Challenge of managing solid waste in our cities requires community engagementhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/vellore-waste-management-community-how-a-city-cleans-up-5655425/

Challenge of managing solid waste in our cities requires community engagement

Vellore, with a population of five lakh, has been a trailblazer in decentralised management of solid waste and sending no waste to landfills. It has earned the remarkable distinction of getting its residents to separate wet waste from dry waste.

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Vellore generates 160 tonnes of solid waste per day, excluding waste from bulk generators. (Illustration: CR Sasikumar)

We wrote in our last column, ‘Small town, cleaner future’ (IE, February 27) about how small towns in India are showing the way in keeping wet waste separate from dry waste. This is the most critical first step for sound solid waste management. We also looked to see if some bigger towns are getting their act together in managing their solid waste. Admittedly, it is more difficult to organise community action in large towns. But wards are a good place to start, and we are happy to report some encouraging news from Tamil Nadu.

Vellore city in Tamil Nadu, with a population of five lakh, has been a trailblazer in decentralised management of solid waste and sending no waste to landfills. More recently, it has earned the remarkable distinction of getting all its residents to separate their wet waste from dry waste, which makes the task of solid waste management so much easier for the municipal corporation.

Vellore generates 160 tonnes of solid waste per day, excluding waste from bulk generators. It all began with a PIL in the National Green Tribunal in 2015 seeking closure of the eight-acre dumpsite on a tank bund in Saduperi, a few kilometres away from Vellore. The site had been used for dumping mixed waste since 1991.

Vellore Municipal Corporation (VMC) responded to the challenge by building 42 sheds for micro composting centres (MCCs) across its 60 wards. Each MCC (with a capacity ranging from 1.5 to 5 tonnes) was provided enclosed sheds containing numerous open-brickwork tanks (5 ft deep, 5-6 ft wide and 7-10 ft long) for composting wet waste: The tanks are filled in rotation, over a starter bed of dry leaves, with one-foot layers of hand-sorted wet waste plus a layer of cow dung-slurry as a compost starter, and allowed to mature for 30-60 days.

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Last month, one of us led a group of 10, driving from Bengaluru to Vellore to see for ourselves how the VMC was implementing its decentralised waste management system. At a particular MCC, we were pleased to see fully segregated wet waste being hand-picked to remove coconut shells and other hard-to-compost items, on the one hand, and clean dry waste carefully sorted into different bins for sale, on the other.

Municipal commissioner at that time, Janaki Raveendran, with support from all elected local representatives, proactively and completely stopped sending any waste to the dumpsite. They started doorstep collection of mixed waste in Vellore, using primary collection vehicles and municipal workers to transport the waste to the MCCs: These are run by self-help groups who are provided with covered space for sorting, and are paid Rs 250 per day. They can collectively keep the sale proceeds of both the compost and dry waste, and VMC pays for electricity and water. There is no secondary transport, no transfer stations for the garbage and no black spots in the city, not to speak of the significant savings made on transport cost.

The second major step of 100 per cent segregation came with the enthusiastic efforts of S Sivasubramanian who assumed charge as municipal commissioner of VMC on October 31, 2018. Having inherited a well-functioning system of decentralised waste management, the new commissioner was determined to achieve doorstep collection of waste, fully segregated at source, as he had done in his earlier posting in Tirunelveli. And, this has been achieved in Vellore in just four months. This should give food for thought to many of those who believe it can’t be done in India. It is being done — in the South, but there is no reason why the North cannot follow suit.

There was also an awareness campaign, which involved the municipal commissioner of Vellore and other high officials leveraging social media by posting photos of themselves in their home kitchens with separate bins for wet and dry waste. All municipal staff and waste workers down to the lowest level, and all government employees, were urged to keep their home wastes unmixed before asking others to do so. Religious leaders of different communities were also approached and urged to convey to their followers the importance of keeping wet and dry wastes unmixed and to avoid from January 2019 the use of one-time-use plastics which have been banned by the Tamil Nadu government. Groups like the Lions and Rotary were roped in to spread the good word. Schools were required to get pledges signed by all students and their parents. With the cooperation of teachers, they have reached out to 1,28,000 homes.

Such campaigns to engage with the community are successful only when the doorstep collection teams cooperate and strictly refuse taking mixed waste. After accepting the segregated waste, they should visibly transport the wet and dry waste — separately — to gain the trust of those who have complied, by not mixing the wastes at source. The pending grievances of waste collectors with respect to promotions, filling vacancies, provident fund issues and minor repairs of primary collection vehicles, etc. were resolved to ensure their buy-in for the campaign. This shows leadership in making change happen.

Micro-planning of collection vehicle routes manned by municipal staff, and tracking their punctuality and performance, is also key to citizen cooperation. The benefit of such intense focus is that once initial success is achieved for the project, it is relatively easy to maintain the system. Prolonged deadlines for compliance, one area at a time, do not work.

At a morning muster, sanitary officers give each waste collector a notebook containing a message from the municipal commissioner, which they have to show to each household on their beat. They also need to collect a signed pledge to not mix their wastes and not use banned plastic: This is also to promote bonding with the households. After two warnings, mixed waste is temporarily accepted on payment of a fee of Rs 10. Thereafter, mixed waste pickup is strictly refused, with the full backing of the superior officers of the doorstep collectors. A follow-up visit is made the same evening to the defaulter household to find out where their uncollected waste went.

The Tamil Nadu government has provided an enabling environment through proactive engagement of the Department of Municipal Administration. The courts have also provided strong support for decentralised waste management. Under the leadership of G Prakash, commissioner of municipal administration in Tamil Nadu, 700 plus MCCs and several on-site composting centres have come up, all receiving well-segregated waste. As in Vellore, so in 19 other cities, no waste goes to a dumpsite. Statewide, wet waste is collected six days a week and dry waste only on Wednesdays. Municipalities have framed by-laws to comply with Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Thus, user charges starting from Rs 20 per month are added every six months to property tax, with collection rates of 80-100 per cent. Bulk generators managing their own waste are charged for collection of dry waste and for the waste they indirectly generate at local markets, eateries, etc. As a result of the plastic ban, the volume of total solid waste has come down from 160 to 131 tonnes a day.

This model can work equally well in every ward of a metro city. The collective challenge of managing solid waste in our metros requires, above all, the engagement of the community.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 3, 2019 under the title ‘How a city cleans up’. Ahluwalia is chairperson of Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). Patel is member, Supreme Court committee on solid waste management.