The challenge of mounting waste
Mini-mountains of accumulated, untreated urban waste are common sights in most big and medium cities and towns in the country. Waste dumps greet visitors to any city, reflecting the rapidly rising prosperity in every bit of trash. With cities having literally failed to develop effective ways to dispose their waste, the resulting mountains of waste in almost all cities have become a serious health hazard.
The Government of India has been seized by this exacerbating problem, more so as it has embarked on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) and the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) to turn things around by driving growth to improve the quality of life through area-based development and city-level smart solutions. In developing Three-Year Action Agenda (2017-18 to 2019-20), the NITI Aayog has drawn a broader framework for addressing the issue of municipal solid waste (MSW).
To align the development strategy with the changing reality, the NITI Aayog has been tasked with developing tools and approaches for impacting policy change within the three-year period. It will back up its Three Year Agenda with Seven Year Strategy and Fifteen Year Vision, for carrying forward the agenda to its logical conclusion. Given the enormity of the situation, the Agenda has recognised the need for speeding up action on managing municipal solid waste.
It is a timely assertion by the NITI Aayog to develop a time-bound agenda, given the fact that 377 million inhabitants (Census 2011) residing in 7,935 urban centers generate 170,000 tons of solid waste per day. Left unresolved, the nature and magnitude of urban waste will be insurmountable by 2030, when the cities will burst at its seams with 590 million inhabitants. The social and economic reality calls for quick-fix technological solution and NITI Aayog's Agenda seeks to address the issue.
The solution being suggested by the Action Agenda is twin-fold: waste-to-energy incinerators for bigger municipalities and composting method of waste disposal for small towns and semi-urban areas. It further suggests establishing a new Waste to Energy Corporation of India (WECI), akin to the National Highway Authority Of India (NHAI), 'to speed up the process of cleaning up municipal solid waste' by developing public-private partnerships to build the plants.
Once established, the proposed corporation would play a key role in fast-tracking waste to energy incineration plants across 100 smart cities by 2019. The Sub-Group of Chief Ministers on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has already recommended setting up of such plants in its August 2015 report. This hi-tech solution finds widespread favor as these plants while reducing the volume of waste, will generate 330 megawatts of electricity by 2018 and 511 megawatts by 2019.
While proposing incineration as a solution, the NITI Aayog has also assessed the benefit-cost ratio of thermal pyrolysis and plasma gasification technologies. Both of these are costly options. It must be noted that the proposed NITI Aayog Action Agenda is suggestive in nature, and much will depend on how the states respond to it. But given the fact that the incinerator option was proposed by the Chief Ministers, the proposal is likely to find favour with most states.
There are, however, mixed reports on existing waste to energy plants operating in the country on technical and environmental grounds. At the core of the problem is the nature of urban waste in the country- which contains a mix of materials that is unsuitable for efficient incineration. Since 80 per cent of urban waste consists of organic materials such as damp food scraps, the existing plants have found it difficult in meeting prescribed air quality standards.
However, existing waste disposal methods are no better. City municipalities spend between Rs 500 to Rs 1500 per ton on waste management. Since 60-70 per cent is spent on waste collection and the remaining 20-30 per cent on transporting collected waste to the landfill sites, there is almost nothing that is left to spend on treatment and disposal. And to top it all, setting aside shrinking urban spaces for unhealthy dump sites remains a formidable challenge.
The Action Agenda has highlighted the constraints of space in discounting the option of large-scale composting and biogas generation from waste. In reality, however, composting is currently being inefficiently tried at several dumping sites. The government may now consider re-examining the feasibility of composting as an option and converge it with National Skill India Development mission, to also generate alternate sources of employment for the uneducated youth of the country. These are still early days to arrive at a consensus. However, it is clear that there cannot be one-size-fits-all for diverse socio-economic realities in the country. But the Government must be credited for initiating timely discussions on a pressing social and environmental problem.
With Swachh Bharat Abhiyan being the leitmotif to make the country clean and green, the proposed Action Agenda, containing among others a prescription for Waste Management, by the NITI Aayog is a step in the right direction.
(The author is an independent researcher on water and sanitation issues. The views expressed are strictly personal.)