Solid Waste Management (SWM) : Growing for Solutions

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In the first week of April 2016, the union government, while amending a 16- year-old rule that deals with a determining aspect of urban governance, replaced the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 with a new set of rules phrased as the Solid Waste Management Rules (SWM), 2016.

The new Solid Waste Management are in harmony with the plastic waste management rules, e-waste, biomedical waste, fatally harmful and construction and demolition waste management rules. The urgency shown by the government in Solid Waste Management matter reflects the seriousness of the issue as all of these rules have been  notified within a few days of each other.

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Gravity of the Solid Waste Management Problem

Solid Waste Management has become a very serious problem in India due to factors such as urbanisation, changing lifestyles and enhancement in consumerism indicating that we generate more and more waste.

Throwing light on  the magnitude of the problem while introducing the bill the Ministery of Environment Forest and Climate Change, has revealed  that the country generates 62 million tonnes of waste annually.  To put things in panorama this is a little less than double the amount of MSW the country generated when the last Solid Waste Management rules were formed and enacted. Financial compulsions, institutional weakness, inaccurate choice of technology, unplanned urbanisation and public indifference have made the situation worse.  The practice of dumping waste on the outskirts of cities and towns has created serious environmental problem with accompanying public health concerns.

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Solutions of the New Solid Waste Management

At first glance the Solid Waste Management seem to be going in proper direction as their frontier has stretched beyond municipal areas and  included special economic zones, urban agglomerations, areas under the control of the Indian Railways and airports. There is a special mention of places of religious and historical importance and pilgrimage.

The most significant aspect is that the Solid Waste Management make an attempt to address that great bugbear of waste management in India—sorting waste at source. The Solid Waste Management(rules) 2016 has put the responsibility on large waste generators like hotels and industrial establishments to separate waste at source.

Now these Large Waste Generators(LWGs) have to separate waste into biodegradable, dry and domestic hazardous waste such as mosquito repellents, cleaning agents. Hotels and restaurants will also have to segregate biodegradable waste and make sure that food waste is used for composting.

The Solid Waste Management-2016 also directs market associations and resident welfare  associations to segregate plastic, tin, glass, paper and recyclable waste. They talk about the integration of ragpickers, waste pickers and other players of informal sector. The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 mandate zero tolerance for throwing, burning or burying solid waste on streets or dumping them in water bodies. The biggest problem of waste collection in India is that people do not separate dry and wet waste, therefore, shifting the burden on collectors.

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Solid Waste Management,2016- An Analysis

The rules, seen this way, seem to be a move in the right direction.

However, all these homilies for decentralised approaches are followed by a thrust on centralised strategies; setting up of waste-to-energy plants for one. Vaporising garbage and generating electricity could basically be seen as killing two birds with one stone.

However, waste-to-energy plants in the country have been surrounded with serious problems. Typically, waste-to-energy plants require waste with a calorific count of 1,400–1,500 kcal/kg while in India the calorific value of waste in India is not more than 700 kcal/kg. Appropriate segregation at source, as mandated by the rules, can handle a large portion of the problem.

However, the rules, while talking of the importance of such a measure, fail to provide direction. And in doing so, the rules have completely ignored the recommendation of a Planning Commission committees report of 2014 that talked of accurate measures through which the informal sector could be blended into solid waste management plans by incentivising the ragpickers. While the new rules do prescribe punitive measures, they have little by way of incentives.

A Delhi-based non-profit organisation, Chintan, had claimed in 2012 that in the nine months after the inauguration of a waste-to-energy plant in Okhla in Delhi, the number of trash collectors working at the landfill near the plant fell from 450 to 150. According to these families, they took their children out of school in order to have more hands available to search through the heaps of ash for metal slag that fetch more in terms of money. The Planning Commission report of 2014 had talked of steps to avoid such transformation in fortunes for ragpickers. In fact, the draft SWM, 2014 had also talked of incentivising the informal sector. The New Solid Waste Management have paid insufficient attention to this aspect.

Indian cities that have made a success of waste management have done so through a slew of strategies:  for example, Pune has integrated a many waste pickers into a formalised door-to-door garbage collection network.

The Pune Municipal Corporation works with a cooperative of waste pickers in an arrangement that depends on a variety of agencies: centralised and decentralised composting and vermin-composting facilities and a waste recycling plant. Pune also has a waste-to-electricity plant.

However, the excess reliance in the rules on waste-to-energy plant ignores the fact that such plants are skirted with serious pollution problems. Last year, the National Institute of Urban Affairs had revealed that high mercury content in urban wastes in the country had been turning waste-to-energy plants into highly polluting outfits. And in February, this year, the Central Pollution Control Board has been asked by the National Green Tribunal to furnish a report on the effects of such plants on air quality. It is not only unfortunate but also a matter of grave concern that the Solid Waste Management (SWM) 2016, is paying a little attention to such concerns.

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