Monday, October 2, 2023

How to navigate India’s waste mountains with better data insights

If you were to ask people about their immediate impressions of Goa, Kasauli, or Pondicherry, the words ‘holiday,’ ‘leisure,’ and ‘relaxation’ would likely dominate the responses. Yet, for those residing in these cities, the narrative is far from this idyllic image; they are increasingly surrounded by polluted beaches and litter-strewn hills.

These towering heaps of waste are not just unsightly; they serve as markers of India’s expanding urban centers and the residents who inhabit them. According to a report from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India generates an astounding 62 million tonne of waste annually. This waste narrates the tale of a rising middle class, evolving consumption patterns, and the challenges that accompany them. As we navigate the complexities of serving this expanding aspirational populace, effective solid waste management (SWM) has become an urgent imperative requiring novel approaches and community-led initiatives.

Official figures suggest that urban India produces nearly 42 million tonne of municipal solid waste each year, equivalent to 35,000 truckloads of waste every minute. Yet, experts on the ground argue that these numbers significantly underestimate the real scope of the problem, omitting heaps of unaccounted waste dumped openly.

The matter of solid waste is intricate and fraught with complicating factors. Questions surrounding the amount we discard, the fate of our waste, and where it ultimately lands, are both bewildering and disconcerting. Current estimates suggest that per capita waste generation in India ranges from 0.2 to 0.6 kg per day and is expected to double within the next 30 years.

So, the pressing question remains: who is responsible for cleaning up this expanding mess?

If we look at the governance set up of India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is responsible for framing laws and regulations related to waste management in the country. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and state pollution control boards are responsible for enforcing these regulations and monitoring compliance.

However, waste management given its inter-sectoral nature also features in the mandate for other ministries like the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

If we look at the granular level, Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are at a pivotal juncture spearheading solid waste management in cities. Known as the third tier of governance, Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are self-governing local bodies. There are different types of ULBs instituted as per the population of the city, for example big cities like Mumbai and Bangalore have Municipal Corporations, whereas smaller cities tend to have Municipality also known as municipal council/ committee/ board.

These ULBs have the mandate to carry out solid waste management along with plethora of other responsibilities.

As per Swachh Bharat Urban at present, India has almost 5,000 ULBs. ULBs are responsible for preparation of SWM plans, primary and secondary municipal waste collection/transport, street sweeping and drain cleaning, treatment and disposal, and information, education and communication to influence behaviour change.

ULBs have the mandate to pick up waste from every area of their jurisprudence. This waste is supposed to be cleaned, sorted. The biodegradable waste must be sent for composting. The non-biodegradable waste should be sorted further into hazardous and non- hazardous waste. The non- hazardous waste is sent for further recycling. Whereas the hazardous waste is sterilised and then disposed of as per scientific guidelines. However, the ground reality is different with approximately 50% of the waste generated being landfilled.

Despite progress on the infrastructure set up to document Solid Waste Management (SWM) in India through Swachh Survekshan dashboards, there isn’t enough localised data available to solve challenges faced by ULBs and the unique opportunities available at ward level for interventions.

CPCB generates annual reports on the solid waste generation and management in India. The data for these reports comes from each ward and village of the country. This data includes how much and types of waste that was generated in each city and village, how was each type of waste processed or disposed, and innovative measures that were adopted. Capturing this data is an intensive affair that falls on the shoulders of ULBs.

Every day the ULB workers need to record the weight of dry waste and all its subcategories, wet waste, and how much was processed. If daily reports don’t come from the ground, or erroneous data is generated, it impacts documentation at all levels hampering projections, interventions, and the capacity to ideate. It is, therefore, imperative to support capacity building of ULB staff, and communicate to them why documentation matters and what depth is required.

Further in our landscape research report, Scaling India’s Waste Mountains, we found language barriers causing data irregularities. Municipal bodies of today are erstwhile Gram Panchayats, who used to work using local languages. Today, although English is used predominantly, it isn’t the language municipal workers are familiar with. Hence, a municipality worker from Indore for example may not understand English words like hazardous or incineration or may find using a computer challenging. Language, therefore, is often a barrier in standardising data and transition of knowledge from SWM experts to on-ground workers. Technology can help bridge this gap by using modern tools such as remote sensing, geographic information system (GIS).

It is understandable the pressure that ULBs work under given their wide array of responsibilities and political pressure that may arise during certain times of the year like election months. SWM and the role of ULBs in tackling this waste is multifaceted issue.

There are really no two ways on the indispensability of data. It’s like we decided to experiment with a new dish but minus the recipe. One is only likely to end up with a culinary disaster. Similarly, accurate data documentation of waste starting from its point of generation to its last stage ensures that processes are replicable, consistent, and transparent.

Technology has advanced so much that it wouldn’t be utopian to imagine a real time data collection centre that shows where waste is generated, its transport from point of generation to further processing and finally the value or energy derived from the waste. Visualising this whole chain, real time through technology is not a big ask for the times we live in.

Several integrated waste management projects are now run by multiple municipalities of India. A great example is the Pondicherry Municipality where they are digitally tracking through GIS mapping the waste management process and creating awareness on door-to-door collection and source segregation. As part of this every household has a barcode pasted on their wall. This barcode is scanned by the sanitation workers every day after they pick up waste from houses. Scanning this barcode provides data on which house has segregated their waste and which have not. The data also helps track the history and showing trends such as if the homes were segregating waste but did not do so during a particular period like busy festival season and so on. Through this technology municipalities can achieve 100% source segregation.

Waste affects everyone and each one of us has contributed to the mountains of waste. Now we all need to come together to clean up.

Gayatri Divecha is Head – CSR & Sustainability, Godrej Industries Ltd. and associate companies

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Updated: 08 Sep 2023, 08:02 PM IST

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