Waste quandary

Waste quandary

A waste management expert voices his concerns about our misguided and selective approach to cleanliness

A waste management expert voices his concerns about our misguided and selective approach to cleanliness

At the outset, let me thank Prime Minister Modi for the Clean India Campaign. The society has at least started discussing “waste”—waste on the streets, waste in the parks, waste on the riverfront and waste lying next to your favorite stall of chole kulchey or pani puri. It’s interesting to note how the campaign has been able to register that there is “waste” around us and it is waiting to be managed properly.

It’s easy to come across a discussion on waste these days—in the bus or metro, at a marriage party, in discussions on news channels, at ad agencies, in discussions over coffee, at a chaupaal and most of all, at a plethora of conferences, seminars and workshops on waste management. The whole industry is coming together to pool their ideas on ways to manage waste.

The campaign is not only being talked about in, but even outside India. We have somehow been able to tell the world that even Indians acknowledge that the streets are “smelly” and not normal.

Such a good sign!

But wait a minute. Is it really? Have we given a thought to how many rag-pickers are benefitting from this campaign? How many recyclers are getting the support they need? How many communities, who have been sorting our waste for generations, get heard? How many scrap dealers are telling you sugary stories? How many entrepreneurs are getting the much needed help?

And if none of them are benefitting from the Clean India Campaign, then who is? Is the entire saga just intended to bring in huge investors who would establish some fancy waste treatment plant outside your neighborhood and either burn all your waste or make compost that wouldn’t sell? In my opinion, it would have made more sense if the government had invited a group of rag-pickers or scrap dealers along with each celebrity, instead of merely asking Anil Ambani or Smriti Irani to sweep the streets for the photo-op of Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan.

The irony is that intellectuals from the sector, who attend several colloquiums on waste management, still fancy wasteful materials like plastic folders and mementoes and have their three-course meals in plastic disposables. What a waste!

Why can’t we simply use bone china or jute bags? Or even better, just ask invitees to carry their stationery with them. Why consume more and then waste more and then conduct a conference on what to do about the waste thus produced? I was impressed by Shankar Aggarwal, secretary of the Union Ministry of Urban Development, who said to the event management company at a recent waste management summit, “When will you stop giving us these mementoes – they are nothing but sheer waste!”

Small entrepreneurs wait

One often spots a large number of management graduates at these waste management conferences, looking for ideas and asking around, “Can I make money from waste?” I almost say, “Wow, the world has changed”. But then, I think of our obfuscated policy structure, still evolving legislation and the way authorities and, on the contrary, the informal sector deal with “waste”, and am suddenly bitten by reality. The sector still has a long way to go before it becomes accessible to budding entrepreneurs.

India needs a policy that actually starts treating waste as a resource in order to encourage entrepreneurs to implement innovative ideas of making wealth from waste sustainably whether environmentally, socially or even financially. In fact, few entrepreneurs and communities have attempted establishing easy-to-run waste-treatment plants that cost less than a hundred thousand rupees, and can manage more than 50 per cent of our waste locally (Read Make wealth from waste).

But the government seems obsessed with expensive and complex technologies that cost a few hundred crores instead, without considering if they would be suitable in the Indian context. The government expects to first spend crores to establish a city-level waste treatment plant and then spend another few crores daily on fuel for vehicles, adding to traffic jams just to transport something that we call “waste” to a centralised treatment plant.

The model hasn't worked for decades. How does the government expect it to work magically all of a sudden? The need of the hour is to shift our focus from financially intensive and socially unacceptable centralised composting or incineration plants to decentralised waste treatment plants. The government needs to encourage small enterprises to manage local waste locally.

Putting the onus on citizens

Nowadays, we often hear statements like “Society needs to change!” or “People need to have better civic sense!” I do understand that with better civic sense, citizens would refrain from littering. But is that all that is required? Isn’t it also the responsibility of the government to provide at least basic infrastructure in the form of dustbins where citizens can dump their waste?

Isn’t putting the entire onus on citizens like skimming the surface? Aren’t local bodies supposed to improve the infrastructure simultaneously? And spread awareness simultaneously?

Awareness cannot be achieved by merely uploading photos of celebrities sweeping streets. What is required is an organised awareness programme in every neighbourhood of the country, telling citizens what to do with their waste. They must be told how to segregate and compost waste. It is imperative to educate everyone at home and our domestic help about our collective responsibility as waste-generators.

Initiatives like regular street plays, informative posters and training programmes for RWAs must accompany the photo uploads. We must at least help active RWAs and self-help groups with their waste management initiatives, instead of quoting a plethora of rules and regulations, explaining why they are not allowed to establish a little composting plant in their neighbourhood park.

I think all of us are party to the state of waste management in our country. The Clean India Campaign has raised everyone’s expectations and I pray that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan doesn’t turn out to be as superficial as the campaigns for cleaning Ganga and Yamuna.

Satwik Mudgal is senior research associate at Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment. He is currently assessing policy structure, best practices and roles of different stakeholders in municipal solid waste management in India and suggesting the way forward.

Down To Earth