There is no Indian policy document which examines waste as part of a cycle of production-consumption-recovery or perceives waste through a prism of overall sustainability. In fact, interventions have been fragmented and are often contradictory. The new Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules 2000, which came into effect from January 2004, fail even to manage waste in a cyclic process. Waste management still is a linear system of collection and disposal, creating health and environmental hazards.

Urban India is likely to face a massive waste disposal problem in the coming years. Until now, the problem of waste has been seen as one of cleaning and disposing as rubbish. But a closer look at the current and future scenario reveals that waste needs to be treated holistically, recognising its natural resource roots as well as health impacts. Waste can be wealth, which has tremendous potential not only for generating livelihoods for the urban poor but can also enrich the earth through composting and recycling rather than spreading pollution as has been the case. Increasing urban migration and a high density of population will make waste management a difficult issue to handle in the near future, if a new paradigm for approaching it is not created.

Developing countries such as India are undergoing a massive migration of their population from rural to urban centres. New consumption patterns and social linkages are emerging. India will have more than 40 per cent, i.e. over 400 million people, clustered in cities over the next thirty years (UN, 1995). Modern urban living brings on the problem of waste, which increases in quantity, and changes in composition with each passing day. There is, however, an inadequate understanding of the problem, both of infrastructure requirements as well as its social dimensions. Urban planners, municipal agencies, environmental regulators, labour groups, citizens’ groups and non-governmental organisations need to develop a variety of responses which are rooted in local dynamics, rather than borrow non-contextual solutions from elsewhere.

There have been a variety of policy responses to the problem of urban solid waste in India, especially over the past few years, yet sustainable solutions either of organic or inorganic waste remain untapped and unattended. All policy documents as well as legislation dealing with urban solid waste mention or acknowledge recycling as one of the ways of diverting waste, but they do so in a piece-meal manner and do not address the framework needed to enable this to happen. Critical issues such as industry responsibility, a critical paradigm to enable sustainable recycling and to catalyse waste reduction through, say better packing, have not been touched upon.

Any new paradigm should include a cradle-to-grave approach with responsibility being shared by many stakeholders, including product manufacturers, consumers and communities, the recycling industry, trade, municipalities and the urban poor.

What is our waste?

Consumption, linked to per capita income, has a strong relationship with waste generation. As per capita income rises, more savings are spent on goods and services, especially when the transition is from a low income to a middle-income level. Urbanisation not only concentrates waste, but also raises generation rates since rural consumers consume less than urban ones. India will probably see a rise in waste generation from less than 40,000 metric tonnes per year to over 125,000 metric tonnes by the year 2030 (Srishti, 2000). Technologies, which can process organic wastes have to be a mainstay to any solution. The Supreme Court appointed the Burman Committee (1999), which rightly recommended that composting should be carried out in each municipality. Composting is probably the easiest and most appropriate technology to deal with a majority of our waste, given its organic nature.

However, new and expensive technologies are being pushed to deal with our urban waste problem, ignoring their environmental and social implications. It is particularly true in the case of thermal treatment of waste using technologies such as gasification, incineration, pyrolysis or pellatisation. Indian waste content does not provide enough fuel value (caloric value) for profitable energy production (and is unlikely to do so soon). It needs the addition of auxiliary fuel or energy. Such technologies put communities to risk and are opposed widely. For example, the United States has not been able to install a new incinerator for the past five years, while costs for burning garbage have escalated astronomically with rising environmental standards in Europe.

For developing countries, recycling of waste is the most economically viable option available both in terms of employment generation for the urban poor with no skills and investment.
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While the more developed countries are doing away with incinerators because of high costs (due to higher standards of emission control), developing countries have become potential markets for dumping such technologies. Incinerators routinely emit dioxins, furans and polychlorinated by-phenyls (PCB), which are deadly toxins, casing cancer and endocrine system damage. Other conventional toxins such as mercury, heavy metals are also released. Pollution control costs for incinerators can exceed over 50 per cent of their already astronomical cost, and an incinerator for 2,000 metric tonnes of waste per day can cost over 500 million US dollars. Ironically, the better the air control works, the more pollutants are transferred to land and water, through scrubbers and filters and the problem of safe landfill disposal of the ash remains.

