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Cities at crossroads: Can’t sweep it under the carpet

The challenge of garbage is set to grow. Solid waste management plans need to be implemented alongside maintenance of drainage and sewerage networks.

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: September 28, 2016 6:13 am
waste management, waste management in india, effective waste management, garbage disposal, jnnurm, jawahar lal nehru urban renewal mission, atal mission for rejuvenation and urban tranformation, ideas page, indian express, We refer to garbage generated in our cities as “municipal solid waste” and we talk of its “management” — collection, segregation, recycling, processing to recover value and scientific disposal.

In my last column, I wrote about how garbage is choking our cities and playing havoc with our health. What can we do to address this challenge? We refer to garbage generated in our cities as “municipal solid waste” and we talk of its “management” — collection, segregation, recycling, processing to recover value and scientific disposal. Put that way, it seems to have little to do with us personally. When we take a technocratic approach, we psychologically distance ourselves from the menace. And yet garbage is a personal threat to all of us and the challenge will only become greater in future as more people move to the cities as urbanisation and rising incomes bring changing lifestyles which usually means more waste.

When I talked to the authorities in Tokyo, San Francisco and Singapore during my visits to these cities, to find out what they are doing to address their garbage menace, I found that reduction of waste and recycling of waste received as much emphasis in their scheme of things as resource recovery from waste and its scientific disposal. They carried out intense campaigns to win people’s support in reducing the waste generated and also in segregating waste at its source of generation into categories such as wet (biodegradable) waste, dry waste, plastic, paper, glass, etc., to facilitate recycling. Waste of different types is collected, recycled/processed by the municipal governments using a range of technological options for resource recovery. Finally, what remains is scientifically disposed of in landfills. Engagement of the community in segregation of waste at the source along with well-functioning drainage and sewerage networks facilitate a smooth process of solid waste management in these cities.

In India too, solid waste management needs to be planned and implemented alongside well-maintained drainage and sewerage networks and with the active participation of the communities. JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission) made a long overdue start in addressing the challenges of water and sanitation in Indian cities, and this agenda is being carried forward by Swachh Bharat (Clean India) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). Swachh Bharat addresses one half of the problem — solid waste management, freedom from open defecation, and street cleaning. The other half — drainage and sewerage networks and waste water treatment — comes under AMRUT. While the outreach campaign on Swachh Bharat must continue to seek active participation of the communities in cleaning up our cities, it is extremely important to plan and implement Swachh Bharat and AMRUT within the framework of a city development plan as two arms of one mission which will deliver Swasth Bharat. The solid waste management component of the Smart Cities Mission should be viewed as a bonus. Many people understand that we need more toilets, including community toilets, to ensure that there is no open defecation. But there is not an adequate realisation that we need connectivity to sewerage networks and sewage treatment and/or decentralised septage management to ensure proper sanitary conditions for Clean India. Swacch Bharat and AMRUT together must address this challenge.

Many people understand the connection between solid waste management and health in terms of the consequences of unattended heaps of dry garbage which become a home for flies and other vermin. However, there is another aspect that is not well understood, that is, what happens when unscientific solid waste management combines with poor drainage and dumping of untreated sewage into drains which are meant to carry storm water during rains. The result is choked drains which are full of stagnant water breeding mosquitoes, resulting in the spread of water-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, chikungunya, etc. This is why we need integrated planning and implementation of solid waste management, drainage, sewerage and decentralised septage management networks for Clean India.

A special challenge is posed by plastic waste which has been increasing very rapidly in Indian cities. When plastic is present in exposed garbage dumps, rains create little pools of stagnant water which get caught in the plastic waste, which breeds mosquitoes and spreads disease. The problem is compounded when garbage and/or street sweepings including plastic are swept into municipal storm water drains, again choking the drainage system. It is therefore not enough to sweep the streets clean with brooms but also ensure that the waste is not dumped into the drains. The current epidemic of dengue and chikungunya that Delhi is experiencing is in no small measure due to the lapses on these fronts. Swacch Bharat Kosh in the ministry of finance seeks to attract CSR funds for this purpose. We need to strengthen our institutions of service delivery if the funds are to be utilised properly. But all of this will not amount to much if we, as a community, treat this as someone else’s problem to solve for us.

Resident welfare associations have a major role to play in creating awareness of the damaging impact of our approach to domestic waste. They can help in changing mindsets of residents towards segregating garbage at the household level, discouraging throwing of plastic waste on the streets and reporting cases of monsoon drains clogged with garbage. The municipal authorities should supply to each resident welfare association a list of dos and don’ts which the association could disseminate among its members.

In India, we have a valuable tradition of recycling paper, glass, metals, etc. which needs to be preserved. We also need to inculcate a culture which encourages reuse and discourages disposable products if a reusable substitute is available. There are a number of good practices on waste management in Indian cities that have been documented in these columns, including those that have used e-governance to set up speedy communication and effective grievance redressal mechanisms. The challenge lies in gearing up and being part of the change.


The writer is chairperson of ICRIER, Delhi, and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure and services.

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More From Isher Judge Ahluwalia
  1. K
    Sep 28, 2016 at 2:15 pm
    Alongwith organic waste, electronic waste or ' ewaste' is becoming a problem since many goods are being thrown away after becoming obsolete or out of use. This aspect should also be considered for waste management, specially in metros
    1. g
      Sep 28, 2016 at 2:38 am
      Really needed. One thing we tend to forget, it is we who create garbage and as the creator we are more responsible than others to clean it. But, in the cut throat compeive politics, if x party rules, y party in opposition throws garbage open to show x party as a failure. Our politics goes on and we start being modi who coined swwach Bharat as a failure forgetting people's role in the project.
      1. J
        Sep 28, 2016 at 4:11 am
        A friend who is engaged in waste management says he is able to dispose wood, metal, paper and even plastic.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;He is unable to dispose pampers. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;The solution ?lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;1. The cost of pampers MUST be raised to a level which will result in lower usage. All Indians were raised without modern pampers which are known to cause nappy rash.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;2. Female hygiene products must be made of bio-degradable materials.
        1. S
          Sep 28, 2016 at 2:47 pm
          Indian solution is " ban ".
          1. S
            Sep 28, 2016 at 9:50 am
            segregation of wastes into various elements......recycling, reuse and environmentally safe disposal are being actively executed by the developed world.....but for country like India which ranks among the lowest in poverty, hunger, malnutrition, health-care, mortality and other basic indices of survival.....worrying about waste management is light years beyond......providing food, clothing, shelter, water to drink and a few hours of electricity is the challenge realistically that should be the target to be addressed in the next 10 years
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