India needs a united front to fix its garbage problem

Published on Sep 27, 2022 08:18 PM IST

Several new missions have taken off with varying degrees of success, but none match the SBM in its people connect. India’s new fight is against garbage.

The second phase of SBM Urban launched a year ago rightly lays focus on augmenting infrastructure for material recovery, recycling and waste management. (Gurpreet Singh/HT Photo) PREMIUM
The second phase of SBM Urban launched a year ago rightly lays focus on augmenting infrastructure for material recovery, recycling and waste management. (Gurpreet Singh/HT Photo)

As the much-celebrated Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) completes eight years of unprecedented focus on safe and inclusive sanitation, the path has changed significantly from where it started on October 2, 2014. India was then the land of 600 million open defecators, a distinct hurdle to the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals set for 2030. All villages and towns have since declared themselves Open Defecation Free (ODF) though sporadic surveys point to issues of sustainability in some parts. The achievements are the envy of any country. Several new missions have taken off with varying degrees of success, but none match the SBM in its people connect.

India’s new fight is against garbage. The declared goal is to arrive at Garbage Free Cities (GFC) by 2026. The job is in the urban space and way more strenuous than activating 120 million toilets, mostly in India’s 650,000 villages. Cities and towns have to process about 150,000 tonnes of solid waste each day. An estimated 2,200 legacy dumpsites, strewn like ulcers on the country’s urban landscape, hold 160 million tonnes of waste and are waiting to be scientifically dismantled. Urban expansion has caused an exponential increase in plastic consumption, resulting in 9.5 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually, 40% of which is unattended. The recent ban on a large category of single-use plastics (SUP) is an essential but not a sufficient step, till all plastic waste in the environment is dealt with. Urban planners are also confronted by mounds of deadly electronic waste coming from televisions, computers and smartphones, among others, containing toxic metals such as lead, mercury and lithium. There is also battery, radioactive and biomedical waste that needs careful segregation and scientific disposal.

The second phase of SBM Urban launched a year ago rightly lays focus on augmenting infrastructure for material recovery, recycling and waste management. Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are getting into smart understanding of waste components and technology-based solutions. Remediation has already been proposed for 600 dumpsites in partnership with private entrepreneurs, though a zero-dumpsite status will need a Herculean effort. The new Swachh Bharat is fuelled by three golden Rs: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle; the last one being about systematic induction of waste into the circular economy for extracting value — from compost and methanol to construction material and more. Industry interest is growing, matched by India’s sanitation revolution, but needs to grow further and get more formalised. Recently, about 250 startups dived into urban sanitation as a part of national challenge and several are eager to scale-up. A move is afoot to build waste recycling aspects into toy production and consumption.

Freedom from garbage will remain a distant dream unless waste is segregated at source, an issue to which waste generators have closed their eyes for far too long, starting with urban households. While waste processing rose from 18% to 73% in eight years, the gap will be difficult to cover unless segregation becomes a way of life. The choice is between getting the waste from our premises recycled into the economy or letting it return to our life as toxins. Some domestic waste such as diapers, sanitary pads and of course medical and e-waste are more toxic than ordinary dry and wet waste, the separation of which has found some acceptability in residential conglomerations. For source segregation to percolate down to each citizen, high-pitch campaigns, associating influencers and demonstrations are needed.

That brings into focus the criticality of community action, so evident in the early years of SBM. A similar upsurge is due among urban dwellers, whether for source segregation, plastic substitution or keeping the neighbourhood clean. This month, under the innovative India Swachhata League, over half a million people did shramdan to make beaches, hills and tourist locations in about 1,900 cities and towns garbage-free. Captained by local influencers, carrying brand names and evoking local pride, the League and its participants demonstrated what was possible by people’s action.

It’s impressive that the most enthusiastic participation has come from states such as Odisha, Assam and Jharkhand. For a united and determined front against garbage, India will need many such leagues and more. The viral image of the prime minister plogging underlines the job ahead and the way out.

Akshay Rout is former director-general, special projects, Swachh Bharat Mission

The views expressed are personal

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