About Ranjith Annepu

Ranjith Annepu worked as a consultant for the World Bank and advises the Foundation for Sustainable Waste Resource on solid waste management. Annepu is also the Coordinator of the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council (WTERT) - India at Columbia University. His work focuses on integrated solid waste management and he recently published his research on “Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India". He holds a Master’s degree in Earth and Environmental Engineering from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. He writes regularly at blog.wtert.org and maintains swmindia.blogspot.com

Rationale for Solid Waste Management

Some countries have achieved considerable success in solid waste management. But the rest of the world is grappling to deal with its wastes. In these places, improper management of solid waste continues to impact public health of entire communities and cities; pollute local water, air and land resources; contribute to climate change and ocean plastic pollution; hinder climate change adaptation; and accelerate depletion of forests and mines.

Compared to solid waste management, we can consider that the world has achieved significant success in providing other basic necessities like food, drinking water, energy and economic opportunities. Managing solid wastes properly can help improve the above services further. Composting organic waste can help nurture crops and result in a better agricultural yield. Reducing landfilling and building sanitary landfills will reduce ground and surface water pollution which can help provide cleaner drinking water. Energy recovery from non-recyclable wastes can satiate significant portion of a city’s energy requirement.

Inclusive waste management where informal waste recyclers are involved can provide an enormous economic opportunity to the marginalized urban poor. Additionally, a good solid waste management plan with cost recovery mechanisms can free tax payers money for other issues. In the case of India, sustainable solid waste management in 2011 would have provided

  • 9.6 million tons of compost that could have resulted in a better agricultural yield
  • energy equivalent to 58 million barrels of oil from non-recyclable wastes
  • 6.7 million tons of secondary raw materials to industries in the form of recyclable materials and livelihood to the urban poor

Solid waste management until now has only been a social responsibility of the corporate world or one of the services to be provided by the municipality and a non-priority for national governments. However, in Mumbai, the improperly managed wastes generate 22,000 tons of toxic pollutants like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrous and sulfur oxides in addition to 10,000 grams of carcinogenic dioxins and furans every year. These numbers are only for the city of Mumbai. This is the case in cities all across the developing world. There are numerous examples where groundwater is polluted by heavy metals and organic contaminants due to solid waste landfills.

Solid waste management expenditure of above $ 1 billion per year competes with education, poverty, security and other sustainable initiatives in New York City. Fossil fuels for above 500,000 truck trips covering hundreds of miles are required to transport NYC’s waste to landfills outside the city and state. Similarly, New Delhi spends more than half of its entire municipal budget on solid waste management, while it is desperate for investments and maintenance of roads, buildings, and other infrastructure.

Solid waste management is not just a corporate social responsibility or a non-priority service anymore. Improper waste management is a public health and environmental crisis, economic loss, operational inefficiency and political and public awareness failure. Integrated solid waste management can be a nation building exercise for healthier and wealthier communities. Therefore, it needs global attention to arrive at solutions which span across such a wide range of issues.

Note: Acknowledgements will be published in the full report “Observations from India’s Crisis” on wtert.org and blog.wtert.org

Solid Waste Management – India’s Burning Issue

For the first time in the history of India, the year 2012 saw several public protests against improper solid waste management all across India – from the northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir to the southernmost Tamil Nadu. A fight for the right to clean environment and environmental justice led the people to large scale demonstrations, including an indefinite hunger strike and blocking roads leading to local waste handling facilities. Improper waste management has also caused a Dengue Fever outbreak and threatens other epidemics. In recent years, waste management has been the only other unifying factor leading to public demonstrations all across India, after corruption and fuel prices. Public agitation resulted in some judicial action and the government’s remedial response, but the waste management problems are still unsolved and might lead to a crisis if this continues for too long without any long term planning and policy reforms.

Hunger Strike in Kerala

The President of Vilappilsala Village Panchayat went on a hunger strike recently, against her counterpart, the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. Thiruvananthapuram is the state capital of Kerala, and Vilappilsala is a village 22 km away. Since July 2000, about 80% of the waste generated in Thiruvananthapuram is being transported to a waste composting plant and a dumpsite in Vilappilsala village. Since the same month, respiratory illnesses reported in Vilappil Primary Health Center increased by 10 times from an average of 450 to 5,000 cases per month. People who used to regularly swim in the village’s aquifer started contracting infections; swarms of flies have ever since been pervasive; and a stigma of filth affected households throughout the community. This was a source of frustration as locals who, as Indians, prize the opportunity to feed and host guests, found them unwilling to even drink a glass of water in their homes. Currently, there is not a single household which has not experienced respiratory illnesses due to the waste processing plant and the adjoining dumpsite.

