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Can India be swept clean?

The trumpet blast, with which the prime minister launched the Clean India Campaign, on October 2, is history in news pages. But the government aspires to create a clean India- by mobilising masses and motivating citizens to devote at least 100 hours every year i.e. two hours every week to keep their homes and neighbourhood spotless. Can India be cleaned with a broomstick, in just about five years?

The onerous task is largely on municipalities, where apathy looms large and corruption reigns supreme. Door-to-door garbage collection in most cities and towns, leave alone villages, is a far cry. From homes, collected wastes are piled in street-side open dumps. From here, a sad story follows. Municipal open trucks amass and transport them, showering the puking garbage all along the route as they head to landfills- at peak hours.

It is horrific that several municipal corporations in the country do not have an organised solid waste management system. An exception is South India, where municipalities are better organised.

Perinaz, a Solid Waste Management (SWM) expert and researcher, says dirty places can be swept clean in less than five years. ‘But, what do you do with the dirt and garbage once it is swept?  Sweeping it to a corner or to another side of the road is futile.’ An efficient waste collection and effective disposal system that causes least harm to human health and the environment is urgently needed.

A few years ago, the previous government in Delhi deployed garbage compactors, imported from Germany. They were misused and sullied by municipal workers, who lacked training and the will to operate properly; finally, they vanished without trace. Currently, auto tippers collect municipal wastes from streets.

Garbage will continue to pose health problems unless municipalities in the country deploy large-scale auto tippers and compactors for collection of solid waste, supported by an increase in compaction hydraulic technology.

Garbage collection and disposal is only half the story. The other half is what to do with this accumulating mountain. SWM poses a monumental challenge. Around 377 million people in urban areas of the country generate nearly 62 mn tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) annually. More than 80 percent of this is disposed of indiscriminately and unhygienically by municipalities at dump yards, kick-starting health problems and environmental degradation.

If 62 mn tonnes of MSW are generated annually and dumped without treatment, 1240 hectare of landfill space would be required every year, according to a recent of the Task Force on Waste to Energy, headed by Dr K Kasturirangan, Member, Science, Planning Commission.

It says waste generation is projected to nearly triple to 165 mn tonnes by 2031 and 436 mn tonnes by 2050. The setting up of landfill for 20 years (considering 10-metre-high waste pile) would require 66,000 hectares of precious land, which our country cannot afford to waste. Landfill sites are decreasing as land is unavailable near cities and acquisition is expensive. Traditional waste treatment techniques like dumping, direct landfilling or direct burning are unviable as they cause severe environmental pollution. Hence, wastes have to be recycled and converted to energy, or treated through vermicomposting and bioremediation. This is a serious issue and hence MSW transported to landfill ought to be minimised by 75 percent by processing them using appropriate technologies, the document cautions.

Processing will generate revenue and new products from waste. It will also improve public health and quality of life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 22 types of diseases can be prevented/controlled by improving the MSW management system.

Managing municipal waste is a local problem, with regional and global consequences.  In most places, local or state/regional laws govern collection, transport and disposal.  An integrated approach
has never been followed.

Waste management needs to be drastically transformed by integrating all essential activities such as segregation and storage of waste at source, door-to-door collection, secondary storage, transportation, transfer stations, processing and disposal—thus forming a coordinated chain process. Such an approach will make towns and cities clean and liveable and optimise tapping the potential of MSW through recovery of recyclables, generation of energy, compost and Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) from the waste. It will also minimise wastes carried to landfills.

This would involve enormous costs and hence private public partnership (PPP) projects alone can pave way for infrastructure development. But, most private firms are hesitant to invest because municipalities, being under States, hardly cooperate. They have the primary task of garbage collection, transportation and dumping.

Municipalities accept whatever technologies, vehicles and equipment are given by vendors. They do not have means to ascertain the appropriateness of technologies and suitability of tools and equipment for use in various levels of city with different quality and quantity of waste generated. Research and development is absent.

India is unlikely to achieve most of the eight United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000, by 2015. If goals are not achieved in a time span of 15 years, how can filth amassed in the country over the past 67 years be made to ‘vanish’ in five years. Is there a road map on how this is likely to be achieved?

The author is an independent journalist

K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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