In a historical first for the nation, 2012 saw several public protests against improper solid waste management erupt across India – from the northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir to the southernmost Tamil Nadu. Fighting for the right to a clean environment and environmental justice, protesters staged large-scale demonstrations, including an indefinite hunger strike and road blocks outside local waste handling facilities.
Waste management has now joined the otherwise short list of issues – along with corruption and fuel prices – capable of generating political unification in India. This is perhaps not surprising given that improper waste practice has been responsible for an outbreak of Dengue Fever and continues to threaten other epidemics. Just this month, there have been protests about waste dumping in Amritsar.
The wave of public agitation resulted in some judicial action and remedial response from the government, but India’s waste management problems remain unsolved and may well lead to a crisis if the situation continues indefinitely without any long-term planning and policy reforms being put in place to deliver real improvements.
Hungry for change
The President of Vilappilsala Village Panchayat (the village council) joined other villagers on a hunger strike in protest against the waste policies of her local counterpart, the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. The village of Vilappilsala sits 22 km away from Thiruvananthapuram, which is the capital of Kerala state, located on India’s south west coast. Since July 2000, around 80% of the waste generated in Thiruvananthapuram has been transported to a composting plant and dump site in Vilappilsala. Since the same time, reports of respiratory illnesses at the Vilappil Primary Health Centre have increased 10 fold, from an average of 450 to 5,000 cases per month.
Those who swam in the village’s aquifer started contracting infections; swarms of flies became pervasive; a stigma of filth marked households throughout the community. Locals who had previously taken great pride in hosting guests with food and drink grew frustrated finding that people were no longer even willing to take a glass of water in their homes. Currently, there is not a single household in Vilappilsala which has not experienced respiratory illness due to the waste processing plant and its adjoining dump site.
Meanwhile, 22km away Thiruvananthapuram’s residents were sneaking out at night with plastic bags of rubbish to dispose of behind bushes, on streets or in water bodies, and were even openly burning piles of waste. The reason? Because municipal waste was no longer being collected by the City, as it could not force open the composting plant and dump site against large-scale protests by residents of Vilappilsala. This is why in August 2012 some 2,500 police personnel had to escort waste trucks to the treatment plant, which was being blocked by residents laying in the road.
In response to a similar situation in Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka – where streets were filled with decomposing rubbish for months – the city’s municipal commissioner was replaced specifically in order to address the waste management situation. Against the will of local residents, a landfill previously closed on the orders of the state’s pollution control board in response to public agitation had to be reopened soon after when a new landfill site could not be found. Population density and the scale of increasing urban sprawl make finding new landfill sites around Indian cities a near impossibility due to the sheer lack of space for ‘locally unwanted land uses’ (LULUs) such as waste management.
At least partly due to poor waste management, Kolkata – the state capital of West Bengal and third biggest city in India – has suffered an outbreak of dengue fever, with 550 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. This outbreak coincides with a 600% increase in dengue cases in India and a 71% increase in malarial cases in Mumbai over the last five years. Accumulations of rain water in non-biodegradable waste littered around cities provide a major breeding ground for mosquitoes, thus increasing mosquito population density and making the transmission of the diseases they carry, such as dengue, yellow fever and malaria, that much easier.
It’s not just mosquitoes that are thriving amongst so much unmanaged refuse. Municipal waste on streets and at dumpsites is also an important source of food for stray dogs. Rabies contracted from stray dog bites already kills more than 20,000 people in India every year and improper waste management has caused a 1:13 stray dog to human ratio in Srinagar, where 54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in a span of 3.5 years – this compares to ratios of 1:31 in Mumbai and 1:100 in Chennai. The public has been protesting about this stray dog menace for months now but there are no waste management solutions in sight, only partial and short-term measures like dog sterilisation.
As India’s population and economy continue to grow, its waste problems demand a concrete national policy based on public needs and backed by science. Indian policy makers and municipal officials should take the opportunity to make adjustments to the existing MSW Rules 2000. Without a strong national framework to improve waste management, the conditions in today’s Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai will arise in many more cities, leading to a major and widespread waste management crisis.
We are grateful to Ranjith Annepu and Bioenergyconsult for the opportunity to reproduce this article, based on Ranjith’s research on Sustainable Solid Waste Management in India. Versions of this article have appeared on a number of other websites, including Bioenergyconsult.
Bioenergyconsult is an organisation that aims to raise awareness of waste issues, improve waste management and further the use of biomass for energy in under-privileged communities globally.