Preventing Deonar from Becoming a Pan-Indian Phenomenon
A few weeks ago, I was watching a film my colleagues at Chintan had been asked to produce on waste segregation. They had picked Mysuru, a choice that seemed logical, considering the city has been rated on top of the pile under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Yet, I was somewhat cynical when they stated their choice. When I saw the film, I couldn’t help asking them, and myself: If every city followed Mysuru’s logic, would we still suffer Deonar-like catastrophes?
My answer is a grey one: perhaps. But the chances would have been much lower.
Mysuru’s Method of Waste Disposal
Mysuru’s municipality, and its teams, push even lower-income level households to segregate. They collect the waste that has been segregated. They push for composting and recycling, locally.
Some MLAs have funded local Material Recovery Facilities where dry waste is segregated for recycling. Very little reaches the landfill. And even at the landfill, wet waste is segregated for an on-site composting facility, to divert the waste drastically. Kolar does similar things.
Sure, plastics that can’t be recycled, such as plastic bags, multi-layered packaging and others, still reach the landfill as does some wet waste and sanitary waste, such as used diapers and menstrual waste.
The wet waste rots, and methane, I am sure, is emitted. I am sure it can catch fire and set all these other plastics aflame. We could have a Deonar-like situation. But we haven’t, and by diverting a significant amount of waste off the landfills, the Mysuru Municipal Corporation has reduced the risk.
How Waste Sorting Can Help
As anyone can guess, most towns and cities in India, don’t share this capacity or vision. They still follow the old-fashioned, ‘collect and dispose’ mentality. So Deonar is not a Mumbai problem – it just happens to have taken place in the grand city first. It can happen anywhere – Bhopal, with its endless dump, or Guwahati, where endangered adjutant storks stand taller than many waste-pickers.
The new rules on waste, released only a few weeks ago, have come just on time to set a legal framework for preventing this kind of crisis. Although they are silent on the issue of waste prevention and reduction, they focus on intelligent segregation, and ask that every waste generator segregates waste into three sorted sections – wet, dry, and hazardous, which includes menstrual waste and batteries.
I’ve often been told that people don’t segregate their waste because the waste collector mixes this up. Recently, Viren Gupta, a young school-going intern at Chintan, set out to understand what motivated people to segregate.
He found that while over 70 percent of the people segregated in the Luytens Delhi colony of Rabindra Nagar, the slick plastic vehicle the waste collector used was entirely unsuitable for keeping waste segregated. He is now working on identifying the features of the waste collector’s perfect vehicle.
By the way, it was the waste collector who had been trained to push for segregation. We need precisely this level of engagement, locally, to get the segregation right at each step. Frankly, segregating waste is not as hard as it seems in bigger towns and cities, from where 71 percent of all waste is generated. We simply have to ensure this is done across Metros and Class I and II cities.
Segregated waste is much less messy to handle, which means that it is likely to be diverted with greater ease. The new interest in composting, fuelled by the local mess with waste handling, could mean many more communities could compost their waste. While the new incentives for composting may not trickle down to all communities, marketing compost from waste is now certainly more lucrative. And as Tamil Nadu has just shown us, municipalities might use this for their own horticultural needs.
Proper Waste Management
- April 5: Environment Ministry notifies solid waste
management rules after a gap of nearly 16 years.
- New rules empower the municipal bodies to charge fines for
littering and non-segregation of waste.
- Pushing for decentralisation in waste management, where waste
is segregated and treated locally, can help.
- Cities across India need to learn lessons in waste
management from Deonar, where it took several days to bring fire generated from
waste under control.
Lessons from Deonar
Another reason for the flare-up at Deonar were the plastics. Not only are we consuming, and hence, trashing more plastics as a country, but the non-recyclable fraction seems to be increasing.
I’m talking about multi-layered plastics (such as the Lays chips and kurkure packets or the ice-cream bar wrappers). They can’t be recycled. So they land up at the dump, where, as plastics, they combust easily. The new plastic waste rules, released in March this year, hold the manufacturer accountable in whole new ways for such waste.
Municipalities have to seize the opportunity and involve manufacturers to ensure their cities aren’t at risk from burning plastics. Or, they can simply do what Karnataka has done – ban the stuff, an option that may not be entirely implementable, but which will put the spotlight on irresponsible manufacturers.
There is something to be unlearned from Deonar too – banning waste-pickers, for example, is a silly idea, because the waste would self-combust, even if they didn’t work there. Waste-pickers don’t gain by setting the ground they walk on afire. They can, instead, be deployed for pre-dumping segregation at the landfill, and doorstep collection to reduce the last shred of plastic reaching the landfill.
Many other steps will help to prevent Deonar from becoming a pan-Indian phenomenon. But that will be too big a bite for now. I’d prescribe segregation, composting and getting manufacturers to take responsibility as the key tasks in the coming months. Let’s get this done fast.
(The writer is an environmentalist and writer. She is the founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group)