On the other hand, Thiruvananthapuram’s residents had to sneak out at night with plastic bags full of trash to dispose them behind bushes, on streets or in water bodies, and had to openly burn heaps of trash every morning for months. This was because the waste generated was not being collected by the City as it could not force open the composting plant and dumpsite against large scale protests by Vilappilsala’s residents. This is why in August – 2012, about 2,500 police personnel had to accompany trucks to the waste treatment plant as they were being blocked by local residents lying down on the road, and by some, including the village’s President, by going on an indefinite hunger strike.

Municipal Commissioner Replaced in Karnataka

In response to a similar situation in Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka, where the streets were rotting with piles of garbage for months, the municipal commissioner of the city was replaced to specifically address the waste management situation. Against the will of local residents, a landfill which was closed following the orders issued by the state’s pollution control board in response to public agitation had to be reopened soon after its closure as the city could not find a new landfill site.

Mavallipura landfill in Bangalore

Population density and the scale of increasing urban sprawl in India make finding new landfill sites around cities nearly impossible due to the sheer lack of space for Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) like waste management.

Dengue Outbreak in West Bengal

Even if partially because of improper waste management, Kolkata, state capital of West Bengal and the third biggest city in India experienced a Dengue Fever outbreak with 550 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. This outbreak coincides with a 600% increase in dengue cases in India and 71% increase in malarial cases in Mumbai in the last five years. Accumulation of rain water in non biodegradable waste littered around a city act as a major breeding environment for mosquitoes, thus increasing the density of mosquito population and making the transmission of mosquito related diseases like dengue, yellow fever and malaria easier.

Rabies in Srinagar

Rabies due to stray dog bites already kills more than 20,000 people in India every year. Improper waste management has caused a 1:13 stray dog to human ratio in Srinagar (compared to 1 per 31 people in Mumbai and 1 per 100 in Chennai), where 54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in a span of 3.5 years. Municipal waste on streets and at the dumpsite is an important source of food for stray dogs. The ultimate solution to controlling stray dogs is proper waste management. The public has been protesting about this stray dog menace for months now with no waste management solutions in sight, but only partial short term measures like dog sterilization.

Note: Acknowledgements will be published in the full report “Observations from India’s Crisis” on wtert.org and blog.wtert.org

Addressing India’s Waste Management Problems

Out of all the measures that are necessary in addressing India’s impending waste management crisis, the most efficient will be changes at the national policy and planning level. It is well known among the small but growing waste management sector that urban India will hit rock bottom due to improper waste management. Unfortunately, they think such a crisis is required to bring about policy changes, as they generally tend to happen only after the damage has been done. This attitude is unfortunate because it indicates a lack of or failed effort from the sector to change policy, and also the level of India’s planning and preparedness.

An average of 32,000 people will be added to urban India every day, continuously, until 2021. This number is a warning, considering how India’s waste management infrastructure went berserk trying to deal with just 25,000 new urban Indians during the last decade. The scale of urbanization in India and around the world is unprecedented with planetary consequences to Earth’s limited material and energy resources, and its natural balance. Rate of increase in access to sanitation infrastructure generally lags behind the rate of urbanization by 33% around the world; however, the lack of planning and impromptu piecemeal responses to waste management issues observed in India might indicate a much wider gap. This means urban Indians will have to wait longer than an average urban citizen of our world for access to proper waste management infrastructure.

The clear trend in the outbreak of epidemic and public protests around India is that they are happening in the biggest cities in their respective regions. Kolkata, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Srinagar are capitals of their respective states, and Coimbatore is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu. However, long term national level plans to improve waste management in India do not exist and guidance offered to urban local bodies is meager. Apart from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), there has been no national level effort required to address the problem. Even though JnNURM was phenomenal in stimulating the industry and local governments, it was not enough to address the scale and extent of the problem. This is because of JnNURM is not a long term financing program, sorts of which are required to tackle issues like solid waste management.

Are Cities Hands-tied or is Change Possible?

In the short term, municipal corporations have their hands tied and will not be able to deliver solutions immediately. They face the task of realizing waste management facilities inside or near cities while none of their citizens want them near their residences. Officials of Hyderabad’s municipal corporation have been conducting interviews with locals for about eight years now for a new landfill site, to no avail. In spite of the mounting pressure, most corporations will not be able to close the dumpsites that they are currently using. This might not be the good news for which local residents could be waiting, but, it is important that bureaucrats, municipal officials and politicians be clear about it. Residents near Vellalore dump protested and blocked roads leading to the site because Coimbatore municipal officials repeatedly failed to fulfill their promises after every landfill fire incident.

