The Swachh Bharat Urban Mission for clean cities may be a successful Jan Andolan (people’s revolution) to the Central government, but in almost all the 4,320 cities surveyed, it remains stunted and incomplete.
Mahatma Gandhi, the original swachh hero who deplored the low sensitivity among many Indians towards cleanliness and sanitation, is the NDA government’s inspiration, with the original SBM call in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorting people to fulfil “his dream.” In a speech a century ago, in 1916, Gandhi called Kashi a “stinking den” with the famous but dirty Vishwanath temple reflecting the “character” of the country’s people. If anyone carried the moral force to lead a people’s revolution on waste, it was the Mahatma, but 105 five years after he made those remarks, India’s cities are struggling under thousands of tonnes of waste generated each day.
If anyone carried the moral force to lead a people’s revolution on waste, it was the Mahatma, but 105 five years after he made those remarks, India’s cities are struggling under thousands of tonnes of waste generated each day
The NDA government’s idea that raising the profile of cleanliness and awarding marks and ranks to individual cities under the Swachh Survekshan programme has produced a patchwork of results, rather than the revolution that the government claims
Compostable and recyclable waste are regularly featured in public discussions, with plastic waste rising up as an extremely serious issue. Not many look at another component of waste in a “rising India” – Construction and Demolition waste (CDW), which is officially estimated at about 150 million tonnes a year, and thought to be three or four times higher in volume by NGO estimates. In a growing country with rapid rebuilding of property, this category of waste, which represents embedded and precious natural minerals such as sand and ores, is bound to rise in volumes manifold. But the processing capacity as of 2020 was 6,500 tonnes per day, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Beyond contests and ranks
Under best practice, CDW should be recycled in a circular-use system, helping to produce new materials for the construction sector, and used mainly in non-structural applications. Indore, the “clean city” winner nationally in this year’s Swachh Survekshan, was cited in 2020 by the SBM as a good performer when it comes to turning unspecified volumes of CDW into bricks, tiles and other articles in dedicated facilities. The city earns Rs.2.5 crores from this in a year, indicating that the volumes are modest.
The Central Vista project of the Centre in New Delhi also talks of recycling CDW, with a dedicated plant, although many architects point out that salvageable articles from heritage buildings including preserved doors may not be easy to reuse, given the hurried 2024 deadline for the project.
At the moment, those who want to dispose of CDW sustainably from small projects get little help from urban local bodies. Most simply dump this on roadsides, and leave it to the civic body to remove at its convenience. This is a tragedy of the commons, and the personnel of the municipality most often just negotiate an unofficial labour rate for removal, and it is unclear how the debris they take away is recycled or disposed of. Construction waste occupies a lot of space, stressing the meagre landfills available to local governments. Plans to set up recycling facilities in 53 cities by 2017 made little progress, and only 13 had done so by 2020, CSE said.
How the cities fared
The backend of the Survekshan, which consists of an elaborate matrix of marks awarded to competing civic bodies, awards 100 marks for CDW, of which 50 is broadly for collection and storage methods and a similar quantum for recycling. These marks come under the overall head of Processing and Disposal which has a maximum of 800 marks, with another 600 each going to segregated collection and sustainable sanitation.
Indore’s claimed performance shows the city scores heavily on Service Level Progress, the apex category. This assessment includes the handling of CDW apart from garbage collection efficiency, source segregation, maintenance of storm drains and effective curbs on plastic waste. Indore’s tally is 2313.38 out of 2400 marks. By contrast, Bengaluru, a hub of construction activity, scores 1933.10, Mumbai 1692.33, faster-growing Navi Mumbai 2112.02, New Delhi core area 2223.19, Hyderabad 1797.96 and Chennai 1392.87. Together with curbs on plastic waste, recycling of a manageable volume of plastics, and a focus on a massive upscaling of CDW recycling holds the key to sustainable waste management. It is moot whether competitive challenges can achieve that as efficiently as investments in green infrastructure and compensation of waste generators will.
Together with curbs on plastic waste, recycling of a manageable volume of plastics, and a focus on a massive upscaling of CDW recycling holds the key to sustainable waste management. It is moot whether competitive challenges can achieve that as efficiently as investments in green infrastructure and compensation of waste generators will.
According to the Survekshan, Indore NGOs paid the public Rs.2.5 per kg of recyclable waste. Such an initiative in other major cities could appeal to enlightened self-interest of citizens since they will make money beyond what some items of waste, such as old newspapers, fetch now.
It is essential for States to be rated on whether they set up designated waste recycling estates, where segregated materials can go, avoiding the widespread small scale, polluting recyclers currently sprinkled across cities. Naming and praising cities and States has limited value when there is a severe waste problem, lax enforcement of rules, indifferent public attitudes that Mahatma Gandhi lamented, and, crucially, unaccountable governments.