Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Waste management

The collapse of a huge pile and dump, which looked like a great wall of garbage in East Delhi’s Ghazipur area last month, sweeping people and vehicles into a nearby canal, is a stark reminder that India’s continued neglect of waste management crisis can have deadly consequences. How many people were adversely affected by this accident is still not known to the authorities, which continue to use this open area as a dumping yard for the waste material for the past many years. It is more than a year after the notification of the much-delayed Solid Waste Management Rules, cities and towns are in no position to comply with its stipulations, beginning with the segregation of different kinds of waste at source and their scientific processing. If this is the situation in the National Capital Region (NCR) which get priority in such projects, the fate of smaller urban cities across the country can be very well be imagined. Neither the urban local governments treating the 62 million tonnes of waste generated annually in the country as a potential resource nor a serious thought has been given to waste management in rural areas. They have left the task of value extraction mostly to the informal system of garbage collectors and recyclers. The rag pickers and those who eke out a living by collecting the recyclable waste material are doing the job of segregating the solid waste. Improving on the national record of collecting only 80 percent of waste generated and being able to process just 28 percent of that quantum, requires behaviour modification among citizens and institutions. But what is more important is that the civic bodies put in place an integrated system to transport and process what has been segregated at source. The Swachh Bharat programme of the Centre has focused too narrowly on individual action to keep streets clean, without concurrent pressure on State and municipal authorities to move closer to scientific management by the deadline set for most places, and arrest the spread of pollution from trash. The reprocessing units are yet to be either in the big urban cities or the smaller towns. The plans are still on the drawing boards and acute corruption in the governance system is taking a heavy toll on the planning process itself. In the absence of stakeholders from the private sector at the local body level, recoverable resources embedded in discarded materials are lost due to highly disorganised dumping. organic refuse, which forms about 50 percent of all garbage, readily lends itself to the generation of compost or production of methane for household use or power generation. But it is a major opportunity lost due to short-sightedness of the planning bodies. Organic waste that could help green cities and feed small and affordable household biogas plants is simply being thrown away. In most of the civic bodies majority of the people charged with the responsibility of look towards the future are sitting idle and doing nothing. It is also ironic that while some countries in African continent have introduced stiff penalties for the use of flimsy plastic bags, India is doing little to prevent them from drifting into suburban garbage mountains, rivers, lakes and the sea, and being ingested by cattle feeding on dumped refuse. In fact most of the plastic and polythene waste material is allowed to fill the rivers and other water sources creating new problems for the people and the flora and fauna. A new approach is needed, in which bulk waste generators take the lead and city managers show change in the way it is processed and recycled. The important thing has to be a shift away from big budgets for collection and transport by private contractors, to the processing of segregated garbage. As the nodal body for the implementation of the new rules, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) should put out periodic assessments of the preparedness of urban local bodies in the run-up to the deadline. Without a serious approach, the national problem of merely shifting city trash to the suburbs, out of sight of those who generate it, will spoil and choke the landscape. Considering that waste volumes are officially estimated to grow to 165 million tonnes a year by 2030, many more suburbs are bound to be threatened by collapsing or burning trash mountains besides creating problems for those who inhabit those areas.