Years of neglect, lack of foresight and complete absence of urban planning has left India staring at mountains of waste-landfills, waste-choked drains, water bodies and rivers. This is called “legacy waste”, a cumulative consequence of decades of neglect and lack of foresight.
There are about 48 recognised landfills across India, together covering nearly 5,000 acres of land, with a total land value of about Rs 100,000 crore.
India generates about 275 million tonnes of waste per year. With current waste treatment rates of about 20-25%, this leaves majority of waste untreated, in a heap, on landfills, and an equal amount in drains and river bodies.
The Deonar dumpsite in Mumbai is an example. This is the oldest landfill in India, and was set up in 1929. It covers about 325 acres, receives 5,500 metric tonnes of waste, 600 metric tonnes of silt and 25 tonnes of bio-medical waste daily. Mumbai city generates about 7,500 metric tonnes of waste daily. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has recently commissioned a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant which will treat 600 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste every day. Clearly the plant is not positioned to deal with the everyday fresh waste, let alone treat “legacy waste”, that is the Deonar dumpsite.
Drains and water bodies, emptying out into Indian rivers, also carry with them an unimaginable amount of waste. The Ganga is among the top 10 polluted rivers in the world, together accounting for 90% of the total ocean plastic pollution.
India faces a seemingly insurmountable challenge of treating and getting rid of the legacy waste, with simultaneous and continuous accumulation of fresh everyday waste. India generates the most waste globally, and if urgent measures are not put into place, by 2050, our waste generation will double.
Central, state, city and municipal governments, over decades, have not been able to prevent this situation, nor deal with its scale. For a country the size of India, there are about 92 large WTE plants. Of these, only a small fraction is operational, and the plants that are operational, run at suboptimal capacity. State governments have, so far, invested an estimated Rs 10,000 crore in such plants.
The task now is to be clear on what needs to be done, on what has not been done, or done incorrectly, and to ensure correct execution of a national mission. Here are some suggestions that may be pertinent.
First, municipalities need to have access to affordable technology which has been piloted and validated under Indian conditions. Today, most of the technology/equipment needed for waste management is imported, expensive and often not suited in our varied local situations. India needs affordable, decentralised, customised solutions for its land-constrained complex city matrix. For example, amphibian equipment to clean water bodies is imported and can work well for large water bodies. Indigenisation of design and manufacturing of such equipment for smaller drains and water bodies is essential. Robotic long-hand scavenging machines to unclog drains, booms which filter and prevent waste in our drains entering a larger water body are some examples, where Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) needs to kick in immediately. Entry to drains in India is choked with pan masala, shampoo sachets, chips/kurkure packets and so on. These are major problems unique to India and require both community and technological solutions.
The next suggestion for focused action is the ease of procurement. Evolving a less cumbersome process for the procurement of technology and equipment is imperative. State governments are hit by a double whammy due to lack of technology and an immutable and rigid procurement system. BMC took almost seven years to finalise the bid for a Deonar waste to energy plant.
The third area where speedy change is needed is policy. A direction which can accelerate the removal of waste exponentially is needed. One way, used internationally, is to unlock the land value under landfills. Allowing agencies, companies or industry that clear waste, to own the land (fully or partially as per mutually agreed terms) can fund the clean-up. A land payback can be a major incentive to recover the estimated 5,000 acres of prime land taken up by landfills. Rough calculations suggest that the value of the 77 acres of land under the Ghazipur landfill is worth at least Rs 1500 crore. These calculations ignore the socioeconomic benefits of cleaning a site which harbours disease and is a pernicious source of pollution to land, water and air.
The fourth area needing urgent attention is the development of skilled and trained professional personnel to operate and maintain the waste management chain, right from collection, operation and maintenance of waste-handling plants. This needs to done with full use of mechanisation.
The fifth and final focus area is to move to a zero-waste society. India was traditionally a society where little was wasted and everything could be reused and recycled. Sweden is now importing waste for some of its plants and there is definitely value in all the waste generated and any investment needed is an investment for a clean and secure future.
Central, and integral to success, is design. Design in the collection, of centralised and decentralised waste treatment plants, and of the equipment used. Design of waste management should be the bedrock of a well-planned smart city, town or village.
A well-designed waste-management strategy, cognisant of Indian constraints, will be the hallmark of Swachh Bharat, Swasth Bharat and Unnat Bharat.
Science and technology must be the fulcrum to provide solutions to the waste challenges faced by the country, a challenge which is both urgent and important, and can be ignored at our own peril.