The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has brought a welcome focus on India’s growing problem of waste management.
Launched nine months ago, the campaign has helped in raising awareness about sanitation, solid waste management and urban governance among both policymakers and the citizens.
In fact, seeking a solution to sanitation and solid waste management is a key priority for many policymakers. However, such urgency is susceptible to be captured by vested interests and could be used to exclude our most vulnerable and marginalised compatriots. However, there are a few things that can go wrong at this juncture.
Dealing with the rapidly increasing amount of waste is a complex challenge in itself. It involves multiple actors with diverse objectives, technical solutions with uncertain impacts along with the widely divergent management approaches. Understanding the complex interplay between all of these factors is critical.
Municipalities such as Tambaram (Chennai) and Alappuzha (Kerala) have managed segregation at the doorstep-level, unlike Delhi, with their ability to develop approaches suitable for local communities.
Contrary to the recommendations of most government policy documents, raising awareness and finding private sector suppliers for appropriate technology should not be the only focus for effective waste management.
Understaffed and financially constrained urban and local bodies cannot be expected to suddenly solve the decades-old problem through enthusiasm alone.
Partnerships between civil society organisations can help develop solutions. Engaging the private sector for reducing, reusing, and recycling waste, along with local governments to facilitate and provide services, can help.
We must also guard against embracing the so-called best practice solutions.
For example, if Sweden incinerates 90% of its waste, that doesn’t mean that India does the same. The incinerators in Sweden involve high labour costs; other factors include lack of repair skills, reuse and re-manufacturing, lack of demand for second-hand goods, disposal lifestyles and lack of domestic demand for secondary raw materials. India, on the other hand, is equipped with sufficient human resources to address these issues.
It is a well known fact that the waste-to-energy model has not worked in the Indian context so far. Emerging trends, however, can help us curb the waste deluge. For instance, large global corporations like Unilever, Dell and Philips are advocating that the recovery of material from waste (recycling) must be prioritised over the burning of waste (incineration) to recover energy.
Finally, we must re-invent our administrative processes, to ensure policies are not made in silos. Is waste not a raw material for the manufacturing process? Clear links exist between promoting manufacturing (Make in India) and waste management (Swachh Bharat).
China’s rise as a global manufacturing hub has also been associated with a rise in its imports of waste from the rest of the world. The government must implement large-scale programmes to recover resources from waste, converting them into the building blocks of Make in India.
The focus must turn to sustainable solutions to develop appropriate infrastructure to Make Bharat Swachh.
Bharati Chaturvedi is director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, India and Ashish Chaturvedi is a research fellow at Institute of Development Studies, UK