Waste disposal: CAG raises alarm, but do ULBs care?

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) performance audit report on Solid Waste Management (SWM) in 35 Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in Karnataka is an indictment of the authorities. The audit of SWM during 2012-13 to 2016-17 was carried out during July to December 2017 and CAG auditors consulted Almitra Patel as an expert during the course of the audit. The report contains many photographs that were clicked by CAG auditors during Joint Physical Verification, showing the sad state of affairs and serious laxity on the part of the ULBs and the state Pollution Control Board (KSPCB).

Close on the heels of this performance audit, a hurriedly planned meeting to frame an updated  SWM Policy came under sharp criticism by activists and pourakarmikas (waste collectors) and the Department of Municipal Administration (DMA) had to call it off. Protesters objected to the very short notice given for consultations and the draft being circulated on the day of the meeting.

CAG auditors had observed that Karnataka has the most outdated SWM policy, dating back to 2004, and the policy should have been revised in tune with SWM Rules, 2016. Five years ago, another performance audit of SWM in Bengaluru had severely criticised the city corporation stating, “Efficiency in collection of waste was poor and no efforts had been made to promote waste segregation. Lack of scientific processing facilities at landfill sites and non-compliance with the rules resulted in open dumping of mixed wastes and had led to environmental pollution near landfill sites”.

This report shows how the DMA in Karnataka has utterly failed to learn lessons from the previous audit and put its house in order. CAG auditors observed that the ULBs audited had failed to conduct any realistic assessment of waste generation and rather adopted per capita estimates that were based on questionable assumptions.

Though the requisite committees were formed at the state level, the district and ULB level committees were not formed in any of the test-checked districts. This lack of effective institutional mechanism led to poor support to the effective implementation of SWM plans. Audit scrutiny revealed that none of the ULBs had a dedicated SWM cell. They also were short of manpower in all cadres (environmental engineer: 32%, health inspectors: 70%; pourkarmikas: 65%). Thirty two out of the 35 ULBs were yet to identify sites for disposal of construction and demolition waste. Consequently, construction debris were dumped on the road side, near water bodies and in low-lying areas.

Segregation of waste at different levels was either absent or partial in all ULBs. The state/ district/ULBs also failed to notify the classification of items as domestic hazardous waste. Similarly, auditors observed during the joint inspection visits that occupational waste (cut beedi leaves and ash) was mixed with regular SWM during collection. This led to a curious situation where the need to segregate those items received no publicity and mixed waste reached landfills, posing health hazards. The auditors also observed that ULBs did not create adequate awareness amongst the workforce to use protective equipment.

The audit found that the ULBs were able to collect only 92% of the waste generated and could process only 26% of it. This meant that a large amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) was regularly dumped at landfills, posing harm to health and environment. The audit also revealed that the quantum of special waste and construction and demolition waste (C&D Waste) were not available with either KSPCB or DMA/ULBs.

CAG auditors severely indicted ULBs for shortage of primary collection vehicles to the extent of 57%. They pointed out that open vehicles and vehicles without necessary partition were being used for transportation of waste. Absence of a functional GPS-based vehicle tracking system resulted in unauthorised dumping of waste on the bank of river Kabini in Nanjangud.

The auditors also raised an alarm about how the KSPCB had failed to discharge its duty. “ULBs were operating disposal facilities without valid authorisation from KSPCB and necessary environmental clearance. The required buffer zone around the landfill sites were not maintained. Activities that do not conform to the provisions of MSW/SWM Rules were taken up in landfill sites. There was evidence of unscientific dumping and burning of mixed waste in the landfills.”

In November 2007, the Karnataka government had given permission for diversion of two hectares of forest land in survey no 108A of Manki village for creating the SWM processing facility of Kumta Town Municipal Corporation (TMC). The community around the site protested against this move under the banner of Marur Gudda Hithrakshna Samiti. The Kumta TMC then identified alternative land. In April 2009, the state government gave a fresh approval without obtaining sanction from the Union ministry of environment and forest for diversion of forest land. This move was challenged through a writ petition before the National Green Tribunal. The NGT, in February 2017, held the government order of April 2009 null and void.

Meanwhile, Kumta TMC had continued to dump solid waste on the said land in anticipation of a favourable judgement by NGT. Till February 2017, 27,740 tons of waste had been dumped. Following the NGT decision, Kumta TMC had to transport the accumulated waste to the landfill in Honnavara.

The CAG sharply criticised authorities stating, “The action of ULB to dump waste in forest land when the matter was subjudice was therefore incorrect, resulting in pollution of the forest area besides unfruitful expenditure of Rs 37.60 lakh towards lease-rent, afforestation etc.”

Environmental activists need to prepare for another round of protracted campaign to drive home the message emerging from this environmental audit that tells us what the harsh ground realities around the execution of environmental regulations are in Karnataka.

(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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Waste disposal: CAG raises alarm, but do ULBs care?

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