Allow the private sector into waste management

Updated on Aug 29, 2022 07:45 PM IST

The mountains of legacy waste need advanced environmental engineering to rehabilitate and reclaim the land and environment damaged and locked by them

Truck loads of waste add to the growing mountain of waste Faridabad-Gurugram Expressway (Shailja Vaidya Gupta) PREMIUM
Truck loads of waste add to the growing mountain of waste Faridabad-Gurugram Expressway (Shailja Vaidya Gupta)
ByShailja Vaidya Gupta

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic appeal for Swachh Bharat on August 15, 2014, he brought into sharp focus waste and waste management as never before. The complete and shameful lack of waste collection and mismanagement of waste disposal and treatment, over the years, have left this country with a legacy of dump sites of enormous proportions, seemingly impossible to get rid of. There are three legacy landfills in the Capital — Okhla, Bhalswa and the infamous Ghazipur — with fires and toxic chemical releases reported regularly. Rough estimates of removing these three mountains of legacy waste, along with the incoming fresh daily waste at the current rate, is 197 years. Other metros don’t fare any better. Mumbai has the oldest landfill stretching across a mind boggling 326 acres, Chennai has two — Perungudi and Kodungiayur — covering 228 and 270 acres, respectively. The Dhapa wasteland at Kolkata is 60 acres and we need to thank the Ganga river basin for the decreased land (waste) use. To add to the legacy woes are the new landfills coming up across the country, the conservative count for which is 3,000. Choosing to ignore the lessons from Delhi’s mountains of waste, the two upcoming metros of Gurugram and Faridabad have chosen to dump their collective garbage in an equally unsanitary landfill right next to the Gurugram-Faridabad expressway. The dumpsite is about five-six years old and already a mini mountain of waste. Hill towns face the double whammy of development and tourist onslaught, with waste being dumped into rivers and picturesque mountain sides.

This belies the premise of Swachh Bharat, with no apparent learning and no interest in adopting advanced technological solutions to treat waste. Time and money seem to have been invested without seeking expert advice and exploring the possibility of using technological solutions. The overwhelming neglect of expert advice is a deterrent for putting into place available technologies and solutions, adopted across the world for cleaning polluted cities. The government needs to adopt flexible procedures and processes for acquiring knowledge and technology — this is paramount if impactful results are to be expected. Business as usual will continue sub-optimal utilisation of the huge budgetary allocation for the Swachh Bharat Mission. To give an indication, in the year 2015-2016, a budget of about 3,625 crore was set aside for Swachh Bharat, amounting to approximately $500 million. An unbelievable outlay of 1.41 lakh crore (approximately $20 billion) for the financial years 2020-21 to 2025-26, was allocated for Swachh Bharat alone. This is over and above the budget for municipalities and the department of drinking water and sanitation of the jal shakti ministry.

The return on investment for the government seems low when we compare this to the United States (US), or any other country. In the US, it costs about $1.5 million to $1.7 million to construct, operate and close a landfill; because of this “high investment”, many private companies have replaced municipalities and now own and operate landfills in the US. The investment in the construction and operation of a sanitary landfill seems conservative by Indian standards, considering the budget allocated for waste management in India. Also important to note that the US is one of the most wasteful countries, generating 239 million metric tonnes of garbage, compared to India’s 64 million tonnes per year.

It is evident that a prudent and thoughtful approach for fresh (daily) waste management is needed in this country. The municipalities are hamstrung by lack of access to technology, expertise and the will to manage waste. Therefore, the solution lies in allowing the waste management industry to take over the management of waste in India. Municipalities must be handed over to the private sector specialised in waste management. If waste is managed well, this industry promises to be a profit-making enterprise.

The mountains of legacy waste need advanced environmental engineering to rehabilitate and reclaim the land and environment damaged and locked by them. An innovative high throughput design can reclaim the Ghazipur landfill within four years, unlocking huge potential. Fast track rehabilitation of the Ghazipur dump site can potentially result in the mitigation of approximately 25,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equal emissions and reclaiming valuable land in the heart of the Capital. A combination of high rate bio-mining, extensive processing by recycling and upcycling of waste materials, leachate treatment and landfill gas water management, could be a globally unprecedented approach to manage the biggest landfill in the world.

Detailed and comprehensive solutions for rehabilitation of the Ghazipur landfill are available, all that is needed is strong political will combined with trust in the private industry to deliver on the challenge. Public-private partnership is the only way to reclaim these wastelands, unlocking precious land and establishing a major milestone in the Swachh Bharat Mission.

Shailja Vaidya Gupta is a former senior adviser, Office of Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of IndiaThe views expressed are personal

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