Again, such measures go against the requirements of the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules 2000, which asks for source segregation of waste for cleaner composting and recycling. The lessons of incinerating Indian urban waste do not seem to have been learnt, despite a disastrous experience with a Dutch-funded incinerator in Delhi. It ran for just one week in 1984, since the calorific value of the fuel was less than half of that the incinerator needed.

Policy responses

At the national policy level, the ministry of environment and forests has recently legislated the Municipal Waste Management and Handling Rules 2000. This law details the practices to be followed by the various municipalities for managing urban waste. However, the response has been segmented and far from satisfactory.

First, it does not address mechanisms which will be needed for promoting recycling, or waste minimisation. Secondly, there is no provision for any public participation, despite the fact that the Rules have been an outcome of public pressure and the immense work done by non-government organisations and community groups in this area. Other recent policy documents include the Ministry of Urban Affairs’ Shukla Committee’s Report (January 2000) the Supreme Court appointed Burman Committee’s Report (March 1999), and the Report of the National Plastic Waste Management Task Force (August 1997).

But the present rules and regulations are inadequate both in terms of assessing environmental impact of waste and its economic and social implications. For developing countries, recycling of waste is the most economically viable option available both in terms of employment generation for the urban poor with no skills and investment. Indirectly this also preserves the natural resources going down the drains. Some local governments have taken initiatives to burn waste through incineration or gasification for insignificant electricity generation at astronomical cost and with dangerous environmental impacts, and which will take away the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of the urban poor.

Urban poverty, informal recycling sector and livelihood questions

Urban poverty is inextricably linked with waste. In India alone, over a million people find livelihood opportunities in the area of waste; they are engaged in waste collection (popularly known as ragpicking) and recycling through well-organised systems. A substantial population of urban poor in other developing countries also earn their livelihood through waste. It is important to understand issues of waste in this context. The informal sector dealing with waste is engaged in various types of work like waste picking, sorting, recycling and at the organised level, door-to-door collection, composting and recycling recovery. The municipalities in many developing countries do not do any recycling recovery on their own.

Recycling of only some types of materials like plastics, paper and metals is not enough. A recycling research carried out by Srishti revealed that many types of new materials mainly used for packaging are not, or indeed cannot be, recycled in the low-end technology being employed. Besides, there are serious issues of poor occupational safety provisions of the waste pickers as well as workers. This sector faces a severe threat from the new business model approach to managing waste being promoted, without any attempts to integrate existing systems in them. There is an urgent need to build upon existing systems instead of attempting to replace them blindly with models from developed countries.

The Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation, as well as Agriculture, should develop the market for compost, and if required provide subsidies for compost manure – first to provide organic soil nutrients to the farmers and to solve the urban waste problem which continuously is polluting land through uncontrolled dumping.

India’s Green Revolution rescued the nation from famines, but left over 11.6 million hectares of low-productivity, nutrient-depleted soils ruined by unbalanced and excessive use of synthetic fertilisers and lack of organic manure or micronutrients. City compost can fill this need and solve both the problems of barren land and organic nutrient shortages, estimated at six million tons a year. India’s 35 largest cities alone can provide 5.7 million tonnes a year of organic manure if their biodegradable waste is composted and returned to the soil. Integrated plant nutrient management, using city compost along with synthetic fertilisers, can generate enormous national savings as well as cleaning urban India. There is scarcely any other national programme which can bring such huge benefits to both urban and rural sectors.

Municipal response

The Green Revolution left over 11.6 million hectares of low-productivity, nutrient-depleted soils ruined by unbalanced and excessive use of synthetic fertilisers and lack of organic manure or micronutrients. City compost can fill this need and solve both the problems of barren land and organic nutrient shortages.
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At another level, the trend in cities in developing countries is to shift the traditional municipal responsibility to private actors without considering the host of existing stakeholders. Also upstream focuses such as making producers responsible for packaging waste are lacking. Excessive reliance is placed on technologies many of which are expensive with high environmental and economic ramifications. For instance, installing an incinerator leaves the question of waste recycling - or toxic environmental impacts - unanswered.

