Why India’s clean city rankings need a serious rethink!

The top ranked cities in the Swachh Survekshan 2017 undertaken by the MoUD do not segregate, process or dispose of their waste scientifically. In the first part of an in-depth study, Navya P K finds that the survey criteria are in conflict with the government’s own SWM policy!

In late May 2017, a big shout out for waste segregation came from none other than the Indian Prime Minister when he announced the introduction of new litter bins for segregated waste in 4000 cities and towns on his monthly radio show, Mann ki Baat. A few days later, on June 5, World Environment Day, a source segregation campaign was launched amid much fanfare by the Minister of Urban Development Shri M Venkaiah Naidu in the National Capital Region as he flagged off segregated waste collection vehicles.

However, not much stress on the actual realisation of segregation was noted in Swachh Survekshan, the annual survey of the Ministry of Urban Development to rank cities on the basis of cleanliness and sanitation, which published its 2017 results earlier in May.

Indore, Bhopal and Vishakhapatnam topped the rankings of the 434 cities surveyed, in that order. Overall, cities from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh came out on top, while UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab and Kerala were among the worst. But none of the three top ranked cities segregate, process or dispose of their waste scientifically.

Take, for example, the case of Indore. According to a recent analysis by the CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) publication ‘Down To Earth’ (DTE), Indore dumps 1000 tonnes of mostly unsegregated waste into a landfill daily, of which only 200 tonnes is handled by a private company. The city introduced waste segregation at source only this January, and compliance is low. Yet, it scored full points in solid waste management in Swachh Survekshan.

This, perhaps, is one of the reasons for which the survey has been called ‘unscientific’ by many, including the environment research organisation CSE. The DTE analysis shows that 70% of the top 50 cities merely dump their waste in dump sites and 90% do not segregate waste at source. The analysis was based on data collected from state level authorities.

The top city Indore dumps waste in a trenching ground rather than a sanitary landfill. According to various news reports, the trenching ground has caught fire many times. A major fire even occurred in May, soon after the Swachh Survekshan results were declared. Residents around the trenching ground have been protesting for years, demanding its relocation citing health hazards. The survey also found that Bhopal had no functional waste processing plant, scientific landfill or waste segregation and has not remediated its existing dump site. Yet the city ranked second.

Another glaring example is Surat, ranked fourth. A case against Surat corporation is going on at the National Green Tribunal (NGT), for dumping unsegregated waste into the Khajod landfill. Over 1000 tonnes of waste is dumped into the 188-hectare landfill daily, creating a public health hazard. NGT recently directed the corporation to set up a processing plant, and the corporation is also trying to identify a new landfill site.

What then leads the survey to rank these as top contenders in cleanliness honours?

The survey structure

The survey is divided into three parts – self-declaration by the municipality which carries 900 marks (45%), direct observation by assessors which carries 500 marks (25%), and citizen feedback which carries 600 marks (30%). The questionnaire and methodology of the survey was developed by MoUD and the survey conducted by Quality Council of India (QCI), an autonomous body for quality management under the central government.

In the municipal self-declaration component, maximum marks were reserved for sweeping, collection and transportation of solid waste (360). The more critical part of solid waste management (SWM), which is processing and disposal of waste, carried only 180 marks.

Waste collection is inefficient in most Indian cities, but even the few cities that do collect waste properly, fail to treat and dispose of it properly. Treatment plants in many cities have been shut down as they were polluting and unviable. For example, CSE’s 2016 report ‘Not in my backyard’ points out that in 2015, out of 42 RDF/WTE (Refuse Derived Fuel/Waste to Energy) plants in India, only 11 were operational.

The report also points out the reason for their unviability: they receive unsegregated, mixed waste. Segregation at source, by the generators themselves, is not practiced in most Indian cities. Use of mixed waste leads to pollution and poor quality of the generated fuel/compost which finds no buyers. As a result, much of the waste is directly dumped in the landfill.

A door-to-door garbage collection van from the city of Indore. Pic: TheodoreIndiana/Wikimedia Commons

The commonest pattern in Indian cities, therefore, is of tonnes of mixed waste collected by sanitary workers, transported by vehicles and dumped into landfills, with little or no processing. And this is precisely the model that Survekshan promotes.

