A new book exposes the lacunae in the way India manages its waste and recommends changes in practices and attitudes toward waste. Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron, authors of the book, speak to Swati Singh Sambyal on the layered challenges of managing solid waste
Why have you named the book Waste of a Nation?
You can read the title in number of ways. You can say the book is about discarded materials in India. If you read the title the way people say "what a waste of effort?" it seems to suggest "what a waste of nationhood and its potential!" The title also seems to include the human factor, asking whether those people, who deal with waste, are also despicable and "waste". It is for the readers to think and decide.
Where did the idea of this book come from and where all did it take you?
In 2013, we came up with a book Cell Phone Nation where we documented grassroots economies of repair and recycling around mobile phones. While working on the book, we realised that there is a hidden economy of waste recovery. High-value materials like gold, silver and copper are reclaimed from discarded electronics by grinding, burning, pulverising and treating them chemically. While these dangerous practices are rampant, wider questions about the politics of waste, including dumping of toxic material in Third World countries and the cultural and social dimensions of waste management and public sanitation began to emerge. There was a need to understand India’s complex relationship with waste. From Kolkata to Thiruvananthapuram, we visited several towns and cities across 14 states to learn from those who deal with waste in different ways.
What do you think are the lacunae in the way India manages municipal solid waste?
Local government bodies are underpowered—in terms of authority and human resource. In spite of the 73rd and 74th amendments giving constitutional status to rural and urban local bodies, there is a colonial hangover—an attitude that local governments are there to receive orders from the states and take the blame when things go wrong. That is why very few people devote their careers to local governments and try to understand complex problems of public sanitation that local governments deal with. There are remarkable officials in the public sanitation sector, but there aren’t enough of them, and they too work in unrewarding and dispiriting environments.
How can urban local bodies work more efficiently?
Waste management is an expensive service. Many local government bodies collect only a fraction of the taxes they are entitled to get. Those taxes are essential for providing services. Urban local bodies should have the authority to collect rightful dues from the citizens. They also need employees who are able to deliver those services and evaluate new technologies being tested and marketed elsewhere. We need to induct workers into the waste management system in ways that draw on their experience and offer dignity and reward in return of reliable service. Close liaison with citizens, including demonstrations and follow-ups, is needed. These are not impossible tasks, but India needs dedicated officials and citizens to do them.
How do you perceive the Swachh Bharat Mission?
The mission has exposed persistent problem of waste, poor sanitation and public health. It has appealed to those who want to see India “green and clean”. But such a target-driven campaign with a top-down approach can be futile. There is an echo of the disastrous vasectomy campaign between 1975-77. We hope that those driving Swachh Bharat Mission can combine public hygiene practices with policies calibrated for local conditions to foster wider cooperation. This needs empowering of local governments and drawing on the experience of civil society organisations so that local knowledge is incorporated in policy and practice.
Which cities are doing commendable work on waste management?
We cannot single out individual places. What we can say is that successful waste management requires motivated people—from technical experts to civil society groups and waste pickers themselves—working relentlessly with local governments to use technologies appropriate for local circumstances. Sustaining such systems and ensuring they do not collapse when individuals leave is a challenge.
What is your opinion on the adoption of waste-to-energy technology in India? Is it viable considering the low calorific value in our waste?
High-combustion incinerators are relatively safer than low combustion-based technologies, and they work impressively in Japan and Sweden. They need a steady supply of dry and high-calorie waste along with regular maintenance. If these requirements aren’t met, they break down, spew nasty gases and don’t generate much electricity. They are also very expensive. In 2000, Singapore set up the biggest incinerator for more than US$500 million. It can deal with 3,000 tonnes of waste a day and generates up to 80 megawatts of electricity—enough to power about 80,000 US households. Some large cities in India can explore high- combustion incinerators, provided they meet stringent technological requirements. Moreover, it would take three times the size of incineration plants in Singapore to handle Delhi’s daily waste, if it is dry and high in calorie, which is often not the case.
What is the way ahead?
Technologies can ease waste management processes, but the danger lies in imposing single technical and organisational solution everywhere. Even something as simple as a rural toilet is a bit complicated: what works in Uttar Pradesh may not be suitable in Tamil Nadu. Behavioural change is also important, along with education and relentless follow-ups, but crude stigmatising—photographing or blowing whistles at people defecating in the open—is a loutish and counterproductive way of tackling a problem.
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