Opinion: Five areas Swachh Bharat 2.0 must focus on to overcome our real waste challenges

Swachh Bharat 2.0 should aim for a decentralised model that looks at zero-waste cities with mandatory inclusion of all waste workers.

On October 1st, a day before Gandhi Jayanti, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a sequel to his flagship and equally lauded and critiqued programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission. The aim of  Swachh Bharat 2.0, added Modi, is to make “urban areas garbage free”. He stressed that in the second phase, “the garbage mounds in cities will be processed and removed completely. We are processing about 70% of the daily waste; the next step is to take it to 100%.”

Swachh Bharat 2.0 will also focus on source segregation of solid waste, utilising the principles of 3R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), scientific processing of all types of municipal solid waste and remediation of legacy dumpsites for effective solid waste management. The outlay for all this is a whopping Rs 1.41 lakh crore.

While admittedly rightly timed in terms of the needs of Indian cities, the flagship mission is meant to signify a step forward in our march towards effectively addressing the challenges of rapidly urbanising India and the emerging climate challenges we are witnessing.

Read more: What Bengaluru’s scientific waste management can teach the Swachh Bharat mission

But like with most sequels, which are almost always worse than the original, the Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 too could end up being worse than its predecessor. The latest avatar of the mission lacks an on-ground understanding of waste management and does not recognise the failures of SBM 1.0 (The foremost being the proposed construction of 11 crore toilets. Not only are numbers lagging, the larger point is that more than 60% of these toilets lack any sewer connection and the sewage is dumped in water bodies). It is also heavily reliant on technology and privatised ‘models’ for solving complicated urban governance issues.

If the performance of the smart cities initiatives are anything to go by, Swachh Bharat 2.0 could end up being just another scheme that aims to deliver on speed and scale but fails to do so. With its push towards garbage-free cities, the sequel might lose focus on two key issues, recycling and decentralised handling of waste.

Thus, while garbage-free cities may remove waste from our sight, it will not effectively handle the waste using sustainable means.

Decentralise, don’t recentralise

I list here five reasons why, unless redirected, Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 will fail to address the complex issues around waste management in Indian cities.

First, Indian cities must aim for the right models. Indore, according to government rankings, has consistently been the cleanest city in the country. But Swachh Bharat cannot be based on the Indore model that scores well on waste collection and transportation, but not on segregation and recycling.

Indore is not an aberration. Most top ranked cities in the Swachh Sarvekshan rankings share a similar story: ensuring that the waste is picked up by trucks and machines and sent for processing. This only keeps the garbage out of sight, and out of our minds.

Second, only decentralisation will work and not (re)centralisation of the process. Effective waste management is expensive, often comprising over 20% of municipal budgets, which is usually invested in heavy vehicles for transportation and centralised collection, processing and management practices. All of this favours the transportation lobbies that would want this ‘lift and dispose’ system to continue. With no interest in how the waste is disposed or processed.

Read more: Nothing smart about Centre’s Smart Cities Mission

The mission sequel needs to comprehend that with waste generation increasing at around 4% a year, nearly 60% of which is organic with low calorific value, the policy must prioritise community waste practices. Therefore, rather than being garbage-free, we should aim for zero waste communities where all organic waste is composted with only the inorganic collected and recycled.

Third, with so much money and resources allocated, the thrust on technology-centric waste management needs to be handled cautiously. There is a threat of outdated and obsolete waste management techniques being used, which are now no longer usable in the global north but are looking for markets in developing contexts.

Swachh Bharat 2.0 waste management waste pickers
The country’s informal sector workers in waste play a crucial role in waste management and are the real green warriors; but have to work without essentials that offer dignity and safety. File pic of waste pickers in Bangalore. Pic Nikita Malusare

For example, grappling with legacy waste landfills in Indian cities, solid waste incineration is often presented as a ‘quick-fix’ solution to rapidly reduce growing waste volumes while producing energy. However, incineration is among the worst approaches cities can take to achieve both waste reduction and energy goals. It is expensive, inefficient and creates environmental risks.

Read more: Nine incinerators planned for Chennai; it’s time to pause and rethink

The residents of south Delhi in areas around Sukhdev Vihar, Ishwar Nagar, New Friends Colony, Jasola, Sarita Vihar and Haji Colony stand testimony to the the many problems they face from the waste-to-energy (WtE) plant in Okhla. There is a need to steer clear of such expensive and unscientific practices in Swachh Bharat 2.0.

Fourth, the prime minister acknowledged the contribution of mahanayaks—the waste pickers who constitute an important part of solid waste management in Indian cities, especially during the COVID pandemic. Disappointingly, he failed to talk about the need for mandatory inclusion, skilling and incorporation into the formal work force of these waste pickers, who manage to recycle around 20% of waste yet get no state recognition.

The country’s informal sector waste workers play a crucial role and are the real green warriors, but have to work without protective equipment such as gloves, masks and other essentials that offer dignity and safety. Unfortunately, existing waste management models of all major cities do not promote the inclusion of waste workers. The models, instead, incentivize mechanization. When in reality, adequately supported and organized, informal recycling can create employment, improve local practices reduce poverty and substantially reduce municipal spending.

Read more: Managing waste in Chennai: The way ahead

Fifth, rather than focusing on tech-led solid waste management practices, Swachh Bharat 2.0 needs to focus on getting the basics right and adopt a paradigm that incentivises cities which implement the 5Rs (and not 3): refuse (meaning creating awareness amongst consumers to refuse to pay for products that have overly large packaging), reuse, recycle, recover and reduce. And addressing the most critical ‘R’ – Responsibility: that the generator, be it households, markets, or companies, are responsible and accountable to deal with their own waste.

Reorienting Swachh Bharat 2.0 to move towards zero waste communities and not garbage-free cities must be the call. The mantra of speed and scale can work if communities and people are involved, and the effort promotes a decentralized, localized approach to waste management, with mandatory inclusion of informal waste workers.

We especially need to talk about alternative models like Alappuzha with its 100% segregation with community-led biogas plants and composting. Like Pune, with its worker collectives that are cost-effective and sustainable. Adopting and improving on such models alone will ensure that the sequel actually will deliver on its aims and objectives.

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