By: Urvashi Dhamija
Nothing provokes more cynicism than the announcement of a cleanliness drive in anticipation of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. Though he is associated with imagination, innovation and cohesion, there is no variation in the sequence of events — frequent exhortations, frenzied sweeping, media coverage of clutter-free spaces and then, the resurgence of squalor.
But this year, things could unfold differently in India’s capital. Swachh Bharat has been accepted as a national goal, which is within grasp. The construction of toilets to end open defecation and the use of dry latrines is being prioritised by companies through corporate social responsibility spending. Delhi’s municipal organisations are seeking to plug the gaps in sanitation facilities, particularly in government-funded schools. It can be safely said that Delhi’s politicians are too preoccupied with other matters to obstruct this programme or the fortnight-long cleanliness drive, which began on September 6 and was meant to remove litter from public places. The campaign was supposed to cover not only the less-served areas that fall under the jurisdiction of one of the three municipalities, but also unserved areas, such as vacant plots which fall under Delhi’s autonomous bodies. Sanitation department officials have been instructed to focus their energies on two colonies per day. And senior corporation officials, including the commissioners and standing committee chairmen of the three civic bodies, have been asked to carry out surprise checks in their areas and take disciplinary action against derelict officials.
It could be argued that with the authorised personnel so well primed to be in action mode, the time is right to review their strategy: currently, collecting waste efficiently and rendering it invisible. Rather, a more nuanced objective of supporting sustainable ways to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost, while ensuring that difficult residue is safely and scientifically disposed of, is needed.
Delhi’s households, institutions, marketplaces and recreation areas generate 8,000 metric tonnes of heterogeneous, largely non-hazardous waste every day. A large part of this finds its way to one of four landfill sites. Three of these are at capacity, yet they are still being used. This is a massive source of air and groundwater pollution. Since the late 1990s, there have been many initiatives to make these landfills redundant. Partly due to the programmes of the Delhi government, many resident welfare associations, schools and colleges are engaged in composting and waste segregation so that non-biodegradable garbage can be introduced into the recycling chain. Since 2011, Delhi has had a state of the art incineration facility at Okhla, which currently reduces at least 1,300 tonnes of mixed waste to a 10th of its volume every day. The largely non-toxic ash that this produces is fit for making bricks. But here, too, there are problems. While the plant’s owners say they are committed to observing international emissions standards, residents have complained and initiated legal action alleging that these standards are not being met. Tuning the imported machines used in the plant can be difficult because of the large amount of grit in Indian garbage.
The municipality has its task cut out to ensure litter-free public spaces that endure. Its officials can identify and publicise the efforts of organisations that segregate waste and follow on-site replicable waste reduction practices. They can give ID cards to waste pickers who collect recyclables from garbage dumps to sell them and supplement their incomes. RWAs will then have the confidence to employ them to collect segregated waste from homes and to enrol them for composting projects in public parks, which can yield high-value organic manure.
Municipalities can identify sites where waste workers can further sift through segregated waste in a secure manner and areas where households can deposit garden as well as construction and demolition waste for further processing. Large-scale compost-making facilities generate a high calorie residue that need not be sent to a landfill. It is ideal fodder for an incineration plant. A pilot project undertaken by the MCD and a private infrastructure company shows that construction and demolition waste, which is an eyesore on the roads, can be converted into ready-mix concrete for pavement blocks, kerb stones and bricks.
It is within our power to give a new spin to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s well-known prediction of achhe din.
The writer teaches political science at Miranda House, Delhi