Merely replacing one centralised system by another does not change waste behaviour on its own, or ensure continued livelihood opportunities for those who live off waste such as waste-pickers. It also does not ensure that economically deprived communities in metropolitan cities in particular (four metropolitan cities have nearly more then 300,000 livelihoods) and 40 per cent of the urban poor have cleaner neighbourhoods. Often such replacement has direct and hidden subsidies, mostly at the expense of poorer communities and the environment. For instance, waste disposal sifting is often done in poorer neighbourhoods, leading to groundwater and other types of contamination.

Though community projects are working well and fulfilling the greater objectives of environmental safety and natural resource conservation, they are doing so under great economic and social stress. There is neither the recognition nor support for such work by the different institutions from various stakeholders. Hence there is a need to bring the work into the larger public space and review the rules and regulations both for enhancing and providing incentive to such community waste management systems.

Composting: the environmentally and economically sustainable solution

Composting of city wastes is a legal requirement provided under the Municipal Solid Waste Management (MSW) Rules 2000 for all municipal bodies in the country. But neither the central nor the state governments have yet responded to show any kind of preparedness for it, nor have they been able to grasp it as an environmental and social good that requires official support which can generate employment. The MSW Rules 2000 requires that “biodegradable wastes shall be processed by composting, vermi-composting, anaerobic digestion or any other appropriate biological processing for the stabilisation of wastes”. The specified deadline for setting up of waste processing and disposal facilities was 31 December 2003 or earlier.

The production and sale of city compost is not the primary function of city administrations, but it will need to be privatised for optimum efficiency and care. Several entrepreneurs have already entered the field and many compost plants are in place, almost all on public land made available at a nominal cost. These companies are willing to wait for the five to seven years payback on their investment, but are facing tremendous problems of producing compost from unsegregated wastes, and of marketing and distributing their product. The government is indifferent to the problems of these compost producers (i.e. a working capital crunch because of highly seasonal demand) and to farmers’ needs (i.e., timely, easily accessible availability of affordable compost).

The Fertiliser Association of India, the leading lobby group for synthetic fertilisers, is focused on protecting the fertiliser producers’ massive subsidies (Rs 142,500 million annually) for their chemical fertilisers – subsidies from which the farmers do not benefit. This situation is increasingly coming under national debate. Just 12 per cent of this annual subsidy would meet the one-time capital cost of city compost plants in India’s 400 largest cities (which include cities with populations of over 100,000 people) and would be able to produce 5.7 million tonnes a year of organic soil conditioners. Integrated plant nutrient management (IPNM) would also reduce the foreign exchange burden on the Indian exchequer because bulk supplies of phosphorus and potassium must be imported. In addition, the government of India spends Rs 43.19 million on phosphorus and potassium concessions alone. (Phosphorous is used to store and transfer energy within the plant. It is used in forming nucleic acids (DNA, RNA). Potassium remains in tissues in ionic form and is not used in the synthesis of new compounds as are nitrogen and phosphorous. Potassium is mobile in plants and tends to move from older to younger, more active growing tissue.)

Emphasising IPNM using city compost, which can be produced all over the country can be a successful strategy if a focused inter-ministerial effort is made. However, in spite of the fact that the Ministry of Agriculture renamed its Department of Fertilisers as the “Department of Integrated Nutrient Management” a year ago, no policy changes have taken place whatsoever. A proposed Task Force including the agriculture and fertiliser ministries may soon formulate an Action Plan for IPNM.

The real economic benefits of compost use, like improved soil quality, water retention, biological activity, micronutrient content and improved pest resistance of crops, are ignored by policy-makers and fertiliser producers. Fertiliser producers do not yet realise that preventing soil depletion and reclaiming degraded soils would in fact increase the size of the market and therefore, also their market share, which is currently threatened by globalisation and world prices that undercut their own. Since most large fertiliser plants are government-owned, another threat is the government’s intended policy of closing down loss-making public-sector enterprises and disinvesting from profitable ones.

Preliminary surveys on municipalities' preparedness in implementing the MSW Rules 2000 show that the majority of the cities are yet to embark on city-wide implementation of door-to-door collection of waste, source segregation, composting of organics, recycling and creating engineered and safe landfill sites for residual waste disposal. The municipalities were given three years time to make such preparations but most of them have not even woken up. This is the regard given to the apex court’s verdict. Whether municipalities will enforce the MSW Rules 2000 and provide cleaner and healthier cities is yet to be seen. For now, the risk remains that MSW Rules will become yet another policy to gather dust due to government apathy.