Cities at crossroads: The collective challenge of managing solid waste

Published: April 3, 2019 2:02:32 AM

This model can work equally well in every ward of a metro city. The collective challenge of managing solid waste in our metros requires, above all, the engagement of the community.

There is no secondary transport, no transfer stations for the garbage, and no black spots in the city, not to speak of the significant savings on transport cost.

By Isher Judge Ahluwalia & Almitra Patel

We wrote in our previous column about how small towns in India are showing the way in keeping wet waste separate from dry waste (‘Small towns drive big change’, FE, February 27; https://bit.ly/2WD0jCx). This is the most critical first step for sound solid waste management. We also looked to see if some bigger towns are getting their act together in managing their solid waste. Admittedly, it is more difficult to organise community action in large towns. But wards are a good place to start. We are happy to report some encouraging news from Tamil Nadu.

The city of Vellore in Tamil Nadu, with population of 5 lakh, has been a trailblazer in decentralised management of solid waste and sending no waste to landfill. More recently, it has earned the remarkable distinction of getting all its residents to separate their wet waste from dry waste, which makes the task of solid waste management so much easier for the Municipal Corporation. But we are getting ahead of our story.

Vellore generates 160 tonnes of solid waste per day, excluding waste from bulk generators. It all began with a PIL in the National Green Tribunal in 2015 seeking closure of the 8-acre dumpsite on a tank bund in Saduperi, a few kilometres away from Vellore. The site had been used for dumping mixed waste since 1991.

The Vellore Municipal Corporation (VMC) responded to the challenge by building 42 sheds for micro composting centres (MCCs) across its 60 wards. Each MCC (with capacity ranging from 1.5 tonnes to 5 tonnes) was provided enclosed sheds containing numerous open-brickwork tanks (5 feet deep, 5-6 feet wide and 7-10 feet long) for composting wet waste. The tanks are filled in rotation, over a starter bed of dry leaves, with one-foot layers of hand-sorted wet waste plus a layer of cow dung slurry as compost starter, and allowed to mature for 30-60 days.
Last month, one of us led a group of 10 others and drove from Bangalore to Vellore to see for ourselves how the VMC is implementing its decentralised waste management system. At an MCC, we were pleased to see fully segregated wet waste being hand-picked to remove coconut shells and other hard-to-compost items, on the one hand, and clean dry waste carefully sorted into different bins for sale, on the other.

The municipal commissioner at that time, Janaki Raveendran, with support from all elected local representatives, proactively and completely, stopped sending any waste to the dumpsite. They started doorstep collection of mixed waste in Vellore using primary collection vehicles and municipal workers to transport the waste to MCCs. These are run by self-help groups who are provided with covered space for sorting, and are paid `250 per day. They can collectively keep the sale proceeds of both compost and dry waste. The VMC pays for electricity and water. There is no secondary transport, no transfer stations for the garbage, and no black spots in the city, not to speak of the significant savings on transport cost.

The second major step of 100% segregation came with the enthusiastic efforts of S Sivasubramanian, who assumed charge as the municipal commissioner of the VMC on October 31, 2018. Having inherited a well-functioning system of decentralised waste management, the new commissioner was determined to achieve doorstep collection of waste, fully segregated at source, as he had done during his earlier posting in Tirunelveli. This has been achieved in Vellore in just four months. This should give thought to the many who believe it can’t be done in India—it is being done admittedly in the South, but there is no reason why the North cannot follow suit.

The awareness campaign involved the municipal commissioner of Vellore and other high officials using social media by posting photos of themselves in their home kitchens with separate bins for wet and dry waste. All municipal staff and waste workers down to the lowest level and all government employees were urged to keep their home wastes unmixed, before asking others to do so. Religious leaders of different communities were also approached and urged to convey to their followers the importance of keeping wet and dry wastes unmixed, and from January 2019 avoiding the use of one-time-use plastics that have been banned by the Tamil Nadu government. Groups like Lions and Rotary were roped in to spread the good word. Schools were required to get pledges signed by all the students and their parents. With the cooperation of teachers, they have reached out to 1,28,000 homes.

Such campaigns to engage with the community are successful only when the doorstep collection teams cooperate and strictly refuse taking mixed waste. After accepting the segregated waste, they should visibly transport the wet and dry waste separately to gain trust of those who have complied by not mixing the wastes at source. The pending grievances of waste collectors with respect to promotions, filling vacancies, provident fund issues and minor repairs of primary collection vehicles, etc, were resolved to ensure their buy-in for the campaign. This shows leadership in making change happen.

Micro-planning of collection vehicle routes manned by municipal staff, and tracking their punctuality and performance is also key to citizen cooperation. The benefit of this intensive burst of focus is that once success is achieved, it is relatively easy to maintain the system. Prolonged deadlines for compliance, one area at a time, do not work.

At a morning muster, sanitary officers give each waste collector a notebook containing a message from the municipal commissioner, which they have to show to each household on their beat and collect a signed pledge to not mix their wastes and not use banned plastics. This is to promote bonding with the households. After two warnings, mixed waste is temporarily accepted on payment of a fee of `10. Thereafter, mixed waste pick-up is strictly refused, with full backing of the superior officers of the doorstep collectors. A follow-up visit is made the same evening to the defaulter household to find out where their uncollected waste went.

The government of Tamil Nadu has provided an enabling environment through proactive engagement of the Department of Municipal Administration. The courts have also provided strong support for decentralised waste management. Under the leadership of G Prakash, the commissioner of Municipal Administration in Tamil Nadu, 700-plus MCCs and several on-site composting centres have come up, all receiving well segregated waste. As in Vellore, so in 19 other cities, no waste goes to a dumpsite. State-wide, wet waste is collected six days a week and dry waste only on Wednesdays. Municipalities have framed by-laws to comply with the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. Thus, user charges starting from `20 per month are added every six months to property tax, with collection rates of 80-100%. Bulk generators managing their own waste are charged for collection of dry waste and for the waste they indirectly generate at local markets, eateries, etc. As a result of the plastic ban, the volume of total solid waste has come down from 160 tonnes to 131 tonnes a day.

This model can work equally well in every ward of a metro city. The collective challenge of managing solid waste in our metros requires, above all, the engagement of the community.

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