Why India's waste management stinks


Cover of Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, a Manifesto for Change. Credits: Amazon.in
India ranks among the world’s 10 biggest producers of waste today and is projected to be in the top four within the decade. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been successful in raising awareness that the nation urgently needs to be cleaned, the fact is that five years since its launch, the country continues to reel under growing mountains of waste. Ankur Bisen’s Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, a Manifesto for Change  examines India’s sanitation challenge, tracing it to its historical and cultural roots. 

The questions aren’t new, but they still manage to raise a stink. How is it that India has caught up with the developed world as far as consumption is concerned but remains firmly in the middle ages when it comes to waste management? Why is India dumping 80 per cent of its garbage in open landfills without treating or processing it? And why are some Indians so fanatical about kitchen hygiene – but throw kitchen waste on the streets? Mr Bisen explores the reasons, historical, cultural and infrastructural, for the twisted Indian mindset on sanitation and the biases that force it to oscillate between pretense and ignorance.

At the root of India’s waste problem is a simple, indisputable fact — the role of citizens and waste management has never been defined. Individuals have never been guided or mandated on methods of disposing of their own waste. Predictably, Mr Bisen examines how notions of caste and purity have influenced Indian attitudes towards cleanliness and sanitation. Waste has traditionally been seen as ritually polluting and the job of an inferior “other” to pick up. This has resulted in a collective attitude that blames the garbage on the streets on the paucity or inefficiency of the municipal cleaning staff, instead of questioning why the garbage is there in the first place.

It is while examining the infrastructural and legislative weaknesses in the country’s waste management system hat Mr Bisen makes some excellent points. The job of waste management has largely been left to local municipal bodies. And although effective waste management today needs precise scientific inputs, upgraded infrastructure and legislation, the government has not empowered local civic bodies with any of this. To understand what good laws can achieve, one need not even look to the West; India’s cleanest state, Sikkim, has already enacted some of the country’s most effective laws governing waste and e-waste disposal. Mr Bisen examines laws in other “cleaner” countries to give a clearer understanding of what needs to be done in India. Seattle, for example, enforces a law that decrees that a household is also responsible for keeping clean the public area that is immediately outside. When it comes to waste segregation, Belgian law mandates that citizens segregate their waste into not two, but six (for glass, paper, plastic, e-waste, batteries and miscellaneous). The author seems slightly out of touch with reality when he suggests that a similar system be implemented in India, where agencies have not even been successful in persuading citizens to segregate their waste into two bins! The need perhaps, isn’t six different bins but a concerted effort to bring the issue of waste management into the mainstream. 

Comparisons of Indian waste management practices with those followed by “cleaner” countries throughout the book are interesting. Hong Kong, for instance, incentivises the on-site recycling and reuse of construction waste with favorable tax slabs. It emerges that cleaner countries tend to have waste management as a central or federal subject, instead of dealing with it at the local level. Japan is a striking standout: The author writes that it has enacted 25 Acts on waste management in the last 50 years! In recent years, all the laws Japan has passed pertain to the changing nature of waste. 
Some countries have become such successful recyclers of waste that they no longer have a lot of waste that goes into the landfill. Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria are now almost circular economies, which means that everything they use, gets reused.

Mr Bisen writes that India is at a crossroads: Either it can seek a new solution to waste management or benefit from new technologies and experiences of other countries. Whichever path the country chooses, garbage disposal and sanitation practices cannot, and should not, be viewed as merely the sum of sweepers and waste collectors available at any point in time.  

Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, a Manifesto for Change
Ankur Bisen 
Pan Macmillan India, 584 pages; Rs 699 

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