Waste management needs to be a priority

India has the dubious distinction of being fourth from the bottom in a recent global ranking on environment performance. Waste management has been a key weakness. Around 80 per cent of municipal waste gets collected but only about 25 per cent of this gets treated. About 70 per cent of the sewage generated is not treated and flows through drains. 

The quantity of chemicals, plastics, metals and other alloys in consumption keep increasing. Industrial activity generates non-biodegradable waste. With rainfall, chemicals in untreated waste flow into drains contaminating soils, water bodies and ground water. Many also get into the air through evaporation and make air pollution more hazardous. Plastics are strewn all over the country. Not managing waste has an adverse effect on human health. 

The massive toilet construction programme to make India open-defecation-free has been a very good beginning. Now is the time for Swachh Bharat to display greater ambition. The goal should be that within five to seven years all sewage would be treated and all solid waste segregated, collected and treated according to prescribed standards. 

Globally, waste management technologies have been getting better. Costs have been coming down. Decentralised microbial treatment of sewage and household food waste has made great strides. Long-distance sewage pipes and large sewage treatment plants requiring a lot of land are no longer the most cost-effective way of treating sewage. Industrial clusters need decentralised common waste water treatment plants. These industrial clusters also generate solid waste, which should be treated separately. Effective waste segregation in industrialised societies and technological developments have taken recycling to new levels. 

Substantial progress in waste segregation at the household level will take some time in India. An innovative solution lies in using the informal sector kabari chain. All the waste which should not be part of household kitchen waste can be segregated and collected by providing an attractive-enough price for these through the kabari supply chain. These can then be treated or recycled. Treating segregated waste is environmentally better and also cheaper. For used gadgets such as mobile phones and TV sets, manufacturers could be mandated to run disposal facilities and to bear the full cost, including the price to be paid for getting all these items collected. Using the market mechanism with the right price signal would be key to success.

India, fortunately, has the late mover’s advantage in having the option of adopting the most cost-efficient technologies in the world. There is comfort as well as safety in traditional technologies and their specifications. The way to overcome this is to adopt a radically different approach and re-engineer the procurement process. Bids should be invited for outcomes and be agnostic regarding the choice of technology. The bid would have to be for a long-term agreement to build and operate a plant for treating waste and for the private investor to be paid per unit treated.

The cost of treatment per unit would be the bid parameter to be backed by performance guarantees on the one hand and a minimum supply of waste to be treated on the other. There would need to be separate bids for treatment of household waste, sewage, chemical effluents from industrial clusters, construction waste, industrial solid waste and the different categories of segregated waste collected from raddiwallahs. A series of such bids across India would bring in contemporary competing technologies, create a competitive industry structure and drive down costs. 

The main reason behind the current state of waste management is that this is the responsibility of municipal bodies. They just do not have the funds for the gigantic task of treating all sewage and solid waste. Further, they do not have the technical domain knowledge and contract management abilities that are needed. The central government needs to recognise this reality. The implication is that it should assume responsibility, provide financing, leadership and technical guidance in a Mission mode. Only then would a breakthrough be possible.

Having practically completed electrification, provision of toilets and safe drinking water to all households, the central government could wind down the financing of these programmes. It could then use these budgetary resources for the waste management Mission. If necessary, the Swachh Bharat cess may be increased to provide additional resources. This is so critical that it has a legitimate claim on the funds from the coal cess as well as normal budgetary resources. This should be at the core of the Smart Cities programme.

Standard bid and contract documents would need to be prepared by the ministry of urban development and circulated to the state governments to be used by their municipal bodies. A Master Plan for 100 per cent waste management for all cities should be prepared at the outset. 

Leadership, proper design and central funding have brought about remarkable breakthroughs recently in achieving full household electrification and in getting villages to be open-defecation-free. A similar resolve and approach could get India to get waste management right. It is doable and affordable. The avoidable health costs alone are high enough to amply justify making this a top priority.
The writer is former Secretary, DIPP, and Distinguished Fellow, Teri


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