The Survekshan ranks cities that do their waste management in a highly decentralised fashion poorly, despite their sustainable waste-management systems.
On June 23, prime minister Narendra Modi launched Swachh Survekshan 2018 in Indore. The venue was fitting as Indore was ranked as the cleanest city in India, followed by Bhopal and Chandigarh. Jharkhand emerged as the best-performing state while Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh bagged the second and third positions. Since 2016, Swachh Survekshan has been conducted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to rank cities on sanitation and municipal solid-waste management (SWM). I have serious reservations with the ranking as well as the message that the Survekshan is sending out to cities and citizens on SWM. But, let us first start with the positives.
Swachh Survekshan has captured the imagination of the people. I concur with the prime minister’s statement, “[t]here is a perceptible positive change in the mindset of the people towards Swachhata”. Swachh Survekshan can take some credit for this change in mindset. During the two months in which this massive exercise is undertaken, cities across the country (other than West Bengal, which did not participate) collect and compile data, start cleaning up the city, undertake information campaigns and mobilise citizens to provide feedback on cleanliness. This year, 4,203 cities, including 61 Cantonment Boards, participated in this exercise; Swachh Survekshan 2017 had ranked 434 cities and the 2016 version only 73 cities. This entire process is an excellent capacity-building exercise of the governments at all levels in sanitation and SWM.
The methodology used for ranking the cities also helps cities understand where the effort and money should be spent. This year, there was a clear improvement in the rating methodology as more focus was on segregation of waste at source and on adoption of sustainable waste-processing and disposal practices. However, as we will see, the results of the survey fail to reflect this improvement. The 2018 Survekshan has enabled the country to peep into smaller towns and cities and see how they manage their sanitation and waste problems. How many would have heard of Vengurla, Bobbili, Bundu or Siddipet? These cities are being spoken of today because they are managing waste and sanitation issues much more efficiently than the majority of big cities. The use of radio frequency tags to monitor and manage municipal solid waste was pioneered by Bobbili, a town of 56,000 people in Andhra Pradesh. Panchgani and Vengurla, both very small towns in Maharashtra, have designed their waste-management system based on zero landfill; none of the megacities of the country are even imagining this.
Similarly, the Survekshan has brought to the fore the low-cost and sustainable models being practiced in smaller cities like Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh and Muzaffarpur in Bihar. These models are based entirely on segregation and decentralised recycling and reuse. Ambikapur reduced its annual budget on SWM by 90% by adopting this model. In Muzaffarpur, though only about half the city has adopted the model, the cost of transportation has dropped by one-third. Now, the negatives. The big negative is that the Survekshan has rewarded cleanliness and not sustainable waste-management practices. In addition, it has failed to reward highly decentralised citizen-driven initiatives.
Let’s start with the ranking. The ranking of the big cities (with population greater than 1 lakh) has left much to be desired. The majority of the top 50 cities are visibly clean, but do not have appropriate systems for processing and disposal. They do not collect segregated waste at the source and continue to dump waste in poorly managed landfills and dump sites. Take the case of Chandigarh. It has been ranked as the third best city in India. But, it has no effective system to segregate waste at source. The city has received much flak in the recent past from its residents for its ineffective collection and transportation of waste. And, the city’s waste-processing plant in DaduMajra has been the subject of a legal tussle.
NDMC (ranked 4) and SDMC (ranked 32) do not collect segregated waste and 80% of the waste processing is via waste-to-energy plants. The waste-to-energy plant in Okhla has been under intense scrutiny for causing pollution. Similarly, cities such as Varanasi, Ghaziabad, Greater Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Jabalpur, Jaipur, Tirupati and Aligarh—all ranked highly—do not collect segregated waste at source and have no proper waste-processing and disposal mechanisms in place. The Survekshan, however, has ranked cities that have sustainable waste-management systems poorly. Why? Because these cities do their waste management in a highly decentralised fashion and do not depend on door-to-door collection of wastes by municipality.
Take the case of Alappuzha, ranked 219, and Thiruvananthapuram, ranked 286. These cities have received low rankings because they have adopted household- and community-level management systems. Most of the waste in these cities is converted into compost or biogas at the household or community level. Inorganic wastes such as plastic, glass, metals, and paper are sent for recycling. These cities make money from solid waste rather than spending crores of rupees in collecting and transporting waste to landfills. They are also visibly clean. It is difficult to digest that Thiruvananthapuram has been ranked far lower than Varanasi and Ghaziabad.
So, what model is Swachh Survekshan propagating? Is it a model that is capital intensive and involves door-to-door collection, segregation, centralised processing and disposal in landfills? Or is it propagating a low-cost model like that of Alappuzha or Ambikapur, based on segregation, decentralised processing, recycling and reuse of waste? By the way, cities like Alappuzha or Ambikapur have no landfills or protests over landfills, like the one currently taking place in Noida.
Though the Survekshan methodology does talk about segregation—and, in Indore, the prime minister released a booklet titled ‘Advisory on Decentralised Processing of Organic Waste’—the results of the 2018 Survekshan convey a very different message; that visible cleanliness is much more important than sustainable waste-management practices. The truth is that a majority of towns and cities cannot afford the highly capital-intensive and centralised landfill-based model. They need sustainable low-cost models. A SWM system that makes money is more likely to be sustainable than those that bleed the municipalities.
There are times in the history of a nation when an issue captures the imagination of its people. This is such a time in India with regard to cleanliness and sanitation. We should build on this massive momentum and propagate models that support segregation of waste at source with maximum recycling and reuse. Zero landfill should be the goal of SWM. Swachh Survekshan 2019 must keep this in mind.