Due to lack of existing alternatives, other than diverting waste fractionally by increasing informal recycling sector’s role, closing existing landfills would mean finding new sites.  Finding new landfills in and around cities is nearly impossible because of the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India and the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon. However, the corporations can and should take measures to reduce landfill fires and open burning, and control pollution due to leachate and odor and vector nuisance. This will provide much needed relief to adjacent communities and give the corporations time to plan better. While navigating through an issue as sensitive this, it is of the utmost importance that they work closely with the community by increasing clarity and transparency.

Municipal officials at the meeting repeatedly stressed the issue of scarcity of land for waste disposal, which led to overflowing dumpsites and waste treatment facilities receiving more waste than what they were designed for. Most municipal officials are of the sense that a magic solution is right around the corner which will turn all of their city’s waste into fuel oil or gas, or into recycled products. While such conversion is technologically possible with infinite energy and financial sources, that is not the reality. Despite their inability to properly manage wastes, the majority of municipal officials consider waste as “wealth” when approached by private partners. Therefore, a significant portion of officials expect royalty from private investments without sharing business risk.

Note: Acknowledgements will be published in the full report “Observations from India’s Crisis” on wtert.org and blog.wtert.org

Waste Management Outlook for India

Waste management crisis in India should be approached holistically; while planning for long term solutions, focus on addressing the immediate problems should be maintained. National and local governments should work with their partners to promote source separation, achieve higher percentages of recycling and produce high quality compost from organics. While this is being achieved and recycling is increased, provisions should be made to handle the non-recyclable wastes that are being generated and will continue to be generated in the future.

Recycling, composting and waste-to-energy are all integral parts of the waste disposal solution and they are complementary to each other; none of them can solve India’s waste crisis alone. Any technology should be considered as a means to address public priorities, but not as an end goal in itself. Finally, discussion on waste management should consider what technology can be used, to what extent in solving the bigger problem and within what timeframe.

Experts believe India will have more than nine waste-to-energy projects in different cities across India in the next three years, which will help alleviate the situation to a great extent. However, since waste-to-energy projects are designed to replace landfills, they also tend to displace informal settlements on the landfills. Here, governments should welcome discussions with local communities and harbor the informal recycling community by integrating it into the overall waste management system to make sure they do not lose their rights for the rest of the city’s residents.

This is important from a utilitarian perspective too, because in case of emergency situations like those in Bengaluru, Kerala, and elsewhere, the informal recycling community might be the only existing tool to mitigate damage due to improper waste management as opposed to infrastructure projects which take more than one year for completion and public awareness programs which take decades to show significant results.

Involvement of informal recycling community is vital for the success of any SWM program in India

Indian policy makers and municipal officials should utilize this opportunity, created by improper waste management examples across India, to make adjustments to the existing MSW Rules 2000, and design a concrete national policy based on public needs and backed by science. If this chance passes without a strong national framework to improve waste management, the conditions in today’s Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Coimbatore and Srinagar will arise in many more cities as various forcing factors converge. This is what will lead to a solid waste management crisis affecting large populations of urban Indians.

The Indian Judiciary proved to be the most effective platform for the public to influence government action. The majority of local and national government activity towards improving municipal solid waste management is the result of direct public action, funneled through High Courts in each state, and the Supreme Court. In a recent case (Nov 2012), a slew of PILs led the High Court of Karnataka to threaten to supersede its state capital Bengaluru’s elected municipal council, and its dissolution, if it hinders efforts to improve waste management in the city. In another case in the state of Haryana, two senior officials in its urban development board faced prosecution in its High Court for dumping waste illegally near suburbs. India’s strong and independent judiciary is expected to play an increasing role in waste management in the future, but it cannot bring about the required change without the aid of a comprehensive national policy.

Note: Acknowledgements will be published in the full report “Observations from India’s Crisis” on wtert.org and blog.wtert.org

SWM in India – Role of Policies and Planning

Out of all the measures that are necessary in addressing India’s impending waste management crisis, the most efficient will be changes at the national policy and planning level. It is well known among the small but growing waste management sector that urban India will hit rock bottom due to improper waste management. Unfortunately, they think such a crisis is required to bring about policy changes, as they generally tend to happen only after the damage has been done. This attitude is unfortunate because it indicates a lack of or failed effort from the sector to change policy, and also the level of India’s planning and preparedness.

