Wallowing in waste

Wallowing in waste

In more ways than one, the protest against dumping of garbage in Mandur in Bangalore was symptomatic of a larger malaise in the solid waste management in India which lies in a state of horrible mess.

One is reminded of Shuqbah, a village of 5,000 that lies near the border of Israel and the West Bank, not far from Ramallah, where Israel has been dumping waste, including hazardous and toxic waste, for years as a cheaper and easier alternative to processing it properly in Israel.

Based on a 1999 report by the Committee for Solid Waste Management in class 1 cities of India to the Supreme Court, a solid waste policy was framed in 2000, requiring all cities to devise comprehensive waste-management programmes that include household collection of segregated waste, recycling and composting – but this was never implemented.

A serious and sustained awareness programme for community participation in garbage management was never thought through.

The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1999, envisaged a total stricture on unplanned open dumping of waste outside city limits, setting up a timeframe for improvement of existing landfill sites, identification of landfill sites for long-term future use and making them ready for operation, creation of waste-processing and disposal facilities, and provision of a buffer zone around such sites.

As a corollary to hygienic waste management valuable suggestions such as processing of biodegradable wastes by composting, restricting landfilling to non-biodegradable inert waste and compost rejects were mooted.

But India is yet to wake up to the monstrosity of land pollution caused by generation of tons of garbage, both household and industrial and incapable of their effective disposal. So much so that we have so many of Mandurs as landfills serving as greenhouse emission hotspots and disease breeding sites.

With as many as 597 million people practising open defecation – a fact noted by prime minister Narendra Modi’s call for ‘Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya’ (toilet first, temple later) – India still has the largest number of such people in the world, according to a new UN report.

The report jointly prepared by the WHO and the Unicef– Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation – says 82 per cent of the one billion people practising open defection in the world live in just 10 countries.

The general lack of cleanliness in our hotels, hospitals, households, work places, trains, airplanes and, even temples points to a culture of habitual litterbugs. It does not occur to us that quite a few infectious and chronic degenerative diseases such as dengue, viral hepatitis, tuberculosis, malaria, and pneumonia, are on the rise again attributable in part to substandard housing, a crumbling public health infrastructure, inadequate water, sewage and waste management systems.

With 103 cities spewing raw sewage, and chemicals into the Ganga, some 550 million Indians are at risk.

Miserable failure

The 2011 census data confirmed not only that India is urbanisng at a rapid clip – our urban population has increased from 286 million in 2001 to 377 million in 2011 – but also how woefully our towns and cities have failed to live up to the challenges of increasing urbanisation.

Most metros are subject to not only shortages of electricity but also to other civic problems like our appalling waste management systems, environment pollution and lack of adequate and properly maintained public spaces.

Without a modern urban planning framework, urban local bodies are often hamstrung by poor funds. It is yet unclear if the NDA would put a technology-driven solid waste management policy in the 100 ‘smart’ cities that it seeks to build. And in our zeal for urbanisation proportional to the objective of slum clearance – both the tenth and eleventh national five-year plans made slum clearance a national priority – we are yet to know if our new government is ready with any sanitation plan for their relocation.

The volume of municipal solid waste is projected to double by 2025, growing from 1.3 billion tons a year to 2.6 billion tons, according to research from the Worldwatch Institute.

Though the United States leads the world in municipal solid waste output at some 621,000 tons per day, Brazil, China, India, and Mexico are all in the top list. The way our civic bodies simply dump garbage, without caring to manage it, is antithetical to the fair practices of solid waste management.

As an aspirational country, India must embrace technology in disposing of its waste.
The WWF monitors the environmental performance of different countries using a combination of two alternative indicators. One is the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which is based on such data as life expectancy and school enrolment, as well as GDP per capita.

In its latest finding, it ranks India at the 135th position among 186 countries in human development. The other is the Ecological Footprint, which measures the cropland, grassland, forests and fishing grounds needed to produce the food, fibre and wood a country consumes, in relation to the quantity of waste it produces. India surely has room to improve on this front.

According to the WWF, if everyone in the world consumed at the same rate that Europeans do, over two-and-a-half planets would be needed to provide the resources required and accommodate wastes.

Way back in 1960, Vance Packard, a journalist and best-selling author, in his book ‘The Waste Makers’ urged America to reject “a society built on trash and waste” accusing it of sparking a crisis of excess and waste that would exhaust both nation and nature, until future Americans were forced by scarcity to “mine old forgotten garbage dumps” to recover squandered resources.

A prudent country, he argued, should start planning to shift its economy away from consumption and rapidly paced planned obsolescence, and base it more on conservation, durability and elimination of waste before it was too late.  And we have a lesson to learn.