Two of India’s biggest metros have been enveloped in trash over the last few days. Mumbai’s Deonar landfill has emitted so much acrid smoke, schools had to shut down. In East Delhi, neglected and unpaid safai karamcharis have gone on strike, so trash lies uncollected. Between poor man management and the wrong kind of infrastructure, these metros show us that Bharat is not Swachh.
These are no longer freak incidents. Even if the karamcharis were paid on time and landfill improved, such waste-crises are likely to occur again. Handling several hundred tonnes of mixed trash in just a few locations is a long and inefficient chain, bound to develop weak links. The existing collect, transport, dump or process paradigm most municipalities follow is fuel for such fire.
Landfills have always been fraught with danger. As the wet waste rots, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas which catches fire. Any system based on mass collection of trash digs itself into a hole because over 60% of a municipality’s solid waste funds are spent on collection and transportation. If a municipality faces a shortage of funds, human resource management crisis or a fleet breakdown, waste will be left stinking around our homes. Besides, key considerations such as keeping waste segregated, ensuring it is treated rapidly and ensuring toxins don’t mix with wet waste are much harder in a longer chain.
A much better solution would be to learn from the working models in India. All of them point to one key factor — decentralisation.
Mumbai’s Advanced Locality Management system ensured waste was segregated and composted locally. Several hundred tonnes of waste stayed out of the landfill every month. It was widely appreciated but did not scale up. Instead, the system today lies in neglect. The innovations at Dharavi also tell us how much wastepickers salvage, a number pegged at about 20%. In Kolar, systems of decentralised waste handling have even made the city almost zero waste.
Look at the fate of large, centralised models, applauded till a few years ago. In Kanpur, A2Z’s programme to collect and handle waste at large centralised plants failed. Varanasi, also contracted to the same company, remained filthy. Chennai’s Onyx partnership fared no better. These causes are likely to recur because of the lack of community control, large finances doled out to a single player and the inevitable break-up of existing local incentives to clean up.
Decentralisation and using appropriate technologies must be institutionalised. Funds must be made available for small-scale technology, capacity-building for all kinds of stakeholders, from residents to wastepickers and limited subsidies on compost, to enable markets. The government must also push Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), because there is no other way to handle items like toxic batteries. Certainly, it won’t happen overnight, but it will also prevent us all from being poisoned by what we throw away.
Bharati Chaturvedi is founder of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group and works on waste and circular economy
The views expressed are personal