Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

What Swachh Bharat should have addressed

We need to accept that we are a poor country, with limited access to electricity, water, sanitation; only then we can find sustainable solutions

The NIMBY (not in my backyard) pejorative fits in well with middle-class Indians, who complain about the garbage in their city but refuse to accept their own role in generating it. It’s also the name of a new report published by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) summarizing how urban India is sinking quite literally in its own filth.

According to the report, our per capita consumptions waste generation figures have drastically increased; in metros it has gone up from a mere 0.2-0.6 kg/person, according to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2004, to over 1kg/person now. So has waste composition from paper and recyclables to plastics. The report by CSE gives us the numbers and much more. “This book started as a survey. To document cities that were doing commendable work on solid waste management. We wanted stories; we wanted tales that inspired cities to change. We just wished to bring out that beyond technologies worth crores, there are simple solutions. And we found them. Cities that managed to rise beyond the usual collect, transport, dump scenario," says Swati Singh Sambyal, who has co-authored the report with noted environmentalist Sunita Narain. There are other figures that bring home the gravity of the crisis. “In 2009, the Department of Economic Affairs’ position paper on solid waste management argued that urban India was already producing some 80,000 MT (million tonnes) of waste a day. It projected that by 2047; India would be producing 260 million tonnes of waste annually needing over 1,400 sq. km of landfills. This is an area equal to Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai put together."

At a time when the Narendra Modi government is enlisting the support of the Europeans to provide technology to clean up our rivers and cities, the report makes it clear we don’t need European models. Instead it suggests that we need to learn from cities like Alleppey, Mysuru, Panaji and Bobbili, and try to replicate these models. We need to accept that we are a poor country, with limited access to electricity, water, sanitation; only then we can find sustainable solutions. Else, says the report –“this house of cards, built of imported plants, shall collapse".

The report also puts the individual at the centre of the problem. So for cynics who palm off the blame on municipalities, there is actually a lot you could do at your own level. Segregating your garbage at the household level can make a key difference, as nearly half of the waste we all generate is organic. The strength of the report, ‘Not in My Backyard,’ is that it draws on examples of Indian cities. It doesn’t just focus on the problem, it provides the reader with living, breathing workable models of cities that are doing it right. It gives the example of Alleppey in Kerala. The municipality bears no cost for collection and transportation. In this unique model, every household segregates its waste, composts it, or makes biogas out of its wet waste. The municipality collects dry waste weekly. For households that cannot treat their waste in-house, every ward has community sheds, where people come from 7-9 in the morning to give their wet waste and deposit the dry waste. In my own city Delhi, while there is so much going wrong, NIMBY makes an interesting case for some neighbourhoods in south Delhi like Defence Colony that are following best practices such as composting; the compost generated is then sold back to residents.

At the municipal level, the report makes an important recommendation—to redesign municipal contracts. 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. And finally, this is where most foreign experts enlisted for solid waste management fail is in recognizing the role of the informal sector; they are the real game changers. There are social dynamics to India’s informal sector that are engaged with solid waste management. An army of waste pickers are engaged in solid waste management, yet ostracized for the work they do, their role in segregation and recycling of household waste has never been adequately recognized. One hopes that in the follow-up reports, these aspects will also receive more attention.

The good news is that the report caught the attention of the urban development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu, who referred to the cities with effective models of solid waste management as “the pilgrimages of the future" and expressed an interest in replicating these models. But whether the government actually follows the recommendations of this report instead of simply importing western models of technology that don’t work in the Indian context is another challenge. ‘Not In My Backyard’ is a report we all need to read, not just those who have an interest in green issues, but citizens who rave and rant about garbage piles in the city and want to do something about it.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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