Is It Possible to Clean up India?
‘The subcontinent of garbage’ – this is how the Indian subcontinent is often referred to in the local press. And it’s no wonder: Waste can be seen everywhere in Indian cities, especially in poor neighborhoods – in alleys, streets, and squares, there are plastic boxes and plastic bags, brightly colored packaging and food waste, old newspapers and cardboard boxes.
But waste does not just accumulate in the cities. Local roadsides will one day allow the archaeologists of the future to easily get to the bottom of how the eating habits of the residents of the ‘biggest democracy in the world’ have evolved. All kinds of packages from different varieties of cookies, the ubiquitous plastic bottles, rustling plastic bags that once contained a cornucopia of sweets, chewing gum, and chips – all such things are often thrown out on the go, ‘decorating’ roadside ditches and railway embankments.
However, waste is still disposed of in the so-called good districts. It is done by representatives of the traditional caste occupations, waste collectors, rag-pickers, and cleaners, for whom the mountains of waste are a source of income, and one that is quite substantial by local standards. Garbage is sorted and laid out: waste paper, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, glass, and rags and old clothes that are washed and mended. Anything that can be reused is resold. But whatever cannot be reused, even by the waste collectors, is often thrown out again on the streets of poor neighborhoods, where it lies in the hot southern sun for years, condensing into a homogeneous gray-brown mush.
The attack of the waste
New Delhi, the country’s capital, is particularly affected by ‘aggressive waste.’ One of the sanitation workers’ colonies is located in the middle of the diplomatic quarter, with hills of sorted wastepaper packs and pyramids of bags full of rags visible from afar, greatly surprising the guests of diplomatic missions and embassy villas. The caste of rag-pickers settled here a long time ago – long before the sprawling diplomatic quarter surrounded it on all sides. City authorities have tried several times to resettle such ‘non-diplomatic’ neighbors, but the residents of the ‘waste quarter’ stubbornly resist and do not wish to leave.
The statistics are startling: The official and the unauthorized city dumps add up to 10,000 tons of waste every day. Journalists estimate that it means 2,300 trucks daily. However, the volume of waste is growing along with the population, and it is expected that by 2025, the daily waste volume will have reached 4,700 truckloads.
Experts say that every citizen of the ‘largest democracy in the world,’ depending on their age and affluence, ‘produces’ from 200 to 600 grams of garbage every day. This waste material is gathered in overflowing landfills, discharged to blind alleys, urban backstreets, and along roads and railway lines, causing complaints from municipalities about the impossibility of collecting and cleaning up all the garbage scattered in and around the city
An Indian journalist once told the author of this article that, traditionally, garbage in India was thrown out onto the street (as it once was in many European cities), and the hot Indian sun would then dry it into dust. But, with the advent of modern plastics, packaging, and cardboard, this ‘garbage disposal system’ no longer works. Yet the tradition remains. To this day, in many Indian cities, it is not considered reprehensible to throw garbage right where you stand or to relieve yourself right then and there without any shame of passersby. Waste is often dumped into rivers. For instance, Delhi is situated on the Yamuna River, considered sacred by the Hindus, but even approaching the riverbank is an unpleasant experience – the ‘sacred waters’ smell like an old gutter. Nothing, except bacteria, has lived in this river for a long time.
The problem is not simply the prosperity of a particular family or its education level. Many residents of wealthy neighborhoods do not even want to wait for garbage collectors to pick up garbage bins or bags with trash from their front door. Wealthy citizens would rather send a servant to throw out garbage in the backstreets.
However, the problem, clearly, is not only with the habits of Indians themselves, but with the outdated system of cleaning the country’s waste, based on the traditional caste system. Most Indian cities do not have a modern centralized system of waste collection and disposal from every household. In Delhi, for example, garbage is fully collected only from about 25% of the area. Dragging packages to the authorized landfill is a long trip. So, it is no surprise then that any vacant lot or abandoned courtyard is turned into a landfill by residents of the neighboring districts.
