The Urban Waste Management Problem That Swachh Bharat Must Solve

Our cities produce close to 2,00,000 tons of waste per day. And yet we rarely invest in waste management facilities.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi cleaning the premises of Mandir Marg Police Station during his surprise visit, in New Delhi on October 02, 2014.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi cleaning the premises of Mandir Marg Police Station during his surprise visit, in New Delhi on October 02, 2014.

The Swachh Bharat campaign is a unique experiment in sociology and human behavior. So much of India’s future is indirectly tied to this issue; tourism, make in India, FDI, development, quality of life, health care, and our global image as a mature and modern country. There is much at stake and much to gain from a clean living environment.

Unfortunately, progress has been slow, and it is likely to stay that way. Policy makers need to understand that waste management is not just about the collection, it is also an issue of treatment—what do you do with the garbage after you collect it?

We need to realize that waste management is a system, and all parts need to work efficiently otherwise the system collapses.

The System

A waste management system consists of a front-end that is collection and transportation, and a back-end that includes treatment, segregation, recycling, and disposal. With Swachh Bharat too much of the emphasis, unfortunately, has been on the front-end. Celebrity sweep-a-thons are a powerful visual image and certainly waste collection is an important part of the system.

But more important is the back end—the processes and technologies required to process the waste after it is collected. Unless resources are allocated and the right technologies deployed to segregate, recycle, treat, convert and dispose of waste, Swachh Bharat is unlikely to deliver the desired results. Hindustan Times captured the cause of India’s waste problem best with its caption in a recent waste management article on Punjab—“waste generated 12,000 tons; waste treated 0 tons.”

The lack of modern waste treatment facilities exacerbates the problem with waste collection. Take, for example, the practice of dumping collected garbage in neighborhood ‘Dhalaos’ in Delhi.

Since there is no place to take the waste for treatment, the Dhalaos are always filled beyond capacity creating odor and pest problems in the very neighborhoods from which waste was collected from. Any waste management expert will tell you that waste must be transported away from where it was collected. But in India the problem is: where do you take all this waste?

Landfills, which are essentially open dumping grounds, are filled beyond capacity, and modern waste treatment plants are almost non-existent. A small country like Denmark with less than 5 million people has more than 30 waste treatment facilities that segregate, recycle, and reduce the waste. In comparison, India with 1.25 billion people has less than ten such treatment facilities and few, if any, meet global standards. The same goes for sewage waste. Almost 70% of India’s sewage is released untreated for lack of proper facilities to treat this waste.

The health affect of all this is no different than open defecation.

Indian tier 1 and two cities produce close to 200,000 tons of waste per day. What should be done with all that waste?

Waste Treatment

An Indian labourer looks for reusable items at the garbage dump where he works after firecrackers dumped there following celebrations for the Diwali festival set fire to rubbish on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on November 13, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY / AFP / SAM PANTHAKY

An Indian labourer looks for reusable items at the garbage dump where he works after firecrackers dumped there following celebrations for the Diwali festival set fire to rubbish on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on November 13, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY / AFP / SAM PANTHAKY

First, open burning/dumping needs to stop. This is the worst thing to do with solid waste. This in unfortunately what happens to roughly 90% of India’s waste. Open burning of waste produces toxic chemicals, cancer-causing dioxins, and greenhouse gasses. The citizens of Delhi are paying a huge price for this practice. Open dumping present’s major health hazards in the form of vector and air borne diseases, rodents, and another pest. The Surat plague of 1994 was attributable directly to open dumping.

There are several ways to treat solid waste, and of the many options available the most efficient way to treat Indian waste is biological treatment. The worst option is open dumping and open burning that is unfortunately what happens to roughly 90% of India’s waste.

Thermal processes like Incineration, Pyrolysis, & Gasification are not cost effective or practical for wet Indian waste that has low calorific value and high biodegradable organic content.

Sanitary landfills, while preferred to open dumping, require large amounts of land, produce air pollution through the uncontrolled release of methane, and odor and possible ground water contamination from leachate. Composting does not produce any energy and results in uncontrolled release of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere.

What seems to work and is more appealing is the anaerobic treatment of waste. It is the most preferred technology in India, because it is very appropriate and cost effective for the wet organic Indian waste, reduces waste volume and landfill space requirements by almost 90%, produces a useful Biogas that can be used for cooking, automobile use, or converted to electricity, and a nutrient-rich and stable soil enhancer.

There is, however, a missing piece, and that is waste segregation. You cannot recycle or convert waste to energy unless you first segregate the waste. Biological treatment works only on the biodegradable organic fraction of the waste, and the microbial bugs that produce Biogas can only work their magic on organics and not on plastic and metals.

The Segregation Problem

So to treat waste one has first to segregate it. That is accomplished either at source (in-house segregation) or through the use of modern technologies that automatically separate paper, plastic, aluminum, textile, from the organic fraction of the waste. India does not have a single modern waste segregation plant and segregation at source is not likely to work in India. And since waste in India is not being segregated it is not properly treated, and since it is not properly treated it is not properly collected. And hence the problem: a weakness somewhere collapses the entire system.

There is some recycling of waste done by ragpickers who manually scavenge through waste to pick out a few ‘clean’ recyclables they can sell. Everyone recognizes the inhuman and inefficient nature of these practices, but little is ever done to change things because it is argued that rag pickers would lose out on opportunities to make a livelihood. This argument is ill-conceived because it assumes that rag pickers cannot (and should not) be retrained for better employment opportunities. Ironically, a study done by a group of social scientists found that almost 90% of the ragpickers would rather be doing something else than scavenging cesspools of garbage for a few rupees worth of recyclables. A growing economy like India’s provides ample employment opportunities for retrained rag pickers. They deserve a better life too.

So how do we solve this back-end infrastructure problem and make Swachh Bharat a success?

It is vital for policy makers to understand the link between the front-end (collection) and the back-end (treatment) because it affects the way resources are allocated. For every Rs. 1 spent on improving the front-end (waste collection), Rs. 2 has to be spent on improving the back-end (waste treatment).


For Swachh Bharat to be successful, the government will have to allocate funds to invest in modern waste treatment technologies that segregate, treat, recycle, and convert waste to energy. Can we find the Rs. 20,000 crores that would be required to set up 400 modern waste treatment facilities or should we keep spending Rs. 60,000 crores annually in health-related costs and risk the failure of Swachh Bharat, Make in India, FDI, and perhaps a seat at the table with other modern countries?

India is a modern country with a 19th-century waste management system. Waste collection is still done using hand-pulled carts, street sweeping is done by brooms, waste is randomly dumped in open landfills with no attempt to maximize air space, and recycling is done by manual scavenging. Let’s hope this antiquated waste management system does not drag the country back.

The money spent in setting up a reliable and modern infrastructure for waste management will pay for itself hundred times over from the reuse and resale of recyclables, production of clean renewable energy, lower health-related costs, increased tourism, increased FDI, new businesses in waste recycling and management, and above all a cleaner environment and a better quality of life for everyone. ‘Sabka sath sabka vikas’ is about raising living standards for everyone and nothing raises the standard of living more than a clean environment.

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