The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 destroyed countless lives, homes and properties. Dr. Sanjay K Gupta, a water, sanitation and solid waste management specialist found himself in a devastated village some days later to plan together with the local communities to utilise the waste left behind by the killer surge. They managed to, amazingly, recycle anywhere between 70-85% of the waste.
Involvement of the Panchayat or by municipalities was crucial in this case and they bore most of the costs, says Gupta, who now works in Switzerland at St Gallen with Skat, the Swiss Resource Centre and Consultancies for Development. He handles the portfolio of waste sanitation and waste management.
Cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action. The Surat plague allegedly happened due to mismanagement of waste services. From the point of just exports, losses amounted to $420 million in 1994 for the city. About 52 people lost their lives and close to a quarter of the city’s citizens fled the area for fear of being quarantined. The Bombay urban flood in 2005 again happened due to clogging of drains with waste (and for other reasons). Losses amounted to 1,100 people dead and cost $80 million in business. “Though all of it cannot be blamed on waste management, but bad waste management aggravated the problem to an unmanageable level,” says Gupta, whose strengths are network management, monitoring and evaluation and social impact assessment.
He has all the facts at his fingertips. India produces more than 42 million tonnes of waste per year but has few quality enterprises providing good waste management services. No Indian city has managed to put effective waste management systems in place as per the law. Not one city can claim having even 30% of its waste recycled even though there are nearly 1.2 million people engaged in recycling recovery. In fact, most recycling is due to them and not municipalities.
About 4-6% of GHG emissions in the country happen due to poor waste management practices, so it’s also a climate change contributing factor. Despite the smart cities initiative, not one Indian city makes it to even rank 100 when it comes to the cleanest cities of the world.
From Tinsukia in Assam, Gupta has been involved in cleaning campaigns since his undergraduate days.While studying for a PhD in policy research in Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, his focus shifted to household waste, recycling and compositing. An NGO then offered him a research project, the first comprehensive study on the recycling value chain in Delhi. Other projects followed and his career path was chalked out.
Author of several internationally published papers on waste issues, Gupta has also contributed for publications such as Millennium Development Goals and Solid Waste Management; Status of Solid Waste in World Cities, the latter winning the best book on the subject award from International Solid Waste Association, Vienna, Austria in 2010.
What gives him much joy is that he has worked with municipalities in India such as Suryapet, Eluru and Warangal in improving their collection and recycling systems, and all have at some point or the other won both state and national awards in the environmental sanitation category.