Still, a problem exists even with the waste that is being collected. Three of the four major landfills near the capital have already gone over capacity and need to be closed. But there is no space for new landfills in India, which is already overpopulated.
The problem is not unique to New Delhi. In Mumbai, for example, the mountains of waste are so large that littered suburbs are now frequented by leopards from the Sanjay Gandhi Reserve next door – the predatory cats wander around in search of food and pose a threat to people living nearby. In addition, the air in the ‘economic capital of India’ is quite polluted, not least because of the incineration of rubbish.
‘The capital of new technologies,’ the city of Bangalore in the south of the country (sometimes called the Indian Silicon Valley), along with its computer software, electronics, and Internet technology, also produces 3,000-4,000 tons of waste daily. The problem of space for storing waste in this booming city is so acute that the government even thought at one time to requisition territory situated on the outskirts of the Tataguni estate founded by artist Nicholas Roerich’s son, Svetoslav Roerich, and his wife and Indian movie star, Devika Rani. Svetoslav Roerich intended to establish a museum on the estate, but some local politicians decided to use the 450-acre manor park as a landfill. Thanks to the efforts of the Russian Embassy and the Indian public, the museum managed to fight off this attempt.
Experts say that every citizen of the ‘largest democracy in the world,’ depending on their age and affluence, ‘produces’ from 200 to 600 grams of garbage every day. This waste material is gathered in overflowing landfills, discharged to blind alleys, urban backstreets, and along roads and railway lines, causing complaints from municipalities about the impossibility of collecting and cleaning up all the garbage scattered in and around the city.
While officials complain that the environmentalists are sending an SOS signal, degradable waste will not help improve the already difficult sanitary and epidemiological situation in the Indian cities. And if this goes on, garbage will begin to displace people.
Stars with brooms
“This is no exaggeration. According to various sources, the cities of India produce 100,000 tons of solid waste daily. The government spends from 500 to 1,500 rupees per ton of waste: 60-70 percent of this amount is spent on garbage collection, up to 30 percent more on transportation, and only the remaining approximately five percent is spent on recycling,” said Vladimir Ivashin, expert at the Center for Indological Studies at Moscow State University, in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine.
Most of the waste is burned or buried, said Ivashin. It is, therefore, not surprising that the need to find space for landfill sites in this populous country is so acute. In addition, a large-scale campaign against garbage would require a radical change in the attitude of Indians towards waste and clean streets.
In October 2015, the Swachh Bharat campaign celebrated its one-year anniversary and it became clear that the situation with garbage on the streets had not changed. There have been some successes. For example, there are a lot more public toilets (which is also important for India, where there are more people with mobile phones than those who have a private bathroom). The central areas of Delhi and other major cities have become a bit cleaner. Famous entrepreneurs and popular athletes with, film stars, continue to appear on the streets with brooms. It’s just that a ‘Clean India’ is still a pipe dream right now
In October 2014, the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, decided to go on the offensive. A few months after winning the general elections, Modi launched a massive campaign called Swachh Bharat (‘Clean India’) and proclaimed that citizens of the country should work together to change India in five years’ time, and to clean the streets and squares of its cities completely. The campaign aims to accomplish the vision of ‘Clean India’ by 2 October 2019, when India will celebrate the 150th birthday of the leader of the Indian national liberation movement, Mahatma Gandhi.
The method proposed by the Prime Minister is somewhat similar to the strategy of social media marketing: Every citizen is encouraged to come out with a broom or a cloth to clean up any section of the street (of their choice), invite nine friends to also clean up, and then each of them should invite nine other people, etc. Soon, the entire country would be involved in the clean-up campaign. If every Indian spends just 100 hours a year cleaning the streets, they will celebrate Gandhi’s birthday in a clean country, Modi states.
The Prime Minister began by sweeping several meters of a street in New Delhi, and then invited nine famous people to join the campaign. They included one of the richest men in both India and the world, industrialist Anil Ambani, as well as several Bollywood stars. They responded to the call, and then also invited nine of their friends. Today, local newspapers are full of pictures with Indian movie stars, famous businessmen, and athletes sweeping the sidewalks with much zest. Obviously, crowds of high- and low-ranking government officials are also often seen brandishing a broom, as well as university and school students who are brought out onto the streets in formation and with suitably enthusiastic banners.
