Managing waste more efficiently through a systemic and people-centric approach will help India curb greenhouse gas emissions

Solid waste management needs to become more efficient in India (Photo by Frank Bienewald/Alamy)

Solid waste management needs to become more efficient in India (Photo by Frank Bienewald/Alamy)

At a global scale, the waste management sector makes a relatively minor contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, estimated at about 3-5% of total emissions caused by human activities in 2005. However, the waste sector is in a unique position to move from being a minor source of global emissions to becoming a major saver of emissions.

Although minor levels of emissions are released through waste treatment and disposal, the prevention and recovery of wastes (as secondary materials or energy) avoids emissions in all other sectors of the economy. A holistic approach to waste management has positive consequences for greenhouse gas emissions from the energy, forestry, agriculture, mining, transport, and manufacturing sectors, according to a report by United Nations Environment Programme.

Over the past decade, India has fared well with its commitments to the climate action targets of Paris Agreement, especially with the adoption of National Electricity Plan in 2018. While the reforms in energy sector backed by strong policy commitments are commendable, it is high time for India to reform policies in the area of waste management to augment its efforts on climate action.

The expanding landfill sites in the country are posing a threat to environment, biodiversity and human health. Of the total waste generated in the country, only 46.03% solid waste is processed, according to data available on solid waste generation and processing. Chandigarh and Chhattisgarh lead the table, standing at 85% and 84%, respectively, while states like West Bengal are at the bottom, processing only 5% of the solid waste generated.

Schematic of waste management system and greenhouse gas emissions

Schematic of waste management system and greenhouse gas emissions

Nuances of Clean India Mission

While the problem has captured attention of policymakers and finds mention in national level programmes like the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM or Clean India Mission), there is a lag in policy implementation due to hidden challenges that we now try to unfold here.

With the culmination of providing household level sanitation facilities in 2019, the Ministry of Jal Shakti — which was formed in May 2019 by merging the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation — has geared up to move towards its next agenda of facilitating solid and liquid waste management in rural and urban areas.

The release of Rural Sanitation Strategy document 2019-29 in September 2019 indicates the aspiration of the ministry towards sustaining the attained ODF (Open Defecation Free) status and move towards addressing waste management issues in urban and rural areas of India.

Before we plan to step higher on the SBM ladder, it is important to understand the difference in complexity of issues in sanitation and waste management. While the former held the challenge of scaling up sanitation facilities to 102.8 million households as on March 2020, the latter is a more complex problem, having challenges beyond that of scale, as it entails identifying and implementing area specific technological solutions.

There is an urgent need to view the issue through a systemic lens, not a systematic one. The agenda of providing toilets at household level required investment of time and finance on a large scale. There were huge administrative overheads in reaching out to every village, reiterating the process of disbursing funds to the beneficiaries and building capacities of stakeholders for toilet construction, but technical barriers were minimal as toilet designs were specified by the government based on land topography.

With appropriate designs at hand, efforts were directed mostly towards replication. In contrast, solid and liquid waste management demands exhaustive technical skills and specialised knowledge. Each town or village differs in terms of the quantum of waste generation, extent of drainage system coverage, existing capacities of solid waste collection and geographical challenges. This necessitates area specific solutions, indicating the need for decentralised knowledge management support at the ground level.

Support at the grassroots

In India’s three-tier governance system, knowledge support organisations hold a key position, whether it is assisting in formulation of policies and laws at the central and state level or devising and implementing innovative solutions fitting the local context.

While the former is aided by institutions like NITI Aayog and Parliamentary Standing Committees, the latter largely depends on the willingness and participation by local support systems like civil society organisations, technology experts and community-based organisations.

The knowledge management support to the first tier of governance is well institutionalised and regularised, contrary to that at the second and third tiers, where such support is rare. However, it is the third tier which has a direct interface with the beneficiaries and faces implementation challenges.

To succeed in the mission of waste management, a sustainable source of support in terms of domain expertise, knowledge sharing, and planning is essential at the third tier. In this context, the guidelines of the first phase of SBM suggested formation of special committees for SBM at district, block and village levels.

However, these committees have not been very effective. This apart, many states are yet to form even the District Planning Committees (as per Article 243ZD of the Constitution of India) that aim to consolidate the development plans of panchayats and municipalities into comprehensive district development plans.

People-centric approach to manage solid waste

The constitution of legislated committees and knowledge groups at the third tier are vital to ensure that permanent support system for planning and directions regarding waste management are in place. Andhra Pradesh recently launched a village-level secretariat system to ensure effective last mile delivery of 500 types of services.

This is a welcome move pertaining to administrative decentralisation. A similar model for decentralisation of knowledge support can be considered. The presence of such a system shall further help to mobilise and regularise the support from technology partners and NGOs.

A dedicated, responsive and active governance system committed towards the purpose of waste management is expected to boost the confidence of external partners to invest their resources even in remote regions, which remain neglected so far.

In the absence of a comprehensive support system, the how and whereabout of technological solutions and fund mobilisation towards managing waste remain unaddressed and stalls implementation of waste management projects. Taking elements from different solid waste management models in the country, the gradual step should involve moving towards an inclusive system where all three tiers of governance are able to solve locally arising waste management problems in a people-participatory manner, so that the attained solutions are sustainable.

It is then that India shall move towards waste processing rather than mere waste dumping and also complement the agenda of Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants along with sustainable land management highlighted by United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

Neeta Vaswani Is an independent WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) consultant. Tejas Deshmukh is a WASH expert working for UN agencies.

 

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