The collapse of a great wall of garbage in east Delhi’s Ghazipur area, sweeping people and vehicles into a nearby canal, is a stark reminder that India’s neglected waste management crisis can have deadly consequences. More than a year after the notification of the much-delayed Solid Waste Management Rules, cities and towns are in no position to comply with its stipulations, beginning with the segregation of different kinds of waste at source and their scientific processing. Neither are urban local governments treating the 62 million tonnes of waste generated annually in the country as a potential resource. They have left the task of value extraction mostly to the informal system of garbage collectors and recyclers. Improving on the national record of collecting only 80% of waste generated and being able to process just 28% of that quantum, requires behaviour modification among citizens and institutions. But what is more important is that the municipal bodies put in place an integrated system to transport and process what has been segregated at source. The Swachh Bharat programme of the Centre has focused too narrowly on individual action to keep streets clean, without concurrent pressure on State and municipal authorities to move closer to scientific management by the deadline of April 2018 set for most places, and arrest the spread of pollution from trash.
In the absence of stakeholders at the local body level, recoverable resources embedded in discarded materials are lost due to dumping. Organic refuse, which forms about 50% of all garbage, readily lends itself to the generation of compost or production of methane for household use or power generation. But it is a major opportunity lost. Organic waste that could help green cities and feed small and affordable household biogas plants is simply being thrown away. It is also ironic that while some countries such as Rwanda and Kenya have introduced stiff penalties for the use of flimsy plastic bags, India is doing little to prevent them from drifting into suburban garbage mountains, rivers, lakes and the sea, and being ingested by cattle feeding on dumped refuse. A new paradigm is needed, in which bulk waste generators take the lead and city managers show demonstrable change in the way it is processed. There has to be a shift away from large budgets for collection and transport by private contractors, to the processing of segregated garbage. As the nodal body for the implementation of the new rules, the Central Pollution Control Board should put out periodic assessments of the preparedness of urban local bodies in the run-up to the deadline. Without a rigorous approach, the national problem of merely shifting city trash to the suburbs, out of sight of those who generate it, will fester and choke the landscape. Considering that waste volumes are officially estimated to grow to 165 million tonnes a year by 2030, many more suburbs are bound to be threatened by collapsing or burning trash mountains.