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Privatisation Delivers “the Most Expensive Option for Solid Waste Management”

March 18, 2011

Week after week, India becomes visibly dirtier. Conflicting priorities inherent in the government’s drive to privatise municipal solid waste management (MSWM) deserve much of the blame.

The government aims to protect the environment and public health by minimizing municipal solid waste (MSW), yet the government expects the private sector to manage MSW as cheaply as possible. Here’s the catch: in this era of rampant consumerism, it’s increasingly expensive to protect the environment and public health from the public’s use-and-throw lifestyle, which values convenience over conservation.

The government’s privatisation drive fails to acknowledge the inherent contradiction between the government’s expectation of cheap service from the private sector, and the private sector’s determination to maximize profit. The consequences of this contradiction are demonstrated at the doorsteps of residents of Pondicherry’s Raj Bhavan neighborhood. Every morning, employees of PMSPL (Puducherry Municipal Services Private Limited), a joint venture between Kivar Environ (a Bangalore-based firm) and Puducherry Urban Development Agency, collect segregated biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste from homeowners and then combine the wastes in a collection vehicle. Handling and transporting combined waste violates the government’s MSWM regulations, but is far cheaper, and hence more efficient, than managing segregated waste.

For several years, an NGO named Shuddham worked diligently in Pondicherry’s Raj Bhavan ward to educate residents about the importance of segregating garbage, so that the wastes could more easily be composted and recycled, minimizing the amount that was sent to Pondicherry’s dump. Shuddham’s employees visited homes each morning and collected segregated waste in separate containers. Shuddham then composted the biodegradable waste and, after additional sorting, sold recyclable materials — plastic, metal, glass — to scrap dealers. Shuddham’s efforts brought waste management in the ward into compliance with the nation’s Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, which make daily, segregated waste collection mandatory. Again, the purpose of segregating the waste was to facilitate composting and recycling, which minimize the amount of waste that must ultimately be disposed at a dump yard. This approach, although labor intensive and certainly not the cheapest, minimized dumping and maximized the recovery of precious resources, yielding significant benefits in terms of safeguarding human health and the environment.

But in January, Pondicherry’s government terminated its contracts with Shuddham and other small, local waste haulers, and awarded a 19-year waste management contract for the entire territory to PMSPL. The contract pays PMSPL according to the weight of waste they dump at Pondicherry’s new dumpsite in Kurumbapet, so, as far as PMSPL is concerned, the more waste, the better. To streamline collection and transport, PMSPL brought in 14 compactor trucks, dozens of mechanized mini-tippers, and hundreds of plastic dumpsters. With 14 compactor trucks delivering an average of 14.5 tons of waste to Kurumbapet per trip, the dumpsite is filling up rapidly.

The problem here is not primarily with PMSPL. The problem is the government’s waste management policy, which treats privatisation as an off-the-shelf solution to India’s solid waste crisis, disregarding privatisation’s dismal track record, and the colossal disjuncture between the imperatives of private enterprise and the nature and characteristics of public goods. As Patrick Dorvil, a solid waste economist at the European Investment Bank, explains, “it is difficult to compare the performance of private firms and municipal management in the field of solid waste management, since these organizations pursue different goals . . . Private firms are indeed interested in maximizing profit, whereas the objectives of municipal management are much more complex.”

I wanted to learn more about PMSPL’s operation in Pondy, so I spent an afternoon accompanying a crew of a compactor truck on their route. PMSPL’s PR blitz is as bitterly sarcastic, disingenuous and contemptuous as the tobacco industry’s. Each compactor truck, filled with Pondicherry’s unsegregatable compacted mixed garbage, is decorated with a billboard proclaiming, “Let us segregate the waste & save our environment.”

Trash compactor truck with bamboozing message

Bamboozling the public?

I watched as PMSPL’s employees filled the truck with every kind of garbage imaginable, from florescent tube lights and car tires to banana trees and coconut branches discarded by a wedding hall.

Feeding the beast

Feeding the beast

Although their contract stipulates that PMSPL will build and operate a “scientifically engineered sanitary landfill,” the compactor trucks transport the garbage to a 27-hectare enclosed lowland in Kurumbapet, where the trucks empty themselves like defecating monsters. As organic material in the waste decomposes, it generates methane gas and heat. The gas combusts and the hillocks of waste smolder, perpetually emitting thick noxious smoke, and generating dioxins, PCBs and furans as plastics burn in the low temperature fires.

A PMSPL compactor truck enters Kurumbapet dump yard

A PMSPL compactor truck enters Kurumbapet dump yard

According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, “land disposal [is] the most expensive option for solid waste management anywhere in the world.” But the high price of dumping mixed waste isn’t reflected in the cost of PMSPL’s contract. Rather, the price for such mismanagement is “externalized,” or paid by the public in the forms of polluted groundwater, lost land value, and ill health from pollutants like smoke, dioxins, furans, heavy metals and PCBs.

The residents of Kurumbapet and vicinities downwind and downstream reap the collateral damage of privatised solid waste management. By outsourcing this public service, the public buys mismanagement of solid waste, for the highest possible price.

Kurumbapet dump yard

Kurumbapet dump yard

I want to thank the employees of PMSPL. Their staff have been extremely cooperative with me in all of my investigations. PMSPL is a private firm, and they’re doing what private firms do: they strive to maximize profit. PMSPL’s priority is stated in the job description for a chief operating officer, announced on Kivar Environ’s website. The ad informed applicants, “You will be responsible for effective and profitable delivery of services by the operating business units.”

The problem is the government’s determination to privatise public services.

Privatisation is not the solution to India's solid waste crisis

Privatisation is not the solution to India's solid waste crisis

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2011 10:51 am

    Nice Suggestion given by You. It should be implimented in all organizations.


  2. S.K.Verma permalink
    June 20, 2011 3:55 pm

    Sir, What is he meaning of PMSPL written in trucks.

    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      June 21, 2011 4:02 am

      Dear S.K. Verma,

      PMSPL means Puducherry Municipal Services Pvt. Ltd. PMSPL is a joint venture between the Bangalore-based firm, Kivar Environ, and Puducherry Urban Development Agency.

      Best wishes,

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