In October 2015, the Swachh Bharat campaign celebrated its one-year anniversary and it became clear that the situation with garbage on the streets had not changed. Of course, there have been some successes. For example, there are a lot more public toilets (which is also important for India, where there are more people with mobile phones than those who have a private bathroom). The central areas of Delhi and other major cities have become a bit cleaner. Famous entrepreneurs and popular athletes, with film stars, continue to appear on the streets with brooms. It’s just that a ‘Clean India’ is still a pipe dream right now.
“Modi’s initiative seems good and timely. Even if one percent of the country’s population of over a billion people takes part in the campaign, the results will be obvious. It had a very good start, but now, a year later, it is clear that the campaign needs a new impetus, a new development,” said Indian business expert Ramnik Singh Kohli.
Where do smartphones go to die?
“Modi had the right idea: Change people’s attitudes towards garbage, involve movie stars and other popular people in teaching citizens not to litter and to keep the streets clean. But it’s impossible to change the attitude of the entire country in a year or even in five years,” said Kohli to BRICS Business Magazine. “Besides, you may clean up the streets, but you still need to do something with the garbage. This is why the problem of cleaning the streets is closely linked with the problem of recycling the collected waste.”
The government should have combined the campaign to clean up the streets with the campaign to restore order to the landfills, with the introduction of new methods of recycling. Otherwise, Swachh Bharat will remain as nothing more than a populist cause célèbre, say many in India.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Indian cities are growing; according to experts, the urban population of the country increases by 32,000 people every day and that this growth will continue at least until 2021. The experts don’t even try to assess what will happen after that date. That means that every day, a city gains tens of thousands of new ‘garbage producers’ who do not have the ‘urban’ habits of throwing away waste in designated areas.
Five of the most ‘garbage-filled’ cities in the country are as follows: Delhi (3.3 million tons of waste per year), Mumbai (2.7 million tons), Chennai (1.6 million tons), Hyderabad (1.4 million tons), Kolakta (1.1 million ton). The most ‘dirty’ states are: Maharashtra (7.0 million tons per year) and West Bengal (4.5 million tons).
Today, Indian authorities have high hopes for garbage composting technology, which is particularly suited to local conditions, according to New Delhi. The idea is to prepare compost from the waste, after removing the plastic, paper, glass, and other unsuitable waste. The compost can then be used to fertilize the local fields, extremely depleted by active farming.
“Of course, new technologies are needed. But also necessary is the legislative support,” said Kohli. “Each state must address the issue of waste disposal management in order for the system to finally start working.”
“Back in 2000, the Ministry of Environment and Forests of India demanded that different types of waste be collected separately: food leftovers, paper, glass, etc.,” adds Ivashin. “But in a country where it is difficult to convince many people to not throw garbage away anywhere they please, getting them to separate their garbage into types turned out to be even more difficult. The process of change is very slow.”
Local authorities have tried to declare war on the garbage that fills Indian cities more than once, and with foreign assistance to boot. But until now, all frontal assaults on garbage ran into the heavy opposition of notorious local bureaucracy and the outdated caste system of cleaning the streets.
Back in the 1970s, several attempts were made to build factories intended to produce compost, but they all failed because the poorly manually separated waste did not meet the required standards, and attempts to modify the structure of the collection ran into opposition from the local caste of waste collectors, who were convinced that the new technologies were depriving them of their ‘legitimate’ right to work and their traditional lifestyle. But, the biggest scandal occurred in the mid-1980s when Danish company Volund Milijontecknik built a plant using WTE (waste-to-energy) technology for waste incineration and power generation on the outskirts of Delhi. The company immediately faced the problem of the wrong types of waste arriving at the plant. As a result, in 1990, the factory was closed, and a long and fruitless litigation process ensued.
