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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Great urban wastelands — The scourge of modernity

As has been shown by the recent tragedy of the Uphaar Cinema fire and the widespread disease and death caused by the `plague' of August/Sep...

Written by Jagmohan |
August 25, 1997

As has been shown by the recent tragedy of the Uphaar Cinema fire and the widespread disease and death caused by the `plague’ of August/September, 1994, we, as a nation, seem to have a special knack of waking up to our health and safety problems only when they overtake us. The menace of solid waste is assuming grave proportions in our cities. But neither the government nor the municipal bodies have demonstrated any insight in understanding the problem, let alone foresight in tackling it.

One of the major environmental problems which modern civilisations face is the management of the huge waste that they create. It has been estimated that each American will bequeath 3,00 times his own body-weight in debris to the biosphere; each West European 971 times; and each citizen of the developing countries 149 times.

The nature of the waste is another grave problem. At present, about 367 kg of hazardous waste per person is being produced by the developed countries and 4 kg per person by the developing countries.

The management of this waste presents a serious challenge. Nature imposes its inescapable “limits”. If one limit is tackled, another limit appears. For instance, if solid waste is burnt, the limit of land, needed for dumping, may be overcome, but the limit of injecting foul air into the atmosphere comes in the way.

Affluent Western societies have the technological, managerial and financial resources to meet the challenge. For instance, the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, near New York, receives 17,000 tonnes of the city’s refuse daily. It covers 3,000 acres and consumes 2.4 billion cubic feet of space. It is the largest `human-made monument’ in the world.

The developing countries at the moment do not have problems of the same magnitude as the developed countries. But their cities, particularly the mega cities, are in danger of being swamped by a deluge of waste, causing different kinds of air and water-borne diseases. The patients suffering from these diseases occupy about 80 per cent of the hospital beds here. In Indian cities, about 30 per cent of the garbage produced every day remains uncleared. Take the case of Delhi. It has about 1,600 markets, each with hundreds of shops. About 100 weekly markets are held on about 6,000 make-shift shopping spaces, and 1,40,000 informal retail units also exist. There are 93,000 industrial units.

The character of the garbage produced has also undergone transformation. It now includes large quantities of plastics, metals, glasses, chemicals and medicinal and toxic waste. Clearly, proper and effective management of garbage of the aforementioned quantity and character present an unprecedented challenge. To meet this challenge, a separate law is urgently required.

In respect of domestic waste, the new law should, inter alia, make it obligatory for all individual occupiers of a residential building to segregate the waste, and to keep it in separate bags/containers, for disposal. Every colony or group of colonies should have a registered residents’ association. It should be compulsory for the residents to acquire membership of this association and observe its charter. If any individual member defaults in the discharge of his obligations, the executive committee of the association would have the powers to impose fines up to the amount prescribed.

One of the obligatory functions of the association would be to collect the segregated waste of the individual premises from the points specified for the purpose, and unload the same in depots which would have separate portions for different categories of waste. The disposal from the depots will be the responsibility of the local body. A suitable percentage of property tax collected from the colony would be made available to the association for the services rendered.

The rationale of segregation at the point of origin and category-wise collection at the colony-depot is that it makes the task of disposal easy and financially and environmentally sound. For instance, garbage capable of being composted could be transported direct to the compost plant and non-biodegradable garbage could be sold to a contractor at the depot itself.

Large and medium-scale industrial units would have to make independent and separate arrangements. Small-scale industrialists of an industrial colony would have to form a registered association and function, mutatis mutandis, on the lines of the residents’ associations of housing colonies.

It would be compulsory for every hospital to separate toxic and non-toxic waste, and to have at least one incinerator to burn the toxic and infected waste, such as needles, syringes, gauges, used bandages and the like. Nursing homes will also be required to make arrangements, individually or collectively, for burning the infected waste. Rag-picking would be prohibited. It degrades the pickers and exposes him/her to health hazards.

Those who are in the recycling business should be able to secure material from the municipal collection depots. “Recycling is where environment and economy meet.” It not only provides a fillip to industry but also helps the local body in reducing its requirement of land for filling. For instance, Seattle city in the US recycles as much as 45 per cent of its waste.

Not much attention has so far been given to the problem of developing suitable “waste-technologies” for our cities. Nor has it been adequately appreciated that it is not possible for an industrial local agency to undertake “research and development” work in this regard. Economy of scales will stand in the way. The Government of India should, therefore, set up a central design and fabrication agency for developing inexpensive, effective and easily repairable equipment for collecting, segregating, transporting, dumping, and composting urban waste. Such an agency alone will be able to function as a central advisory and feeding agency for all the major municipal corporations of the country, and also have the necessary financial backing to undertake “research and development” and acquire high-level expertise.

Our problems are formidable. So far we have been soft-pedalling the intricate issues involved. John F. Kennedy once observed: “The cities their needs, their future, their financing these are the great unspoken, overlooked, underplayed problems of our times”. This observation is far more pertinent to Indian cities than those elsewhere, and one of their most neglected problems is the growing scourge of solid waste. Would we be able to show vision and the will to ward off this scourge or allow ourselves to be menaced by it?

The writer is an MP and former governor

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