Important Statistics

An average of 32,000 people will be added to urban India every day, continuously, until 2021. This number is a warning, considering how India’s waste management infrastructure went berserk trying to deal with just 25,000 new urban Indians during the last decade. The scale of urbanization in India and around the world is unprecedented with planetary consequences to Earth’s limited material and energy resources, and its natural balance. Rate of increase in access to sanitation infrastructure generally lags behind the rate of urbanization by 33% around the world; however, the lack of planning and impromptu piecemeal responses to waste management issues observed in India might indicate a much wider gap. This means urban Indians will have to wait longer than an average urban citizen of our world for access to proper waste management infrastructure.

The clear trend in the outbreak of epidemic and public protests around India is that they are happening in the biggest cities in their respective regions. Kolkata, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Srinagar are capitals of their respective states, and Coimbatore is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu. However, long term national level plans to improve waste management in India do not exist and guidance offered to urban local bodies is meager. Apart from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), there has been no national level effort required to address the problem. Even though JnNURM was phenomenal in stimulating the industry and local governments, it was not enough to address the scale and extent of the problem. This is because of JnNURM is not a long term financing program, sorts of which are required to tackle issues like solid waste management.

Role of Municipal Corporations

In the short term, municipal corporations have their hands tied and will not be able to deliver solutions immediately. They face the task of realizing waste management facilities inside or near cities while none of their citizens want them near their residences. Officials of Hyderabad’s municipal corporation have been conducting interviews with locals for about eight years now for a new landfill site, to no avail. In spite of the mounting pressure, most corporations will not be able to close the dumpsites that they are currently using. This might not be the good news for which local residents could be waiting, but, it is important that bureaucrats, municipal officials and politicians be clear about it. Residents near Vellalore dump protested and blocked roads leading to the site because Coimbatore municipal officials repeatedly failed to fulfill their promises after every landfill fire incident.

Due to lack of existing alternatives, other than diverting waste fractionally by increasing informal recycling sector’s role, closing existing landfills would mean finding new sites.  Finding new landfills in and around cities is nearly impossible because of the track record of dumpsite operations and maintenance in India and the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) phenomenon. However, the corporations can and should take measures to reduce landfill fires and open burning, and control pollution due to leachate and odor and vector nuisance. This will provide much needed relief to adjacent communities and give the corporations time to plan better. While navigating through an issue as sensitive this, it is of the utmost importance that they work closely with the community by increasing clarity and transparency.

Municipal officials at the meeting repeatedly stressed the issue of scarcity of land for waste disposal, which led to overflowing dumpsites and waste treatment facilities receiving more waste than what they were designed for. Most municipal officials are of the sense that a magic solution is right around the corner which will turn all of their city’s waste into fuel oil or gas, or into recycled products. While such conversion is technologically possible with infinite energy and financial sources, that is not the reality. Despite their inability to properly manage wastes, the majority of municipal officials consider waste as “wealth” when approached by private partners. Therefore, a significant portion of officials expect royalty from private investments without sharing business risk.

Good News on the Horizon

While the situation across India is grim and official action has to be demanded through courts or public protests, there are a handful of local governments which are planning ahead and leading the way. The steps taken to solve New Delhi’s waste management problem is laudable. If it was not for the kind of leadership and determination showcased in Delhi, India would not have had its only operating WTE plant. This plant was built in 2011, at a time when the need for WTE plants was being felt all over India. 1300 tons of Delhi’s waste goes into this facility every day to generate electricity. The successful operation of this facility reinvigorated dormant projects across the nation.

After living with heaps of garbage for months, Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation started penalizing institutions which dump their waste openly. It has also increased the subsidy on the cost of small scale biogas units to 75% and aerobic composting units to 90% to encourage decentralized waste management. The corporation is optimistic with the increase in number of applications for the subsidy from 10 in an entire year to 18 in just a few months after the announcement.

In Bengaluru, improper waste management led to the change of the city’s municipal commissioner. The new commissioner was handed over the job to particularly improve waste management in the city. As a response to the dengue outbreak in Kolkata, the state’s Chief Minister went door to door to create awareness about waste management, and also included the topic in her public speeches. For good or bad, many cities in India have started or initiated steps for banning plastics without performing life cycle analyses.

Note: Acknowledgements will be published in the full report “Observations from India’s Crisis” on wtert.org and blog.wtert.org