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Indian Crisis Scenario – A Report

For the first time in the history of India, the year 2012 saw several public protests against improper waste management all across India – from the northernmost State of Jammu and Kashmir to the southernmost Tamil Nadu. A fight for the right to clean environment and environmental justice led people to large scale demonstrations, including an indefinite hunger strike and blocking roads leading to local waste handling facilities. Ranjith Annepu, Coordinator of the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT) – India at Columbia University, gives a synopsis of the Indian crisis scene.

With large scale public protests in Kerala, Karnataka, Jammu & Kashmir and Tamil Nadu and the change of Bengaluru’s Municipal Commissioner, the issue of improper waste management has already become political. However, local governments which are responsible for waste management will not be able to provide or implement immediate solutions – while public health of Indians will continue to be affected, quality of life will continue to degrade, and environmental resources will continue to get polluted.

The inability to provide immediate solutions to waste management in these cities is not the crisis; the crisis is yet to come. Not ten or fifteen, but there are 71 other cities which generate more waste than Thiruvananthapuram (310 tonnes per day), but have limited resources to handle it. Public unrest is expected to spread and grow as these cities try to grapple with increasing quantities of waste in the next decade. This will lead to a waste management crisis if government authorities do not leverage the current situation which has resulted in increased awareness to bring about long term reforms.

Current status of waste management in India

Twelve years since the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) (Handling and Management) Rules 2000 were issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), the progress achieved is meagre. No city in India complies with the MSW Rules 2000. Open dumping, open burning and landfill (dumpsite) fires, and open human and animal exposure to waste are common. This causes various environmental hazards, such as air, soil, ground and surface water pollution, odour nuisance, health hazards, impairment to natural aesthetics, and feed vectors like rats, dogs, mosquitoes and monkeys.

Open burning of waste and landfill fires are a major source of air pollution in India’s large cities. They are the largest source of air pollution in Mumbai which do not add to the city’s economy and contribute about 20% of the pollution due to particulate matter, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. They also emit 10,000 grams TEQ of dioxins/furans every year in Mumbai alone.

An average of 32,000 people will be added to urban India every day, continuously, until 2021. This number is a warning, considering how India’s waste management infrastructure went berserk trying to deal with just 25,000 new urban Indians during the last decade.

India’s goal should be integrated waste management. It was clear to everyone that integrated waste management is the goal India should strive towards. Integrated waste management is the coordinated use of a strategically chosen set of waste management options each of which play specific roles in prevention and reduction of waste and its transportation, and in material and energy recovery from wastes towards achieving maximum resource efficiency.

Researchers Are Required

Research which can directly be applied to India’s situation is minimal, mainly because there is lack of funding and attention to waste management as an issue. Most existing research is focused on just one aspect of waste management – organic waste decomposition using biological processes. Consequently or otherwise, India is one of the largest users of small scale anaerobic digestion (biogas) units and the most widely employed waste management technique in India is aerobic digestion (windrow composting), both of which use bacteria to convert waste into cooking gas (methane) and compost respectively. However, research required in India ranges from environmental life cycle analysis to economic analysis of various waste management options for Indian cities, from public health impacts across India to policy and social aspects.

Responsible Industry Practices Are Needed

The SWM industry in India is young and growing, with a significant influx of new players from other sectors. Most of the industry is currently involved in collection, transportation, landfill and mechanical biological treatment contracts. In the next three years, it is expected that India will have more than nine new WTE plants in Mumbai (1), Thane (1), Cochin (1), Hyderabad (2), Chennai (2), and New Delhi (2 more). This is a big number considering that there have been no new WTE facilities constructed in the US in the last 15 years, while it still landfills more than 50% of its waste.

The influx of new players and a limited number of tenders has resulted in cut throat competition leading companies to quote extremely low just to win a contract. Such bidding results in bad projects, which will take the entire industry backwards with every failed project. Financial mismanagement is one of the most recurrent reasons for waste management project failures worldwide.

Judiciary – Platform for Public Action

The Indian Judiciary proved to be the most effective platform for the public to influence government action. The majority of local and national government activity towards improving municipal solid waste management is the result of direct public action, funnelled through High Courts in each state, and the Supreme Court. This started as early as 1996, when a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court resulted in India drafting its first MSW (Management and Handling) Rules 2000.

In a more recent case (Nov 2012), a slew of PILs led the High Court of Karnataka to threaten to supersede its state capital Bengaluru’s elected municipal council, and its dissolution, if it hinders efforts to improve waste management in the city. In this case, the Court followed up on the results of actions taken by the City based on previous court orders, and noted that people are getting restless and are unsatisfied with the City’s performance. India’s strong and independent judiciary is expected to play an increasing role in waste management in the future, but it cannot bring about the required change without the aid of a thorough national policy.

