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The central and the state governments urgently need to evolve a system by which municipalities and corporations are empowered to collect a 'user fee' to deal with the waste the citizen is producing every day. 

Waste generation per capita varies from 170 grams per person per day in small towns to 600 grams in cities. So, he needs to be charged for its management! Fair enough! The municipalities, in turn, could pass on benefits in terms of innovative incentives to resident welfare associations and citizen groups to promote and encourage positive solid waste management practices

In the wake of the recent sordid developments in the Karnataka political scene, everyone in the country is talking of cleansing politics. Personally, however, I find myself much more interested cleaning up the environment in our cities and towns, especially waste management. 

“Waste Management – an introduction” a book authored by my distinguished colleague, Dr Rajat Bhargava, (currently serving as Special Commissioner in the office of the Resident Commissioner of Andhra Pradesh State at Delhi), was released last week and is the immediate inspiration for this week’s subject. 

The selection of Greater Bombay by the Government of India as the cleanest state capital, in a survey that covered over 2,700 urban agglomerations, astonished even the ‘Mumbaikars’ appearing on TV channels, who wondered if their city, filled with waste dumps and choked drains, could stand first, then what the rest should be looking like.

Delhi, the city I have lived in for a long time, can surely not be in such a race. It generates 8,300 (some say 10,000) metric tonnes of waste every day. Recently, the Supreme Court exclaimed that beacon lights could soon be needed on the mountains of garbage in Delhi to warn away approaching aircraft! It also warned that Delhi was in danger of getting submerged under waste very soon. 

The Court was referring to the landfills on three sides of Delhi. The waste in the northern and western parts of the city is carted away and thrown into the Bhalaswa landfill (55 m high), that from East Delhi to the one in Gazipur (50 m), and the South waste to Okhla. The Court also observed, clearly in a sarcastic manner, that these would soon exceed the Qutb Minar (73 m) in height! International regulations have it that such dumps should not exceed 25–30 m in height and, in terms of volume, not more than 15 metric tonnes. 

Landfill sites are expected to have an impervious membrane leading the base so that toxins do not seep into the soil, and contaminate groundwater. Not only is this not the case in our country, but the fills also lack proper and designated wells to collect leachate and methane emissions. In addition, they have steep slopes, which contribute to a dangerous lack of stability. Last year, the Gazipur land fill collapsed under its own weight, killing two people. One wonders when the turn of the other fills will come.

It has been estimated that, every year, municipalities in our country produce about 62 metric tonnes of waste, of which the metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata contribute 10 metric tonnes each. In the country as a whole, about 150 thousand metric tones of waste is produced daily, which is one of the highest amounts in the world. A Parliamentary Committee observed in 2016 that of all the municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in the country, only 33,000 tonnes were being treated and disposed of in a day.

The Vice President of India, while releasing Rajat’s book, indicated that three R’s can be used for waste control – namely, ‘reduction, recycling and reuse.’ Of these three, the ‘reduce’ part is not practical in a country, such as India which is witnessing rapid urbanisation. What, in fact, we should strive to do is to reduce the number of landfills, because nearly 20% of methane gas emissions in our country are an account of them. Metals like nickel, zinc, arsenic, lead and chromium, among others, which are present in the solid waste in metro cities, can also contaminate groundwater and create serious health hazards.

We have already noted that landfills in India are not being constructed according to laid down specifications. It is also not easy to manage them unless dry and wet wastes are properly segregated. And, 30% of the waste generated is inert material and 50% biodegradable, each, needing separate methods of treatment. Although much publicity has been given to the need for segregating the wet and dry wastes in homes, the practice unfortunately continues, of dumping them together in one place.

Some say that waste should be used for generating electricity in a waste-to-energy mode. The Gazipur landfill power project produces 12 MW of electricity from 2000 tonnes of waste – but that is only sufficient for supplying electricity to some 50 households! It is found that the calorific value of the waste was not more than 1200 Kcal/kg to 1300 Kcal/kg; the international standard for waste-to-energy plants being 1700 Kcal/kg (on account of the nature of items disposed in the developed countries) so experts tell us that it is neither practicable nor economically feasible to generate electricity using the waste in landfills. 

It is found that it is much better to burn the waste in an incinerator, turn it into ash, and use it in construction of buildings, roads etc. If this is done, nearly 70% of waste can be got rid of. But, as has already been said, the separation of inert and biodegradable material is essential. There is no point in expecting people to do this in their homes, even if they are made aware of the need to do so. The only manner in which it can be ensured is to employ staff or machines, using the funds available under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA).

At this point, one wonders what impact the SBA has had on waste management. It aimed at building nearly 12 crore toilets, in addition to undertaking programmes related to solid and liquid waste management, waste segregation and spreading awareness about sanitation. The total estimated cost at Rs 1.96 lakh crore is a huge burden, if borne solely by the Central government. Thus came into being, with effect from November 2015, the 0.5% Swachh Bharat cess, the proceeds of which are to be credited to the Consolidated Fund of India and then transferred to a non-lapsable Rashtriya Swachhta Kosh, (RSK). 

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has pointed out nearly a quarter of Rs 16,400 crore collected during 2015-17 did not get credited to the dedicated fund, commenting that "the rules stipulated that the resources of RSK were to be distributed in the ratio of 80:20 between Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) and Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban). However, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation expended the entire amount on Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) without leaving any provision for Swachch Bharat Mission (Urban)". This may be one reason why cities like Delhi are languishing for attention. 

Solid waste management (SWM) and disposal is considered one of the pillars of the SBA, which aimed at achieving the target of building sound SWM plants, and achieving 100% door-to-door segregated garbage collection by 2019. It needs to be noted here that SWM is a state subject, with the mandate of providing services relating to SWM lying with Urban Local Bodies (ULB)s or municipal governments. 

They could have provided the services at a fee to be charged from the user. Instead, the Central government collected the cess and, after introduction of Goods and Service Tax (GST) on July 1, 2017, the cess was withdrawn along with others. The government made it mandatory for 30 per cent of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to be utilised by corporate entities for SBA. Response, however, has been poor. The previous year’s figures show that the private sector managed to raise only Rs 246 crore.  

The central and the state governments urgently need to evolve a system by which municipalities and corporations are empowered to collect a 'user fee' to deal with the waste the citizen is producing every day. Waste generation per capita varies from 170 grams per person per day in small towns to 600 grams in cities. So, he needs to be charged for its management! Fair enough! The municipalities, in turn, could pass on benefits in terms of innovative incentives to Residents Welfare Associations and Citizen’s groups to promote and encourage positive SWM practices. 

Having started SBA with a clear and progressive intent, the central government must now ensure that the programme’s objectives are realised by guiding and making state governments and ULBs stakeholders in SBA.