In some regions, local authorities have tried to implement several similar projects, such as in the city of Lucknow, but they all faced the same problem: The delivered waste, which is collected and poorly sorted manually, did not conform to specifications. There was also a lack of coordination between municipalities, corporations, waste collectors, and other stakeholders in the process.
In addition, the garbage business has not escaped the other common problems that foreigners trying to do business in India have to face. This includes the ‘rules of the game’ changing frequently, i.e. the mess of changing laws and regulatory documents.
It is, therefore, not very surprising that Western companies are not in a hurry to begin operating in a country where, in addition to everything else, competition is complicated by corruption, and attempts to introduce modern methods of collecting and sorting waste are perceived as an attack on the caste traditions.
In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court interfered and demanded that municipalities develop a comprehensive waste management program, including the introduction of separate waste collection, in order to turn food scraps and other suitable waste into compost. But these demands were virtually ignored.
That is why, in organizing his Swachh Bharat (Clean India)
campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bet on large-scale participation.
The country’s authorities are determined to change people’s attitudes
towards garbage piles in the streets. One of the main objectives of the
program was to inform the population about the dangers of waste and ways
of combating it.
In addition, the government encourages the private sector to get more actively involved in the struggle for urban sanitation, although so far, the private sector’s view of waste management has not changed much – everyone in India knows of the difficulties that such a business may face.
And, of course, government authorities are eager to ensure that modern technologies are introduced into the process of waste management. But these intentions come face–to-face with the same old problems. In June 2015, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal received a petition from the community of Delhi waste collectors who oppose WTE technology, which the city authorities intend to develop again. The waste collectors said the new technology would reduce the number of needed sanitation workers to only a few thousand, whereas today, the National Capital Territory of Delhi has about 150,000 caste waste collectors, so the innovation could cause mass unemployment and social upheaval.
However, the government is, apparently, not going to retreat, and it is counting on the overwhelming support of the Indian people.
“The Swachh Bharat Campaign logo is not just a logo; through it,
Gandhiji is watching us and we all should clean India. I am not claiming
that the newly elected government is doing everything. Be it temples,
mosques, gurudwaras, or any place, we must make efforts to clean our
surroundings. Cleanliness is not only the responsibility of the ‘safaai
kaamgar,’ it is the responsibility of 125 crore Indians. If Indians can
reach Mars at a cheap cost, can we not clean our neighbourhoods?” said
Prime Minister Modi in his address to the nation.
Indian authorities have high hopes for garbage composting technology, which is particularly suited to local conditions, according to New Delhi. The idea is to prepare compost from the waste, after removing the plastic, paper, glass, and other unsuitable waste. The compost can then be used to fertilize the local fields, extremely depleted by active farming
Many experts believe that India needs strict punitive measures, such as those that were once undertaken in Singapore – for example, steep penalties for each cigarette butt thrown on the ground. Local authorities must also be severely punished, if they do not develop a system for garbage collection. And most importantly, determination and discipline are needed to begin the process of sorting household waste, and they should apply to both residents and administration.
Experts believe it is necessary to restore order to landfills; after all, if you somehow manage to collect garbage from the streets and simply send it there, the environment will not improve. Waste disposal has caused at least 20% of methane emissions in the country, and the ground water in those areas is heavily polluted because of waste decomposition. In the rainy season, landfills become a source of toxic sewage, poisoning everything around for many miles.
In recent years, India’s waste problems have been compounded by another one – electronic waste (e-waste). It is no secret that Asia and Africa have become places where old cell phones, smartphones, computers, laptops, and TVs from around the world are dumped. China, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and other low-income countries have become graveyards for electronic junk. According to some estimates, shipping yesterday’s trendy gadgets – discarded today as useless – to India can be up to ten times cheaper than recycling them in the US or the EU. Indian authorities are opposed to this, but the volume of such ‘exports’ is constantly growing. According to local media, the Indian subcontinent receives more than 400,000 tons of such waste every month.
At the same time, the problem of waste management is not considered as important in India as, say, the problem of poverty and population growth. Local media have estimated that if the garbage hills in India grow at the same rate, by the end of the century they will cover the Taj Mahal.