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It has been over a year since the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 (SWMR) were notified on 8th April 2016 to lay a solid framework for scientific waste management across urban settlements. The 2016 Rules supersede the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000 and expand the ambit of application to every urban local body, including outgrowths in urban agglomerations, census towns, areas under Railways and airports.
The SWMR have several pioneering features. They put the onus of segregation on the waste generator and require segregation into 6 categories – biodegradable, non-biodegradable, domestic-hazardous, sanitary, construction-demolition and horticulture. With over one year since notification of SWMR, all resident associations and commercial institutions, in partnership with a local body, are required to segregate waste, process biodegradable waste, through on-site composting or bio-methanation and hand over recyclable waste to authorised waste pickers or recyclers. This clause heralds a path-breaking paradigm of decentralised waste management through the mantra of handle-your-own-filth. This obviates the need for a gargantuan centralised system of waste management requiring little community participation and rendering it unsustainable, un-scalable, uncivilized and unfair.
The Rules also require setting up of a material recovery facility for enabling informal/authorised waste collectors to sort out recyclable products. India has a strong “informal” waste economy, and the SWMR recognize, leverage this unique strength. Overall, the decentralized waste management envisaged, involving the community and harnessing India’s inherent opportunities, is critical according to experts and think tanks such as the Centre for Science and Environment.
If implemented well, SWMR have the potential to transform waste management system in India. In fact, for a country with such monumental waste management woes as ours, the rules seem too good to be true. Now before the result of Swachh Survekshan 2017 is released on 4th May, a reality check is in order: how well have SWMR been implemented?
Unfortunately, the path-breaking SWMR have not been followed up with appropriate empowerment of agencies. Delhi, the city that is probably under the sharpest gaze of all hues of observers, provides an interesting case in point. It still follows the Delhi Cleanliness and Sanitation Bye-laws of 2009 and municipal corporation’s (MCD) proposed amendments have been pending with the Delhi government since September 2013, despite the SWMR explicitly stating that bye-laws incorporating the provisions of the Rules have to be framed within one year of notification. During our enquiries, only one official across the hierarchy in a relevant agency could clarify that the MCD follows the Swachh Bharat guidelines and SWMR in absence of revised bye-laws. However, including him, all other employees contacted were clueless about the measures planned by MCD to implement SWMR. The situation in many other urban agglomerations is similar, if not worse.
However, an interesting story is unfolding in India outside government agencies. Quite a few housing societies have taken responsibility for on-site waste management. For instance, it’s been a year since Gurugram’s Regency Park II in DLF Phase 4 has been successfully segregating waste and composting using machines operated by staff trained by Green Bandhu, an NGO providing “innovative solutions for decentralised waste management”. Saurav Bardhan, Co-founder of Green Bandhu, explains that such on-site solutions are the answer to our seemingly unmanageable waste problems and opines that the Rules require agencies to formulate models that incentivise this. Besides , quite a few other elements required for transformational change are in place in India today. Several people across the spectrum from academic experts and think tanks to youth and activists are willing to take initiative and engage. The Policy framework, specifically SWMR, promotes sustainable waste management through measures listed above, with provisions to even allow local bodies to introduce user fees to meet their costs etc.
However, the current incentives produce over-flowing dhalaos and over-exhausted landfills. Outsourced SWM contracts dis-incentivise segregation or treatment as tipping fee is based on the quantity of waste dumped. Individuals aren’t incentivised to dispose waste responsibly and waste outside of one’s home is considered responsibility of the agencies. Even if citizens are motivated to segregate waste at source, the non-compartmentalised transport-and-dumping equipment deters such responsible behaviour.
The key challenge today is agencies responsible for implementing these changes aren’t geared up and empowered. Thus, SWMR have not translated into municipal bye-laws. Community engagement hasn’t taken off. Suitable infrastructure hasn’t been developed and the incentive system hasn’t been successfully altered.
The point we want to make here, however, is not one of administrative inefficiency. Rather, it is of the lack of empowerment of agencies mandated to implement such ground-breaking policy measures. The rules, without explicitly recognising so, demand the following from the relevant agencies: 1) Community Engagement to drive deep behavioural changes, 2) Technology Prowess to at least make the right technology decisions if not supervise technology development, 3) Political Capital to make needed bye-laws and enforce them, 4) Human Capital at a much larger scale to follow through on all aspects from planning to implementation, 5) Funds to support planning, research, and implementation. This is clearly quite a wish list and nowhere close to current levels of empowerment.
So while the rest of the ecosystem is gearing up, the local governance systems seem unable to rise to the challenge. Not because of deliberate mal-intentions of any agency, but probably because as a state and society, we have no clue on how to further the transformational agenda so deeply sought after by this and subsequent generations. And meanwhile, we continue to grapple with the eternally numbing thought: To clean or not to (be) clean.
Dr. Nomesh Bolia is Associate Professor at IIT Delhi and Apula Singh is Research Associate at Vision India Foundation