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India’s municipal solid waste (MSW) problems are solvable. They can be achieved by spending less than half the money currently allocated to municipal budgets for solid waste management. All India has to do is follow the template used by other successful MSW systems around the world.

~By Sanjiv Bhatia

India boasts some of the dirtiest cities in the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves credit for using the bully pulpit of his office to address this issue through the Swachh Bharat campaign. More than Rs 20,000 crore has been collected in taxes to aid in this effort. But much still remains to be done.

Various excuses are served up for India’s filth—poverty, overpopulation, illiteracy, corruption, lack of funds, etc. None of these factors, however, explain the reality. Thailand is a poorer country than India—yet Bangkok is cleaner than most Indian cities. Tokyo has a higher population density than Delhi, yet it is one of the cleanest cities in the world. China, too, is plagued by corruption, yet its cities have significantly higher standards of cleanliness than India’s. And it is not lack of funds either—municipalities in India spend an average of Rs 2,100 per tonne of waste compared to Rs 2,050 per tonne in the UK.

India’s municipal solid waste (MSW) problems are solvable and the solutions are quite simple. And they can be achieved by spending less than half the money currently allocated to municipal budgets for solid waste management. All India has to do is follow the template used by other successful MSW systems around the world.

  • Successful waste management systems are almost always privately managed. Private companies bring in technical expertise, new technologies, modern operating practices, trained manpower, efficiency and cost controls. The role of the government and the municipal bodies is that of an umpire: to enforce anti-littering laws, create public awareness against littering and levy user/polluter charges. In India, most MSW programmes are still being managed by inefficient and corrupt municipalities. The few towns that have privatised waste management in India—Pune, Surat, Panaji, Mysuru—have successfully tackled the problem and simultaneously raised cost savings from 40 percent to 70 percent.
  • Efficient MSW systems are based on the principle of “polluter pays”. In other words, those responsible for producing waste should be responsible for paying for its collection and disposal. There is no free lunch—someone has to pay for a clean environment and a better quality of life. In India, garbage collection is either a “voluntary” act where someone on a manually powered tricycle picks up the garbage for a small fee, or it is an expense item on municipal budgets. Both models are unsustainable. The only feasible model is one in which users (households, shops, restaurants, hotels, offices, companies, etc.) are required to pay for garbage disposal. This fee should be collected by the municipality as part of the utility bill and it has to be mandatory, not voluntary. In addition to providing the necessary finances to make the system effective and sustainable, the very act of being forced to pay increases awareness on waste reduction and forces people to take ownership of the problem. Only then will there be a sustained effort to solve the problem.
  • Successful MSW systems have high (almost 100 percent) collection of waste at source. This is enabled by the use of highly efficient and automated equipment capable of handling large volumes of waste with minimal manual intervention. In India, the tricycles and carts used to collect waste can handle only small volumes of it for short distances. As a result, there is a lot of uncollected waste, and to accommodate for this inefficient collection system, most cities are forced to keep a community dumpster for the garbage collector to dump the waste. These dumpsters become a collection point for rag-pickers, stray animals and rodents and are a breeding ground for mosquitoes. These community bins are unnecessary if the initial collection of waste is done using mechanised equipment capable of handling large volumes of waste and transporting it away from populated areas. It is impossible to manage a 21st century problem with 19th century equipment.
  • Successful MSW programmes convert waste from a liability to an asset by monetising the resources that come from it. If there is money to be made from segregation, recycling and reuse, there will be no shortage of private companies willing to set up waste processing and segregation plants called material recycling facilities (MRFs). The US has over 15,000 MRFs, while India has less than 15. Even a small country like Den­mark with a population of about five million—less than most Indian towns—has more than 40 waste processing plants.

Most of the recycling in India is carried out by an informal network of rag-pickers and middlemen. Everyone recognises the inefficient nature of this practice. Little is ever done to change things because no one wants the rag-pickers to lose out on opportunities to make a livelihood. This argument is ill-conceived and based on the false premise that rag-pickers cannot (and should not) be retrained for better employment opportunities. A formalised waste management industry will provide ample job opportunities for retrained ragpickers.

  • Efficient and sustainable MSW systems extract energy from waste. Indian waste has a high organic fraction—almost 50 percent on average. Currently, about 80,000 tonnes of organic waste are dumped in landfills or open lots every day. Anaerobic digestion technology can be used to convert this organic waste into an excellent source of clean cooking gas for over 50 million low-income families. This is how an efficient MSW system can convert a liability into an asset.
  • All successful MSW systems mandate modern scientifically designed landfills to eliminate contamination of groundwater by garbage related leachate (run-off water) and minimise odour and airborne diseases. The MSW Rules, 2000, also mandate such landfills yet over the last 17 years, less than a dozen scientific landfills have been built in the country. Why? Again, it goes back to the issue of incentives. In most developed countries, privately owned landfills charge a tipping fee for taking in waste. This fee pays for the cost of building and running the landfill. It is the profit motive that creates the asset and not government involvement.

In an engineered landfill, the waste is compacted and deposited in cells that are designed to maximise the “airspace”—the amount of waste stored in one cubic yard of space. In Japan, the average landfill rate is around 0.75 tonnes of waste per cubic yard of airspace, whereas in India it is 0.25 tonnes. In other words, it takes almost three times more space to landfill the same volume of waste in India. Without modern landfill technology, India will need to landfill 840 million tonnes of waste over the next 10 years. This will require almost 50,000 acres of land per year. As it is unlikely that this much land will be readily available for landfilling garbage, guess where it will end up—on roads, open lots, rivers, ponds, etc.

Despite the efforts of Swachh Bharat, India remains a dirty country, largely because waste management remains the responsibility of state-owned municipal bodies. The only solution is to get the municipalities out of the waste management business and create incentives for private companies to bring in cutting-edge technologies to collect, transport, segregate, recycle, reuse and dispose of waste. A formalised waste management industry built by private entrepreneurs, backed by private equity and supported by user fees, could clean up the country in five years and also create tens of thousands of jobs.

All the technologies to segregate, recycle and reuse waste currently exist. The global waste management industry is a $230 billion industry employing thousands of people. China has taken a huge leap in this industry and is home to some of the leading manufacturers of waste management equipment. India, with all its engineering prowess, is nowhere on the scene. This stems primarily from dependence on the government to get things done and lack of incentives for private players to invest in the industry.

How can India develop and incentivise a waste management industry? It starts with user fees for collection. Private garbage collection companies get paid from user fees that the municipality levies on the producers of waste. The collected waste is sold to privately owned MRFs which segregate the waste and generate revenue from selling the recyclables. The remaining waste is then taken to a privately-owned landfill which receives a tipping fee based on the quantity of garbage deposited.

Each private player in the system is incentivised to perform. The collection company is motivated to maximise waste collection because its revenue comes from user fees and the sale of waste to the MRF—both measured by volume. The company which runs the MRF makes its money from selling recyclables and so it is persuaded to maximise recyclables and minimise the amount to be disposed of because it has to pay a tipping fee for landfilling. The landfill company makes money from storing waste and is incentivised to use the best landfill engineering practices to maximise airspace.

The invisible hand of the free market and the profit incentive motivate every part of the MSW system to work efficiently, resulting in its efficacy. These incentives will encourage private companies to invest in the development and growth of a modern waste management industry in the country.

Unless the private industry is involved in the process of waste management, Swachh Bharat will remain a mere slogan. 

—The writer is a financial economist and founder, contractwithindia.com

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