The Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance government is slowly unfolding its urban agenda. The solutions presented to deal with the ‘menaces’ of urban India by the government are not just questionable, they are very scary. It is apparent that the cities will be scampered as ‘Multi-National Corporations’. This was stated by one of the government officials in a recently held ‘International Conference on Sustainable and Inclusive Urban Development in India’. The proceedings of the conference will be out in the coming days. I will not indulge in detailing the deliberations of it.
This post is about the urban solid waste management framework proposed by those in the corridors of power to clean our garbage ridden cities. Last year, on the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, Union Government launched Swach Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Mission). Initially there wasn’t much clarity of what is it that government desires to do. Is it going to be the follow up of Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan of previous Manmohan Singh led government where greater emphasis was laid on sanitation or is it going to be limited to keeping our streets of cities clean? Over the past many months, government machinery has achieved a greater degree of clarity on Swach Bharat Abhiyaan. As a part of the larger programme, new draft versions of Solid Waste Management Rules, plastic, e-waste, bio-medical and hazardous waste handling and management rules have been opened for public discussion. Government has also framed guidelines for Swach Bharat Abhiyaan. The mission emphasis is both on sanitation and solid waste management. Larger investments will be made on constructing toilets and supporting municipal governments to increase their capacities in the domain of waste management. The discourse on the given mission was held as a part of the international conference. The importance of the discussion can be realized from the fact that Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of National Institute for Transformation of India (NITI) Aayog, Sindhushree Khullar, chaired the session.
The presentations on sanitation were grounded. The recommendations and challenges highlighted how constructing toilets alone will not be able to solve the problem of open defecation. It’s the conversation on Solid Waste Management which became a little discomforting. V. Srinivas Chary, Professor and Director, Center for Energy, Environment, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development, Administrative Staff College of India, who has been supported by Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation for various research projects on sanitation, opened the Pandora box by saying that government should rigorously go after ‘waste to energy’- incineration plants for handling solid waste. It is the technology of the day. Durga Shankar Mishra, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development, also spoke about solid waste management. He emphasized on the new developments for encouraging innovations in ‘waste to energy’ which included proposed amendments for existing Electricity Act and mandatory purchasing of electricity from waste to energy plants at deferentially higher price for encouraging innovation in the sector by state electricity boards. Considering that ‘waste to energy’ is merely tech-fix with very high environmental and economic costs, the government approach didn’t make sense at all.
They didn’t take the route of strengthening recycling sector and enforcing stringent extended producers’ responsibility norms. Phrases like recycling and extended producers’ responsibility were not used once in whole conversation. The guidelines of Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation refer to recycling, but place it at the last and not first in the text. First place is accorded to waste to energy. The placement entitles the priorities of union government funding. Without a doubt it can be said that the government is moving in the direction of incineration or in crude words complete burning of waste. Waste is a resource. Recycling has a huge potential to fuel the growth in manufacturing sector. Manufacturing sector is being looked as the one holding immense prospective for the future of Indian urbanity. When Prime Minister of India is talking about ‘Make in India’, pushing for investments in manufacturing, it doesn’t make sense at all to hear thundering silence on recycling.
Going ‘waste to energy’ way is a flawed approach. It will throw many informal waste workers out of business and their numbers are not small. 25000- 30000 wastepickers, 20,000 sorters and other workers in informal waste stocking units, more than 5000-7000 scrap dealers all will go out of business in just one city i.e. Bangalore. Imagine how much loss of livelihood will happen at national level!
After stating these numbers to august gathering, when I asked about implications of incineration of waste on livelihood of poorest of the poor, no formal response came from either Srinivas Chary or Durga Shankar Mishra. Sheela Patel, founder of Society for Promotion of Area Resource Center, Mumbai, was the only sane voice on the issue. She too shied away from being very critical and didn’t pursue the case of contribution made by informal waste economy in waste management. Sindhushree Khullar, chair of the session, said that government is very bad in marketing its initiatives; the gap in information of initiatives creates misinformed public opinion. Livelihood is an important domain according to her, and will be focused on in skill development framework. Someone needs to tell the government that those who are engaged in informal waste economy for their livelihood are highly skilled. Waste sorting, aggregating and recycling are not lay man’s job. Informal waste workers very well know their work and have years of experience in recycling. They may not have gone to formal learning centers, but their experiential learning qualifies them to be waste managers. They need good infrastructure, credit and insurance facilities to conduct their business. Skills are not their current priorities. Sad indeed it is that people ask for infrastructure and conducive financial services to enhance their livelihood, government answers by focusing on merely skills.