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.