Waste management is a major problem in India. Faced with rapid population growth, disorganization of city governments, a lack of public awareness and limited funding for programs, cities have struggled for years to find a way to responsibly manage the country’s ever-increasing amount of trash.
The Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organization (CPHEEO) has estimated that waste generation in India could be as much as 1.3 pounds per person per day. That figure is relatively low, compared to the 4.6 pounds of waste generated per person per day in the U.S. However, as of July 2009, the U.S. population was close to 307 million, whereas India’s population was nearly four times greater, at 1.2 billion.
These statistics mean that India could be generating as much as 27 million more tons of waste than the U.S. per year, although it has only one-third the land space when it comes to finding suitable locations for final disposal.
India’s rapid population growth only magnifies the problem. The urban population has grown at a rate of more than 20 percent each year since 1980 and is projected to reach a rate of more than 30 percent by 2015.
Many argue that the country’s poorly organized waste management scheme will continue to result in serious health problems and irreversible damage to the environment. Most agree that the government, industry and citizens need to work together to make major improvements.
A City’s Seven Responsibilities
In India, each municipality is responsible for organizing its own waste management in the following areas:
- Waste segregation and storage at the source
- Primary collection
- Street sweeping
- Secondary waste storage
- Transport of waste
- Treatment and recycling options for solid waste
- Final disposal
Unfortunately, each of these seven stages are frought with difficulties, and city services and citizen cooperation can be, overall, inefficient.
Currently, there is no official system for the widespread collection of recyclables, and the tasks of collecting, transporting and disposing of waste are done under very unsanitary conditions. These problems have been created in part by low budgets and a lack of technology and manpower.
In some areas, people are permitted to simply dump their trash on the streets, creating a dangerous mix of rotten food, harmful chemicals and human and animal excreta. This contributes to flooding, breeding of insects and rodents and spreading of diseases.
“It is definitely a culture shock,” says Velika Lotwala of the urban scene in India. The 28-year-old marketing manager currently lives in Phoenix but frequently travels back to Bombay, where her family is from. “There are cows, dogs and other animals roaming the streets, nobody follows driving guidelines, and the noise and smell are overwhelming,” she says of typical Indian cities.
Door-to-door collection is virtually non-existent in India. Instead, the official method for primary collection is called “street sweeping.”
In higher trafficked city areas, such as important roads or markets, the municipality employs people to remove the trash with short-handled brooms and handcarts. These street sweepers spend the first half of the day sweeping the trash into piles and then the second half carting the trash to the designated waste bin.
A street sweeper is usually assigned a particular area or distance, which could be as small as one kilometer of road, or as large as 32,000 square feet. Given the fact that the sweepers are tasked with covering an impossible size of ground, it’s easy to see why not all streets are swept every day — some are swept only every other day, a few times a week or very rarely.
A second, unofficial method of primary collection is carried out by “rag pickers.” These are usually very poor women and children who will sift through the garbage in the streets, waste bins and even landfills, searching for items that they can resell.
Reusable materials are most often newspaper, glass bottles, tin cans, plastic bags and old clothes or fabric. The rag pickers earn a small living by collecting these materials and then selling them to waste buyers who will further sort and clean the trash before reselling it in bulk to a manufacturer with the means to recycle it.
In the process of rummaging through the city’s trash, rag pickers often overturn waste bins and spread garbage into the streets, furthering unsanitary conditions. Also, rag pickers come in contact with all kinds of dangerous waste on a daily basis, including biomedical, human and animal waste.
Secondary Waste Storage
Community waste bins are meant to hold waste in bulk until it can be transported to landfills. However, they are unevenly distributed, and there are too few of them per number of households. It’s common for individuals to have to carry their trash long distances in order to reach the closest dumpster.
Cities don’t regularly empty the containers, either, although residents and street sweepers quickly fill them to capacity. The bins have no lids, leading to trash overflow and creating highly unsanitary conditions in neighborhoods.
When sanitation workers transport waste from the bins out of residential areas, they use open trucks or tractors, which they load manually, often without wearing protective gear. Trash often falls out of these trucks during transport, making the process that much more time-consuming, inefficient and unhygienic.