Planning and Policies

Out of all the measures that are necessary in addressing India’s impending waste management crisis, the most efficient will be changes at the national policy and planning level. It is well known among the small but growing waste management sector that urban India will hit rock bottom due to improper waste management. Unfortunately, they think such a crisis is required to bring about policy changes, as they generally tend to happen only after the damage has been done. This attitude is unfortunate because it indicates a lack of or failed effort from the sector to change policy, and also the level of India’s planning and preparedness. The scale of urbanization in India and around the world is unprecedented with planetary consequences to Earth’s limited material and energy resources, and its natural balance.

The clear trend in the outbreak of epidemic and public protests around India is that they are happening in the biggest cities in their respective regions. Kolkata, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Srinagar are capitals of their respective states, and Coimbatore is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu. However, long term national level plans to improve waste management in India do not exist and guidance offered to urban local bodies is meagre. Apart from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), there has been no national level effort required to address the problem.

Are Cities Hands-tied or is Change Possible?

In the short term, Municipal Corporations have their hands tied and will not be able to deliver solutions immediately. They face the task of realizing waste management facilities inside or near cities while none of their citizens want them near their residences. In spite of the mounting pressure, most Corporations will not be able to close the dumpsites that they are currently using. This might not be the good news for which local residents could be waiting, but, it is important that bureaucrats, municipal officials and politicians be clear about it. Residents near Vellalore dump protested and blocked roads leading to the site because Coimbatore municipal officials repeatedly failed to fulfil their promises after every landfill fire incident.

Due to lack of existing alternatives, other than diverting waste fractionally by increasing informal recycling sector’s role, closing existing landfills would mean finding new sites. Finding new landfills in and around cities is nearly impossible because of the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India and the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon. However, the Corporations can and should take measures to reduce landfill fires and open burning, and control pollution due to leachate and odour and vector nuisance. This will provide much needed relief to adjacent communities and give the corporations time to plan better. While navigating through an issue as sensitive this, it is of the utmost importance that they work closely with the community by increasing clarity and transparency.

Municipal officials repeatedly stress the issue of scarcity of land for waste disposal, which leads to overflowing dumpsites and waste treatment facilities receiving more waste than what they were designed for. Most municipal officials are of the sense that a magic solution is right around the corner which will turn all of their city’s waste into fuel oil or gas, or into recycled products. While such conversion is technologically possible with infinite energy and financial sources, that is not the reality. Despite their inability to properly manage wastes, the majority of municipal officials consider waste as “wealth” when approached by private partners. Therefore, a significant portion of officials expect royalty from private investments without sharing business risk.

Reason for Hope

While the situation across India is grim and official action has to be demanded through courts or public protests, there are a handful of local governments which are planning ahead and leading the way. The steps taken to solve New Delhi’s waste management problem is laudable. A WTE plant was built in 2011, at a time when the need for such plants was being felt all over India. 1300 tons of Delhi’s waste goes into this facility every day to generate electricity. The successful operation of this facility reinvigorated dormant projects across the nation.

Recycling, composting and waste-to-energy are all integral parts of the waste disposal solution and they are complementary to each other; none of them can solve India’s waste crisis alone. Any technology should be considered as a means to address public priorities, but not as an end goal in itself.

After living with heaps of garbage for months, Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation started penalizing institutions which dump their waste openly. It has also increased the subsidy on the cost of small scale biogas units to 75% and aerobic composting units to 90% to encourage decentralized waste management. As a response to the dengue outbreak in Kolkata, the state’s Chief Minister went door to door to create awareness about waste management, and also included the topic in her public speeches. For good or bad, many cities in India have started or initiated steps for banning plastics without performing life cycle analyses.

What Next?

Experts believe India will have more than nine WTE projects in different cities across India in the next three years, which will help alleviate the situation to a great extent. However, since waste to energy combustion projects are designed to replace landfills, they also tend to displace informal settlements on the landfills. Here, governments should welcome discussions with local communities and harbour the informal recycling community by integrating it into the overall waste management system to make sure they do not lose their rights for the rest of the city’s residents. This is important from a utilitarian perspective too, because in case of emergency situations like those in Bengaluru, Kerala, and elsewhere, the informal recycling community might be the only existing tool to mitigate damage due to improper waste management as opposed to infrastructure projects which take more than one year for completion and public awareness programs which take decades to show significant results.

Indian policy makers and municipal officials should utilize this opportunity, created by improper waste management examples across India, to make adjustments to the existing MSW Rules 2000, and design a concrete national policy based on public needs and backed by science. If this chance passes without a strong national framework to improve waste management, the conditions in today’s Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Coimbatore and Srinagar will arise in many more cities as various forcing factors converge. This is what will lead to a solid waste management crisis affecting large populations of urban Indians.

The above article is an extract from the report published in D-Waste

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