Garbage crisis and Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan

By Sandya Narayana

Garbage crisis, the veritable hot potato, is still too hot to handle and is still moving hand to hand . With every new person who comes into the system to handle it, one is hopeful, but seems like the garbage crisis gets the better of them and leaves them singed from the experience. Even the High Court which did an admirable job of holding the hot potato well for a while , seems to have retreated into a cooling period.

Those of us who have been seeing the garbage issue up close, for a long time, know that garbage has always been in ‘crisis’. If flashpoints seem to be recurring frequently now in recent times, it’s simply because the affected communities have learnt not to suffer silently anymore. The awareness in communities is high and they refuse to accept the threat of permanent damage to their living environment and rightly so.

And yet, haven’t we done the right things as a City? We have a law for segregation at source, the law requires bulk generators to manage their own waste , we have identified ward level collection and processing centres while including informal economy, we have even passed the law for plastic ban. Communities are self organizing like never before, coming out with innovative ideas to promote awareness and compliance, the market place has seen a mushrooming of solution and service providers for managing waste. For the first time for any City , dedicated processing capacities have been built.

So why is the waste still piling up on the streets, why are we having landfill breakdowns, communities uprising?

It may simply be that our administration and leadership know only how to recognize and manage a crisis. They can address issues and negotiate only in a hostage like situation. It has to blow into a crisis and erupt to get their attention. The mundaneness of daily diligence, paying attention to detail and completing the job is left to the Courts it seems, who in the last three years in its monthly hearing did a review and co-ordination session of progress and implementation . Albeit even the Court has now suspended these monthly hearings for a while now. So a system which has nobody overseeing it and where the individual components have to self manage can only slip into a crisis.

The need of the hour is the setting up of strong ongoing review and monitoring mechanisms, technical expertise and support, performance audits and third party inspection systems at every level, be it the ward, the constituency, the zone and at the Centre with strong citizen participation in watch committees.

In addition to an absent administration, the fledgeling SWM architecture is threatened with every new leader and officer who sees himself as a swashbuckling buccaneer who will visit overseas and bring back new technologies thus seemingly providing a shining new solution which so far has not been thought of, not recognizing that the solution is ready and staring us in the face and it just needs a well oiled administrative machinery to scale up and deliver on a never failing daily basis.

No opinion on solid waste management can ever be complete without a mention of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. The Swachh Bharath Abhiyaan for its part, while being very well intentioned, at best appears to be a funding platform with little or no convergence with the Municipal Solid Waste Rules and other related Rules. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has laid down clear funding guidelines while being completely passive on the principles of sustainable solid waste management. While there is no urgency from the Central government to notify the Rules which have been in draft stage for over a year now, the big concern is if the newly introduced cess on service tax is going to fund the setting up of those completely superfluous, outrageously expensive and environmentally damaging incineration facilities in the name of waste to (renewable) energy plants.

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The author is a member of Solid Waste Management Round Table, SWMRT, a citizen group which has been working since 2008 on sustainable decentralized solid waste management in Bangalore.

A version of this article was originally published by Deccan Chronicle, November 8, 2015.

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