The vast majority of cities have little funding available for waste management and therefore can’t afford as many sanitation workers as are needed to sweep the streets and collect and transport waste from community dumpsters.
Treatment and Final Disposal
Ideally, trash that makes it to the final disposal stage should be responsibly incinerated or undergo mechanical-biological treatment before being sent to a landfill. But in India, 94 percent of waste is disposed of unsafely, either burned in an uncontrolled manner, or dumped in untreated landfills, where contaminants can leach into groundwater.
Given the size of India’s population and the size of the country itself, finding enough land that meets the state pollution board criteria and can hold 20 to 30 years worth of waste is extremely difficult. And even if suitable land can be found, sometimes the purchase price is higher than the city can afford.
“India is so over-populated that many people make their homes in landfills and set up shanties using other people’s trash. It’s very sad,” says Lotwala. “One minute, you could be driving in front of a huge high-rise building … and the next you could be driving in front of a landfill turned [into] shanties for homeless people.”
Waste Management Legislation
State and city legislation include some directives for the collection, transport and disposal of waste, but the wording lacks specifics. The laws require each city’s chief executive to see to it that streets are swept, trash bins are provided and waste is transported to dumping sites, but the laws do not say exactly how these tasks should be carried out.
The majority of city legislation also does not:
- Clearly prohibit citizens from littering
- Outline any widespread collection schemes
- Specify types of waste bins for storage
- Require sanitation workers to use covered transportation
- Require treatment of waste and landfills
Without laws to govern accountability, India’s waste management system remains outdated.
In 1996, a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court (Special Civil Application No. 888 of 1996) against the government of India, state governments and municipal authorities, claiming they were failing to fulfill their waste management duties in an acceptable manner.
A committee was appointed by the court to investigate. After speaking with city authorities, sanitation workers and citizens, the committee delivered to the Supreme Court a report with detailed recommendations. As a result, the Supreme Court advised India’s states and city officials to take the necessary steps to resolve these issues.
In line with these events, in 2000, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests issued the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2000, guidelines for all Indian cities and states to follow in order to make improvements.
Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2000
The four steps of the MSW Rules 2000 are:
- Set up waste processing and disposal facilities.
- Monitor the performance of processing and disposal once every six months.
- Improve existing landfill sites.
- Identify landfill sites for future use and make the sites ready.
The Rules 2000 put forth more strict requirements for collection, transport and disposal of waste. For example, different types of waste should not be combined and must be collected separately. Also, city officials must ask their state’s pollution control board for authorization to set up waste bins and processing facilities, and these officials must also deliver annual progress reports to the board.
Indian cities were given until December 2003 to incorporate these rules into their current systems. The deadlines have all since passed, with very few local governments being able to comply with all four of the mandates. The Supreme Court committee cited reasons for non-compliance to be a lack of community involvement and insufficient technology and financial resources.
Funding for Waste Management
City funds for waste management services come from a number of sources. What little income is available for providing waste services comes mostly from the taxes and fees associated with the operating costs of running water, drainage and sanitation. Some states also offer grants to their cities, but these are often insubstantial.
According to the Supreme Court report, most cities spend 70 to 75 percent of their waste management budget on street sweeping, 25 to 30 percent on collection processes and 0 to 5 percent on disposal.
The fact that so little money is invested in the treatment and disposal of waste signals a very “here and now” mindset in India with regard to controlling the waste situation, rather than a focus on the country’s future.
According to a 2008 report by The World Bank, if an efficient system were in place, roughly 15 percent of India’s waste materials such as paper, plastic, metal and glass could be recovered and recycled. If the 35 to 55 percent that is organic waste could also be recovered, that would leave only 30 to 50 percent to be sent to landfills.
Part of India’s improvements for waste sanitation will need to include better outreach to its citizens regarding the benefits of clean waste practices and caring for the environment. Also, experts have suggested that assigning some responsibilities to the private sector could provide advantages such as salaries based on job performance, access to better technology, job creation and more effective administration.
But as countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany have already proven, a major key to reducing waste is limitation at the source of creation. Perhaps by creating more programs and initiatives to better encourage citizens, manufacturers and communities to be less wasteful, the country of India will find it easier to continue taking steps toward a cleaner, safer environment.