Guwahati’s garbage mess gets worse in the rains, calls for collective action

Monsoon has turned the streets of Guwahati into a serious health hazard for citizens, and this is why. Most importantly, the solution now lies as much in the hands of citizens as with city administrators.

Six-year-old Bittu, a resident of By Lane 3 of Nabin Nagar in Guwahati, misses school frequently during the peak monsoon season. “My younger son Bittu recently suffered serious skin ailments after he got wet in the rains,” explained his mother Purnima Das, “When I took him to a neighbouring clinic, it was diagnosed that he was suffering from a kind of superficial fungal infection. The consulting doctor advised me not to let him come in touch with clogged rainwater. But our lane gets flooded every time there is a downpour. Hence, I do not let Bittu go to school during rainy days because there is no way he can get to school without wading through the flooded lane.”

Monsoon has turned the streets of Guwahati, the gateway to the northeast, unsafe not only for the child, but for all residents of the city. Following the heavy rainfall of the recent past, the city streets have come to pose serious health hazards, and primarily so because of the lack of a scientific waste management system in place. The monsoon rains have washed away the garbage bins and other waste lying unattended, converting many streets into polluted cesspools. 

Many city dwellers have already died in these floods, and many more are facing difficulties in availing basic amenities like food and clean water. Yet, the bigger problem that remains unseen is the environmental damage this pollution will cause to land and other water bodies even after the flood waters recede.

A long-standing problem

Numbeo, a user-contributed global database about cities and countries worldwide, rates ‘dissatisfaction with garbage disposal satisfaction’ in Guwahati as ‘high’. Unsystematic garbage disposal remains one of the major sources of pollution in the city. This human-generated garbage, around 500 tonnes every day, is affecting the rich ecosystem in the city. This is causing changes in local climate patterns, outbreak of extreme climatic events and degeneration of socio-economic conditions.  

The Swachh Bharat Survekshan 2019 National Ranking also ranked Guwahati at 303 in a list of 500 cities and towns across the country. The drastic drop in rankings from 207 in 2018 (134 in 2017) reflects the worsening garbage disposal problems in the city.

The city municipal administration has been unable to cope with the effects of rapid urbanization and increasing population pressure. There is little awareness among the city’s residents about better waste management and disposal practices. Lack of funds and expertise is preventing the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) from adding manpower, adopting advanced technologies and building adequate capacity for a solid waste management plant to execute cleaning operations all year round and not only during the monsoon months. At present, there is just one such plant at Boragaon, a village around 17 kms away.

Despite GMC introducing door-to-door solid waste collection from private and commercial establishments, which is contracted out on a yearly basis to 58 NGOs covering the 31 wards in the city, garbage disposal remains a problem. One reason is the irregularity and attitude of workers running the garbage collection vehicles.

Ramen Deka, who runs a small restaurant in Silkuphuri, said, “I sometimes have to chase these young men driving the garbage collection vehicles as they come only once in two to three days and sometimes even just once a week. This, when they are supposed to come daily. Moreover, when they come, they are always in a rush. This gives me very limited time to properly hand over all garbage that my restaurant generates.”

City residents like Ramen Deka and others are therefore left with no option at times, but to either dump their garbage in overloaded dustbins or dump it in commonly designated open dumping spots along the streets. One such open dumping spot is right beside the fresh flower market in Kamarpatty, Fancy Bazaar – the main market in the city. The mound of garbage there rarely gets fully cleared.

Looking for solutions

Guwahati’s waste management system needs urgent modernisation and overhaul using a “resource recovery approach” to sanitation and garbage disposal. An automated and mechanized system for collection and recycling of solid and liquid wastes needs to be put in place. Garbage has to be segregated at source. Households and private businesses need to treat biodegradable waste – such as food, garden waste, cardboard and paper — either through composting or converting that into biogas in their respective premises. This would significantly lessen the total volume of waste going to the Boragaon plant – the only landfill and composting facility for the entire city.

Currently, the Boragaon plant has a capacity of processing 100 tonnes of waste per day over two shifts, which produces approximately 10 tons of organic manure being sold in the market. GMC has apparently now been ordered by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal to close this plant and relocate it to a new site at Chandrapur. This, however, is facing delay due to lack of necessary infrastructure

Time for all to act

“I have been researching on pollution related matters in Kamrup Metropolitan district (Guwahati),” says Priyam Priyadarshini Goswami, a Professor with the Department of Law at Gauhati University. “This city is facing the impact of uncontrolled, and at times ill-planned, urbanisation. There is a lack of proper mechanism for garbage disposal; But this could be partly addressed if we all work towards generating less garbage. At this juncture, a pressing need exists for all stakeholders to work towards achieving a clean and healthy Guwahati.”

Deepak Bezbaruah, Chief Planner with GMC, agrees with Professor Goswami. When asked about the poor performance of GMC on garbage disposal, Deepak Bezbaruah said that “the GMC is doing its best given its current capacity. We plan to scale up activities with the allocation of more funds. However, the 2.2 million people in the city should also lend GMC a helping hand towards fulfilling its goals. They may do this by informing us about garbage related problems in their respective localities through their ward members and councillors. The cleanliness drive needs to become a citizen-centric movement, where the role of GMC will be more of a service provider and facilitator.”

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