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Swachh Bharat: A public health crisis is upon us; here is how to avert it

A campaign for Swachh Bharat Mission says 'put away your waste, make your city clean', but where should it be put away? A proper disposal mechanism is the only way forward, says Isher Judge Ahluwalia

Swachh Bharat Mission

Anjuli Bhargava 

Isher Judge Ahluwalia
Isher Judge Ahluwalia

and AMRUT must work in sync to provide sanitation and safe water for better public health conditions.

Three years into the much-talked-about (SBM), very little has actually changed on the ground. Garbage remains strewn on the sides of streets, in empty plots across towns and in dumpsites, which are growing into small or not-so-small hills, on the outskirts of many cities in the country. The outbreak of diseases caused by breeding of new strains of vector-led pathogens in choked drains resulting from the combination of poor sewer systems and unscientific solid-waste management is rising unabated. Barring a few isolated individual-led initiatives, the realisation that India needs to tackle this one on a war footing is yet to sink in.

Isher Judge Ahluwalia, chairperson of Icrier and chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure and services which submitted its Report to the Government of India in March 2011, has studied and enumerated many of the challenges facing India on the solid-waste management front in her articles and books including Transforming Our Cities (Harper Collins India, 2014). She spoke to Anjuli Bhargava on what needs to be done to make SBM a success. Edited excerpts of the interview:

What would you do if you were heading the Swachh Bharat Mission ?

Emphasise waste to health. In my view, an awareness campaign that links disease to lack of sanitation has to be the first step, since community participation is crucial for the success of the .

In the US, for instance, the legal framework put in place in the 1970s for clean air and clean water was preceded by a major awareness campaign on the importance of public health conditions. Until then, it was common to find incineration plants for mixed waste in apartment buildings in American cities which were highly polluting. But over time, responding to growing awareness, more and more laws came at the federal, state and municipal level to create an environment for management and safe disposal of solid waste. Regulations were put in place for segregation of different types of waste at the source of generation. And recycling of waste also became an important aspect of solid-waste management. It would be fair to say that it is still a work in progress.

In India, in the cities of small and medium size, we can avoid the mistakes we have made in our larger cities. In Swachh Bharat, the cities that have excelled are those like Mysuru, Indore, and Tirunelveli, while other small or medium cities like Pammal, Suryapet, Namakkal, Panaji, and Uttarpara had begun to clean up their act even before the Swachh Bharat Mission.

Also, we must plan and implement solid-waste management in the right way in the new cities that are coming up. Magarpatta, outside of Pune, is a good example. It would have suffered the fate of most other peripheral towns with haphazard urbanization, except that the farmers owning land there came together to form a development company and planned and implemented the transformation of the area into a modern sustainable city, including through management and safe disposal of their solid waste in the centre of their colony. They were helped by the fact that they had as their mentor B G Deshmukh, who could guide them as the chief secretary of Maharashtra and later as Cabinet secretary and principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. If you visit Magarpatta today, you won’t believe you are in India. It should be possible to develop new Magarpattas across the country. But for the existing 8,000-odd towns and cities in India, Magarpatta is not a solution; it is at best an inspiration.

In big cities, the legacy of the very poor management of solid waste over the years and how badly we are dealing with the current flow of solid waste needs to be urgently attended to. I have not given up hope on municipal corporations. They can work and have to be made to work. Pune offers a good example of how the Pune Municipal Corporation has worked with civil society to address the challenges of solid-waste management.

To start with, we need to reduce the volume of waste. We need to begin by not mixing wet and dry waste. Wet waste or kitchen waste or bio-degradable waste constitutes 50-60 per cent of municipal solid waste. It can be composted or used for bio-methanation to make bio-gas. In different localities, you need to set up composting units and/or small bio-methanation plants. Bio-gas can be used for cooking or street lighting. In Matheran (near Mumbai), this is being done very effectively. In Malur, it is being bottled for use as compressed bio-gas in vehicles and distant hotels.

Fortunately, in India dry waste which is recyclable is traditionally taken away from households by the kabadi-walas and is recycled and reused. If we stick to this good old practice, what remains is the non-biodegradable non-recyclable waste, which is a much smaller, manageable proportion of the total solid waste. If, on the other hand, we mix dry recyclable waste with wet waste, the challenge of managing mixed waste is much greater. Adding construction and demolition waste to this makes its processing even harder.

