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India’s Waste Management at a Crossroads: Where Will It Go From Here?

November 4, 2010

India is in the midst of an ever-worsening solid waste crisis. According to Union Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh, India’s “cities have the dubious distinction of being the dirtiest cities in the world.” Although Minister Ramesh declared in November 2009, “we have to do something dramatic on municipal solid waste,” the government has taken no dramatic action in the past year. Waste management in India continues to idle at a crossroads while the nation steadily grows dirtier.

What direction might waste management take in the coming years?

The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, enacted in 2000, have been under revision since 2008, but the public has not been informed about which aspects of the rules are being revised, who is doing the revising, or when the revision will take effect. Revision of the MSW rules is one of the nation’s best kept secrets.

Another possible direction is the construction of massive regional landfills, each large enough to hold all waste from up to 20 localities for up to 20 years. This recipe for disaster is advocated by the World Bank-administered Water and Sanitation Programme. One would expect the track record of the landfill in Mavallipura, near Bangalore, to curb even a World Banker’s enthusiasm for the WSP’s proposed panacea. The Mavallipura landfill, opened in 2007, was supposed to last for at least 20 years, but, according to a report by Environment Support Group Trust, Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy: Investigating Mavallipura’s Illegal Landfills, the facility is already overflowing, has caused serious environmental and public health problems, and is now a battleground for skirmishes between local residents, trying to close the facility, and the police, ordered to keep the landfill open.

Yet another possible direction is wider privatization of waste management services, although it isn’t clear how privatization can be harmonized with the existing legal framework for solid waste management, since private service providers tend to manage waste in ways that completely violate the MSW rules. The World Bank is marketing this formula for failure as “a new concept and approach,” despite the fact that the World Bank’s track record of privatizing municipal services since the early 1970’s has been more cautionary than encouraging.

A desperate measure to extend the life of existing dumps is the growing practice of exhuming waste from such dumps—a practice called bio-mining. After the exhumed waste is sieved, fine particles are being marketed as compost together with bags of synthetic fertilizer. Surprisingly, the advocates of this practice appear to be unconcerned about the fact that India’s dumpsites are heavily contaminated by persistent organic pollutants, including dioxins, furans, PCBs, and pesticides such as DDT and HCH. Despite the possibility that applying “compost” from dumps to agricultural land will contaminate the food supply with persistent organic pollutants, the practice is gaining in popularity as fertilizer manufacturers search for the cheapest way to comply with a 2006 government order mandating the co-marketing of compost with synthetic fertilizer.

Another possible scenario is that waste management services will continue to idle at a crossroads indefinitely, gridlocked by indecision, institutional inertia, bureaucratic indifference, corruption and incompetence.

Sadly, the least probable scenario is nationwide implementation of the ten year old, widely violated Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules.

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