight sensation and New York’s relationship with waste was forever altered in profound ways.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the hope was that it would serve as India’s trigger. Four years down the line, nothing much has changed. But the time has come to do something. And quickly. Indians should start demanding clean and healthy cities as a basic right and governments must step up and deliver that basic human need.

With heaps of waste on the edges of India’s cities set to double in size by 2025, will the government step up and work towards a solution? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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