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Swachh Bharat: The Waste Land

Swachh Bharat: The Waste Land

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,


  1. I am a waste management professional. This is one of the best articles I have read on this subject. Unless Indians understand that waste management is a SYSTEM there will be no improvement in cleanliness in the country. You can’t hide garbage. You have to spend money to collect, transfer, segregate, recycle and dispose it and all components must be done well. And this will never happen if done by the government. If the Indian government is serious about clean India they need to hire smart professionals like this author to develop viable systems to manage the problem.

  2. If you read the article carefully landfilling comes after recycling and reuse. No country has ever achieved 100% reuse and so some waste will have to be landfilled. The alternative to putting the left-over waste in a scientific landfill is to throw it on the streets or open lots like they do in India.


  4. Unfortunately, there are very few successful models globally, where nonprivate (read public) agencies are successful….
    While you are right to a certain extent on your worry about profiteering, but that is what is going to make it sustainable. And if sustainability is at risk due to greed, the government needs to step in to regulate. Also note ‘your taxes will get put to good use’ instead of it filling the coffers of those, where it is ending up today.

  5. While the article was good in touching on crucial aspects of need for technology (thru private players entering the space), ensuring financial sustainance through Polluters Pay Principle and Resource recovery, it sadly lost its credibility and totally bombed by suggesting landfilling. There are several alternatives like ” coproceesing” which promotes circular economy and sustainability and hence notches above landfilling in the waste mansgemana hierarchy. It is already successful in our country and helping states like Goa, cities like raipur, coimbatore, Chennai (to name a few) not only in avoiding landfilling but also in reclaiming land by cleaning out old landfills.

  6. See sustainability should not the priority at this very moment. It will come once the waste industry is stabilized. Now the government needs to intelligently invest money rather than looking for short term profits.

  7. Government needs to engage good consultants for keeping check over private players. Its very easy to take the project, flout the laws, make money and when the law is imposed, these private players run away. There is no strong binding…mere monetary loss may not result in developers’s run away. And once gone there is no reply neither with government nor anyone else. And this is a vicious circle everywhere. When the matter is sensitive to environment, personal guarantees are required . Companies come and fly. and those running and making profits are also playing with environment and no strict action has been observed so far. Even NGT fails to control and goes into unnecessary details rather than polllution

  8. If the govt can’t even fine and punish those who flout environmental laws how do you expect it to manage waste. You want govt to do everything except the job it is supposed to do which is to punish those who break rules. If there is competition among private players, and the market is free, no one will be able to exploit the situation like you suggest.

  9. As a waste management professional I work with municipalities in several countries. The author is absolutely correct in his analysis. I have visited India several times and it is shocking to me how little the authorities understand or care about waste management. You have to make an asset out of liability, and as the author pount out, incentivize (and monitor) the private sector to bring in new technologies and money. The govt (in collaboration with the private sector) sets the rules of the game, then the municipalities become umpires and monitor and punish the private companies that cheat and break rules. It works in other countries why not India?

  10. The articles is nicely written and brings in some facts and comparative figures for assessment of the situation. However, the emphasis on involving private parties completely is not advisable ( m view). I will explain it why.. whenever the motive is incentive driven or profit making, there comes the shortcuts and ignorance of environmental issues. The one responsible for collection will try to maximize the profit by adding unnecessary volumes, the one responsible for landfilling will try to maximise intake of waste which can be used anywhere else….and so on. Thus the objective of minimizing the waste and maximise the recovery isnt met. Also the private players compromise with the environmental issues most of the time . Most of the waste based power plants doesnt meet emission standards and manage the same inappropriately. SO until an organised and dedicated govt department ( say PSU)

  11. Incentives drive human behavior and the profit incentive is a powerful tool to use to manage India’s waste. Why does the government think it can do things better than the private industry and at less cost when the evidence is so clear–look at every industry that the public sector competes with the private sector ( telecom, banking, airlines, steel, energy etc). The private sector is more efficient every time. India’s biggest problem is too much control of resources by the government and that must change for India to transform. Great piece–very informative.

  12. One would think that with so much surplus labour that keeping the country clean would be easy. But whenever the govt sticks its dirty paws into things it messes up. Like the author said.. We need 21st century tools not 19th century tools to solve this 21st century problem. Incentivise collection, recycling and storage and the problem can be solved. Great article.

  13. Waste management can be a huge industry, deploying new ideas, startups, private equity. But only if the govt let’s go of its control. Too much govt control over everything. This author is constantly reminding readers of this problem of too much govt control over resources. I hope everybody sees that he is making sense.

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