The questionnaire for the section ‘solid waste sweeping, collection and transportation’ does not have a single question about segregation by generators. The top ranked city Indore scores full points – 360 on 360 – in this section.

How much of a city segregates its waste?

Indore also scores full marks – 180 on 180 – in the ‘solid waste processing and disposal’ section.

In this section, there is a question on the ‘percentage of wards where segregation is sustained in all processing stages (source, collection, transfer stations, till disposal/treatment)’. The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016, which were notified by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in April 2016 and which cities are mandated to follow mandate waste generators to segregate their own waste, before handing it over to waste collectors.

In Survekshan, a city gets full points if segregation is achieved in all stages in over 75% of its wards. For assessment, cities had to submit their notification mandating segregation at source, a declaration by municipal commissioner that segregation was happening, and photographic evidence. “There should be photos from each ward of a person carrying waste in segregated bins or depositing waste in a vehicle with compartments for segregated waste,” says the QCI official.

Surprisingly, Indore and Surat despite having miles to go before complete segregation is achieved, are among cities that scored in this parameter.

According to a Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board official quoted in the ‘Down To Earth’ article, only 10% households in Indore segregate waste. Yet Indore scores full marks in this parameter because, as QCI clarifies, ‘segregation in over 75% wards does not imply that all households in these wards are segregating. So even if only 10% households segregate, if these households are spread across 75% wards, the city gets full points. In effect, this parameter does not measure if segregation is happening on the ground, but only if it has been initiated in principle.

“In the first Swachh Survekshan in 2016, we only checked if segregation was happening at the city level. This year, we broadened it to check if it was happening at the ward level. Each year, survey parameters are designed to incrementally measure outcomes,” says the QCI official.

This section also contains questions on whether a city uses a waste-to-energy (WTE)/compost plant, and on the processing efficiency of the plant (what percentage of waste collected is processed).

A senior QCI official who is part of the Swachh Survekshan team says, on condition of anonymity, that this is because the question is only about the operating capacity of the plant. “If the waste going to the plant is treated properly, the city will score high. In the case of a compost plant, the plant should meet the recommended ratio of waste-to-compost. So this parameter only checks if the plant is operating to its capacity, rather than how much of the city’s waste is processed there,” he says.

Where’s the disincentive to dumping?

Another major question under the section is whether the city has a sanitary landfill. But the definition of sanitary landfill used here is different from that in the SWM Rules.

According to SWM Rules, only inert, non-recyclable waste should be sent to the landfill, and the landfill should be designed to prevent pollution, greenhouse gas emissions etc. Unlike a dump site, a sanitary landfill would take in only a very small percentage of the total waste, and hence can last couple of decades. This, however, is not what the Swachh Survekshan looks at.

A senior officer on behalf of MoUD says, on condition of anonymity, that the amounts  of waste going into the cities’ landfills were not checked. “The question is only to see if the city has a scientific process of maintaining a landfill, in a way that does not cause air or water pollution. For this, the DPR (Detailed Project Report) of the landfill is checked. QCI’s assessors checked if the landfills were functional, but they did not check if there was contamination since it would be subjective,” he says.

While DPRs of landfills usually mention scientific management, this is rarely practised. Thus, due to this flawed assessment process, cities like Surat score high in the ‘sanitary landfill’ parameter.

Other parameters

Reuse and recovery of waste gets low priority in the section. The only such question here is whether plastic is reused for building roads. Other means of waste recovery or recycling are not considered. For instance, Panjim does not use plastic in road building, but it sorts dry waste, auctions recyclables to vendors and delivers non-recyclables to cement plants in Karnataka. “Hence Panjim got no points for this question,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager (Environmental Governance) at CSE.

In effect, the Survekshan questionnaire contradicts SWM Rules, which prescribes a hierarchy in waste management — priority should be given for prevention of waste, reduction, reuse, recovery and disposal in that order. That is, prevention is the most preferred option, and disposal at landfill the least.

SWM Rules also specifically prescribe decentralised waste processing systems – waste should be processed as close to its source as possible, to reduce environmental impact and the transportation cost of waste. But the Survekshan actually undermines cities that have moved to a decentralised system, as we will see in a subsequent article.

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