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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Campaign has made the headlines, but the initiative lacks a roadmap for managing waste and tackling carbon emissions from the waste sector. These emissions are growing at the rate of 7.3% per year. India is missing a major opportunity by ignoring this aspect

Narendra Modi cleaning the premises of Mandir Marg Police Station during his surprise visit to check on cleanliness in New Delhi (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

Narendra Modi cleaning the premises of Mandir Marg Police station during his surprise visit to check on cleanliness in New Delhi (Image by Press Information Bureau, Government of India)

The recent initiative of the Prime Minister to tackle the issues of waste management and providing safe drinking water through Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been at the centre of attraction for a number of reasons. From the perspective of climate policy making, this could be a stepping stone to tackle the areas often missed by the policymakers but with huge potential in mitigation actions.

In the emissions profile of the country, the waste sector is responsible for emitting 57.73 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and is still growing at 7.3% per year as per the latest figures provided by India in national communication (NATCOM) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

With rapid urbanisation, this sector has the potential to grow much faster and could pose a bigger threat to India’s emission management plans. However, at the same time the sector is poised to offer great benefits if it can be managed properly. The current initiative could be actually used to develop such action points.

In the light of such a bomb that is waiting to explode, the current initiative to clean India can play an important role in emissions reductions from the sector and reap benefits of such actions. However, as experts point out, the initiative in its current form does not address many critical components of waste management.

First, the plan does not have a roadmap for managing waste and reusing it for productive purposes. While the country has long had laws on waste management, implementation has been a real challenge. The problems of landfills and waste incineration occur in all cities, big and small. A recent Planning Commission report observed that of the thousands of cities and towns in India, only 128 have operational waste management programmes.

A successful management plan can save 721 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per year from every ton of waste. But the current initiative fails to capture this. This is at a time when waste management is emerging as an important sector in other developing countries to reduce carbon footprints. The registry of national appropriate mitigation actions (NAMA) of the UNFCCC has more than 8% of its ideas based on waste management. Latin America and South East Asia have advanced substantially to develop these ideas and attract international funding. In all these countries, waste management has been dealt in a participatory approach through devising appropriate incentive structures for all stakeholders.

In India, however, the recent initiative and a similar one that was put in place by the previous government (Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan) have had limited vision of successful waste management. The implementation mechanism has to be set in place. In most areas, the waste is being lifted by civic bodies and dumped outside the city, without any proper management. In rural areas, the absence of civic bodies makes things worse. The attempt to clean and deal with waste requires coherent thinking and implementation, and this could have been part of the NAMA idea from India.

The world is moving towards a climate deal where differences between developed and developing countries are getting diluted. This means actions to mitigate emissions have to be taken by all countries, though at different scales. In the recent series of climate negotiations, India has been accused of playing a regressive role. Had the Clean India Campaign been linked to climate actions by designing different mitigating actions, it could have been a success story and a mechanism to put the pressure back on the countries which are regarded as laggards. This action could have been claimed as enhanced action as per the Durban Platform, as it would have been additional to the existing 20-25% emission intensity reduction target of the country.

In the recent rounds of international climate politics, India has received sharp criticism for not sending progressive messages about actions that it is already taking domestically. It has reiterated its principled stand on equity at the climate summit called by the UN Secretary General and at Modi’s speech to the UN General Assembly. This stand would have been strengthened if India had also put forth new domestic actions that it taking. The Clean India Campaign would have been perfect for the purpose.

Many municipalities in India have taken up efforts to systematise the waste management challenge. Incentive mechanism by devising payments for the waste to the households, developing waste to energy projects, composting etc. have been carried out. But most of them have been undertaken as pilot projects and have not achieved the required scale and expansion. The Clean India Campaign presents an opportunity where successful pilot projects can be expanded and rural India can be linked to exploit the full potential of emission reductions from the sector.

The Clean India Campaign could be part of India’s submission of intended nationally determined contributions (INDC) to UNFCCC. As per the decisions taken at the last climate summit in Warsaw, all countries need to submit their INDCs in the first quarter of 2015. The current initiative is most appropriate to submit among the INDCs given its potential impact on greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts.

The initiative could also have been developed as a programme that meets international reporting and monitoring guidelines. There have been major concerns raised by developing countries about retrofitting the guidelines of their domestic policies to meet international guidelines. Since this is a new initiative, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change could have played a lead role in determining the guidelines that meet international requirements without diluting national interests. The current initiative is not clear about measuring the success and identification of the indicators of success.

Clean India Campaign is a commendable effort to address the problem of waste but it has been unnecessarily limited in its scope. In the process, it is missing out on leveraging this domestic action at the international level. There is still time. This opportunity should not be missed.

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