Waste: managing a new inequality

Waste: managing a new inequality

Whether it is seemingly harmless piles of trash at street-corners or devastating chemical leakages, waste management by local authorities at all levels throughout India leaves much to be desired.

Indian law, in this respect, provides a seemingly robust mechanism to manage the disposal, and/or recycling, of solid waste. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 (SWM Rules), require all ‘waste generators’ to segregate, store, wrap and hand over waste to waste-pickers in a prescribed manner.

Waste generators are prohibited from throwing waste in open public spaces, burning or burying waste without proper permits. The SWM Rules also specify a vast number of conditions that must be satisfied so that a waste generator may undertake sanitary landfilling. Under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, contravention of these rules may attract a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh, or imprisonment of up to 5-7 years, or both. 

Why does a ‘garbage crisis’ exist across the country despite this mechanism? One reason is that administrations lack adequate financial resources to manage waste throughout a particular jurisdiction.

Waste collection and disposal is a labour-intensive process. It is governed by economies of density, that is, the more disperse a population is, the more difficult it is for waste-pickers to collect waste from the entire jurisdiction in a coordinated and consistent manner.

This problem is exacerbated in the case of rapidly expanding cities like Bengaluru.

Another reason may be the impracticality of regulating littering. Under the SWM Rules, “waste generators” include persons that generate waste irrespective of their economic capacity (such as street vendors, resident welfare and market associations, gated communities as well as hotels and restaurants). It is unreasonable and uneconomical to enforce legal provisions that impose liability on a small-scale waste generator for not complying with waste management standards.

It is difficult to ascertain the number of small-scale waste generators violating these rules. By contrast, penalising identifiable large corporations for violation of solid waste management rules is simpler. This is the reason why legal canons such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle may be successfully used to compel a company to pay for the costs of environmental damage in the event of, say, a factory leak.

Economic regulatory instruments such as taxes or similar charges, designed to deter waste-generation, involve complex policy decisions. For instance, companies involved in construction and demolition activities, as per the Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016, must obtain approvals and pay extra charges if the waste from such activities exceeds 20 tonnes a day or 300 tonnes a month. This can be expensive for industrial and real-estate developers and can curb entrepreneurial freedom.

Taxes designed to regulate the waste-generating activities of individuals (such as a tax, which increases for every incident of unwanted littering) are regressive — a street vendor cannot afford to pay a larger tax proportionate to the amount of waste he generates). Hence, the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act, 1976, prescribes a fixed solid waste management cess not exceeding Rs 500 on owners of property and motor vehicles.

Finally, mismanagement of urban waste is often, correctly, attributed to economic differences among citizens. There is an obvious trend in urban India of differences in infrastructure facilities and access to clean environments depending on the affluence of the neighbourhood, similar to the ‘environmental racism’ that plagued the US prior to the 1980s.

Lower-income communities simply cannot afford sanitary environments. They cannot hire alternative means of waste disposal (including expensive incinerators or private waste-collection agencies).

Approaching a court of law is not feasible, given the pendency of cases and the significant costs and time involved.

Complaints by poor communities of hazardous environmental conditions remain ignored, since such communities are often segregated from urban and more affluent areas. As a result, it is not difficult for toxic and foul-smelling open dump yards to be created near less affluent settlements. Low wages and insufficient sanitary safeguards for waste-pickers are another form of administrative injustice.

India’s ‘environmental classism’ is an evident emergency — open dump yards are only one among its many ugly symptoms. Improper waste management deprives economically disadvantaged citizens of the fundamental right to an environment that will give them the same opportunities of leading a disease-free, safe and meaningful life as the opportunities afforded to wealthier citizens.

That being said, almost every modern jurisdiction is unable to satisfactorily resolve the social inequality as regards waste management, because appropriate waste management methods are not viable.

The best policy tool available for the central administration is to strictly enforce prevention, reduction and recycling targets for local authorities, although this solution is not without its problems. Without administrative and budgetary priority to waste management, however, India’s garbage crisis will continue to rot in the open.

(The writer is a legal consultant and Assistant Professor, NLSIU)

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