Making waste disposal work better

Updated: Oct 17 2013, 09:47am hrs
Jyotsna Bapat

The new mantra for solid waste management (SWM) in urban India is waste-to-energy plants. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has identified 60 cities for targeted infrastructure interventions, under the domains of urban infrastructure and governance. The JNNURM website provides extensive information about the scope of the SWM initiative. There are 45 SWM projects in the design, planning and execution pipeline. Ten of these have been completed and commissioned. The total budget for the entire sector of SWM is R2,008 crore. From a regional perspective, the Asian Development Bank has funded waste-to-energy projects in each of the eight north-eastern states. These are in different stages of completion.

There is more interesting information available from other sources. A newsletter ( on renewable energy revealed a total of 13 plants across ten cities have been set up and run by private companies, albeit commissioned by the municipalities of those cities. Infrastructure finance company IL&FS indicates that, under the waste-to-energy projects initiative, it has been mandated to develop integrated municipal waste processing complexes in various parts of the country by eight municipalities.

All these projects are facilitated by the local city municipalities under PPPs. Municipal land, usually next to a garbage dump site, is given free of cost to the project. Project costs typically run to about R100 crore for a medium-sized city. The plants process a thousand plus tonnes per day (TPD) of municipal solid waste (MSW) to generate about half that volume of TPD of refuse derived fuel (RDF). These SWM facilities involve collection, transfer and treatment of MSW to create RDF in the form of small pellets that are burnt to generate electricity. The treatment involves sorting, crushing, washing, sieving and drying of MSW. The bulk of the operations at the plant are mechanised. Consequently, and importantly, relatively few unskilled jobs can be created.

I have had the opportunity to visit some of these projects. I think that there are some larger issues of concern, which the planners and implementers of the initiative need to take into account. Typically, the immediate neighbourhood community of any landfill site, which is where these SWM plants are located, comprise informal and technically illegal slums. Most residents have some domestic animals like chickens, goats, cows and buffaloes. With the passage of time, the number of animals increases.

Over time, most cities have relocated their wholesale markets. Markets for meat (including slaughter houses), fish, vegetables, fruits and flowers have moved out of the central part of the city to sites near waste disposal facilities with landfills. The rationale behind this is decongestion of inner city. However, the unintended consequence of any wholesale to retail transfer of goods, irrespective of location, is wastage. When these markets are located within the city, marginal groups, usually women, sort through the waste to salvage fruits, flowers, vegetables, meat and fish, pile them into small lots on the pavements over a sheet or paper and sell these at whatever price they can get. Being in the middle of the city, there are enough people who buy these small lots and the sellers can make quick money and take some goods home. Once these markets are moved out, the demand for small lots virtually disappears. Within walking distance of a landfill site, living conditions are very unsanitary. Yet slum settlements of a few hundred households or a few thousand people exist. These are typically marginal rural migrant families from less developed states. They live in mud huts and live off animal parts, fruits and vegetables discarded from the wholesale market. Men usually work in the market for daily wages and women are rag-pickers. The land near the landfills comes under the category of abandoned land. People who reside there make their own houses from the waste and live there, eat the free small lots recovered from discards and collect metal and plastic from dumps to make a little money. Many have lived there for several years, illegally. They are illegally occupying lands, their electricity connection is illegal, their piped water connection is illegal, their earnings are informal and most of them eat discarded animal organs and vegetables. They can survive only because these lands are abandoned.

However, when the unclaimed open land near the landfill is allocated to a waste-to-energy plant and its buildings and machines and construction begins, the land market in its neighbourhood starts developing. Every landowner in the neighbourhood is happy with the plant coming in the area. The housing colony is happy as the view of the landfill hill is blocked and smell is promised to be eliminated. The wholesale markets are happy as the biodegradable waste gets collected and cleared properly. Overall, land prices start climbing as soon as an approach road to the plant site is built.

Thus, when these previously abandoned lands get claimed by the market, the rag-pickers and people from that class who reside there are extremely hostile towards these developments as they feel threatened. They have lived there for a long time. They put up resistance throughout the construction phase. They indulge in violence and obstruction of movement of equipment. From their perspective, there is reason for these communities to be sceptical. They have the most to lose if these lands are no longer abandoned. The security and safety currently experienced by the most vulnerable group of settlers is compromised, as they are both illegal and marginal.

The reality is that SWM is an upcoming sector in urban infrastructure projects. Investments in treatment plant near landfill requires a lot of money and new technology. In the process of highlighting how good it is, let us not overlook the fact that the most marginal of the marginal communities who depend on the landfills as of now may be missed completely and their rights ignored because big players are entering the game.

The author is senior fellow, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), Delhi