The NITI Aayog in its Three Year Action Agenda has taken the stand that waste-to-energy is the best sustainable disposal solution for solid waste of large Indian cities. Actually, incinerators for mixed waste consume more energy than they produce, so they need diesel or biomass supplements to keep going. Also, when incineration plants use unsegregated or mixed waste to generate electricity, the calorific value of the waste is lower and it leads to low efficiency in converting waste to energy. Most importantly, without appropriate filters in place, the incineration plants emit toxic gases (dioxins and furans) and dispose of these “dangerous by-products’ in the air. Essentially, you are converting solid waste into air pollution. You run the risk of polluting the air we breathe even more than it already is. As of now, we do not have effective mechanisms for monitoring the emissions.

SBM so far has been rather skewed – focused only on open defecation rather than anything else…

Open defecation is very important, so I wouldn’t knock that. But we must not only build more toilets, private toilets and community toilets, but also put in place sewerage connectivity and sewage treatment. As it is, in our cities, only about 30 per cent of the sewage is treated on average. So, the challenge is much bigger than simply building toilets. Fecal sludge management from all these toilets is an additional challenge. I must also mention, it is a pity that we have separated solid-waste management from sewage treatment, one under SBM and the other under AMRUT. The two Missions need to come together.

I also worry about the incomplete message that Swachh Bharat Mission conveys. The focus seems to be on litter free cities and dust free cities, while the importance of safe disposal of the waste is missing. I recently saw one of the campaign messages: “Apna Shahar Swachh Banao; kooda-kachra door hatao”. My question is “Door kahan”? The kooda-kachra can’t vanish into thin air. If the focus is to be on swachh(clean) and swasth (healthy) Bharat, door (far) is not enough. The attitude of putting garbage out of sight has resulted in garbage hills around our cities, causing garbage slides, rivers of leachate, and routine fires at the dumpsites which are euphemistically called landfills. Our lakes are also shrinking as garbage and debris line their banks. We have to work towards safe disposal through composting, bio-methanation, and incineration as a last-mile option with proper regulatory checks, and finally minimal landfills.

I don’t think the message that poor solid waste management is a colossal health hazard is reaching the public. Swachh Bharat’s main message should be that the price of inaction will be severe danger to our health.

How do we move to the next step? How do we get municipal corporations to do their bit once people begin to segregate waste?

Our municipalities are not empowered and perhaps not motivated. They are supposed to manage solid waste and take the blame when it is not done, but in actual fact they have neither the finances nor the manpower to do the job.

Now I know you will say they have all those safaikarmacharis. But the manpower is not of the type needed; they have street sweepers but they don’t have a sufficient number of doorstep collectors for segregated waste, nor engineers, IT people and other skilled people who can design and manage efficient supply chains for collection, transport and processing of unmixed waste streams to achieve effective solid-waste management.

In my book, I have presented 40 case studies of transformation. A common theme that emerges is that where the state government provided an enabling environment for necessary reform to bring about the change, and where there was a reasonable devolution of funding and some capacity to plan and manage at the urban local government level, and above all, where there was human leadership and initiative at the local government level, it was possible to significantly improve the system of solid-waste management. I sometimes feel that service delivery is more of an art than science. Wherever things have worked, I have found human leadership to be the differentiating factor. By the way, one of the major problems is how to ensure that success survives a leadership change, which is bound to happen as personalities move on.

How do we find ways to scale this up? The truth is that in many state governments there is a consciousness today that something needs to be done, although there may not be the political will; there may also as yet not be a citizenry that is demanding the change. Slow it may be, but change is happening.

You keep saying that municipal corporations can do the job, but after 50 years, we are where we are. When will this change?

Let me answer this by citing my own experience with policy-oriented research. When I came back to India in 1980 after completing my higher studies, I started working on a book on India’s industrial stagnation from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. After two books and several other research studies on the subject of poor industrial growth and poor industrial productivity over a period of 12 years, people would ask me if India’s industrial and trade policies, which I found responsible for the stagnation, would ever change. And if we will ever see the light of day. Then 1991 happened and everything changed, and by the early 2000s, the industrial stagnation was well behind us. The balance of payments crisis of 1991 helped focus the mind, but the growing awareness of how our protectionist and heavily regulated industrial policy regime was the principal culprit for the prolonged industrial stagnation helped bring about the change, despite strong vested interests.

Ever since I have started working on the challenges of urbanization, including solid-waste management, I find that this is a crisis of much greater magnitude staring us in the face. Truly speaking, the public health crisis is upon us. Today a younger India is impatient and will not wait for as long as we did for industrial liberation. I am convinced that change will come and we will overcome this challenge. We need to ensure that the linkages between health and sanitation are well understood. Only then will the support of the public, which is crucial for the success of Swachh and Swasth Bharat, be forthcoming.

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First Published: Wed, January 10 2018. 01:29 IST