How can India move towards more sustainable waste management in tourist cities?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But waste management in tourist cities needs a fresh, multi-stakeholder approach as the tourism sector looks to revive itself.

As the tourism industry prepares for recovery with all due safety procedures, the need for proper waste management in tourist cities cannot be undermined. The pandemic has underscored the need for sustainable waste management, while protecting the safety of the waste handlers and the  environment. 

The pandemic has hit India’s tourism sector particularly hard, as we see from the statistics cited lated in the article. And as the unlock process starts, with the government announcing some special incentives to revive the tourism sector, there is a particular urgency for popular tourist destinations, from hill regions to cities like Jaipur and Agra, to focus on sustainable ways of reviving tourism. Where both the traveller and the service provider each contribute their bit.

To give one small example, my partner and I took time off a few months back to celebrate our anniversary at a friend’s resort, IBNI in Coorg. And while the resort’s No Pets policy was a disappointment for us, it was heartening to see the thought and effort put in to limit disposables and manage waste in-house.

“At IBNI, we believe in following the 4R’s — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle,” says Shreya Krishnan, Advisor to IBNI. “We try to use minimal plastic and request our guests to not carry any plastic into the premises. We actively explore ways of repurposing our waste and most of our needs are met by objects made of wood, metal and natural substances. Our kitchen functions without plastic including cling wrap. We use leaves, bamboo and other natural alternatives. We ensure everything is made from scratch to eliminate packets. All our decor, festive elements and props are handmade. All our kitchen waste is composted inhouse. The vegetable scraps are used as fodder for the farm animals we rear. Dry waste is further segregated in our recycling room into paper, plastic, metal, glass, rubber, milk packets, and coconut husks. This is sent to Hasiru Dala in Mysore for responsible processing. The leaves that line our pathways are turned into leaf litter compost and used to nourish young saplings”. 

A particular challenge most bulk generators face is managing sanitary waste.  “We struggle with sanitary waste such as menstrual pads and diapers,” says Shreyas. “The sheer volume of such waste is disheartening because they are not biodegradable or compostable. Every time the incinerator is operated, there is an impact on the environment. These are things tourists should be aware of and should look at biodegradable alternatives when it comes to sanitary waste and sanitary waste management”.

Read more: COVID has changed tourism. Will it also make it more responsible?

Tourism sector numbers

Responding to a query in the Rajya Sabha on September 15, 2020, on the contribution of the tourism sector to India’s economy during the past five years, the number of jobs and businesses the sector supporta and the effect of the pandemic on tourism sector, Minister of State for Tourism, Prahlad Patel stated that as per estimation during 2014-19 the contribution of tourism to GDP and jobs of the country was as follows: 

Share in GDP ( in %)5.815.
Jobs due to tourism ( in million)69.5672.2675.7180.5477.72

The minister also mentioned that no formal study has been done to assess the impact on the Tourism sector.

In March 2021, a Press Information Bureau release stated that the Ministry of Tourism has engaged the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) to conduct a study on “India and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Economic Losses for Households Engaged in Tourism and Policies for Recovery”. According to WTTC, India stood third among 185 countries for travel & tourism’s contribution to GDP in 2018. With 2019 seeing a 4.8% increase in revenue to Rs 1,94,881 crore and 4.2 crore new job opportunities being created, which was 8.1% of total employment in the country.

According to a report in Business Standard (April 2020), ‘during April-June, the Indian tourism industry is expected to book a revenue loss of Rs 69,400 crore, a year-on-year loss of 30 per cent’.

 Sustainable waste management

A webinar hosted by German Development Cooperation (GIZ India) and Karo Sambhav on the ‘Role of Citizens and Bulk Generators in Waste Management in Tourist Cities, on World Environment Day 2021 reinforced the need to  prioritise waste management, as part of mainstreaming sustainability in the tourism industry. The webinar was organized under the development public private partnership ( framework of the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation & Development (BMZ) supported project being implemented in Varanasi, Goa and Ghaziabad.

The objective was developing and implementing scalable, transparent, financially viable sustainable waste management systems as well as generate awareness amongst the around one lakh stakeholders on the importance of recycling plastic and e-waste. 

waste management issues in Varanasi
Wild boar eating garbage off the roads in Varanasi. Pic: Oliver Laumann/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

In the webinar, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Tourism R K Verma highlighted the scope of the new Tourism Policy (draft released in August 2020), that is based on the framework for sustainable and responsible growth of the tourism sector. One objective is to position India as a welcoming, safe, clean, hygienic and accessible destination, with a view to enhance the tourist experience and at the same time, minimising the negative impact of tourism on social, environmental and economic aspects and maximizing the positive impact. Mr. Verma said, “The new tourism policy is not just an infrastructural issue, but also a behavioural issue,” said Verma. “It involves the concept of a ‘Responsible Traveller’ which creates the required motivation and awareness that travellers too have important responsibilities in maintaining the ecological balance of tourist destinations”.

Interestingly, the 2016 Swacch Parayatan mobile application initiative that enabled citizens and tourists to take photos of garbage and upload on the app, finds a push in the policy document. And in line with the government’s policy on cooperative and competitive federalism, ranking of tourist destinations based on cleanliness and hygiene has also been proposed. The policy makes waste management a priority.

People are creatures of habit and routine, and hence the need for reinforcement of a new behaviour can be achieved only with constant sensitisation. Ashish Tiwari, IFS, Member Secretary Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, highlighted the need for ‘Orientation and Interpretation centres’ in tourist cities, with hotels and other bulk generators taking the lead in advocating responsible behaviour such as no littering and other do’s and don’ts. 

On the responsibility of bulk generators, Gaurang Rathi, IAS, Municipal Commissioner Varanasi Nagar Nigam (VNN), stressed the importance of in-situ management of waste.

Read more: Tourists continue to arrive amid big COVID surge and total lockdown in Srinagar

A visit to two beaches

Visakhapatnam and Puri, are popular temple towns also known for its beaches, especially Puri’s Golden Beach. A visit in January-February to beaches in both cities was a study in contrast.

In Visakhapatnam, what caught my attention was the garbage littering the beach. While at Puri’s golden beach, Iwas overwhelmed with its maintenance. It ticked all the boxes, with a first impression in terms of cleanliness, the sands devoid of any garbage. The beach was clear and welcoming, waste bins were empty but easily accessible. Not surprisingly, Golden Beach won the Blue Flag Certification, an ecolabel conferred by the international, non-governmental organisation FEE (Foundation for Environment Education) that advocates sustainable development in freshwater and marine ecosystems.

FEE lists 33  criteria for assessment.  Criteria 15, 17 and 18 are crucial as it specifies litter management, beach cleaning, consideration of local flora and fauna without use of chemicals or insecticides, storm water flows and outlets, waste collection, minimum three-way segregation, bins made of recycled products, spacing of bins, frequency of emptying bins, secondary recycling and adequate recycling infrastructure within the beach premises.

One disappointment was the use of single use plastics at eateries (though officially banned in Orissa). Interestingly an awareness program on this was conducted in February 2021. The second was the No Pets Allowed signage, as any talk about sustainability needs to incorporate the definition of inclusion.

What tourist cities can do

“Waste Management in mountains and hilly areas need a different approach, but first and foremost in managing waste is to move away from landfill  based disposal or waste to energy plant approach, as it  further impacts the fragile ecosystem,” says Shalini Khanna Charles, a hospitality professional, entrepreneur and a member of Solid Waste Management Roundtable, who shuttles between Bengaluru and Coorg. “Littering is common for a number of reasons, including ineffective implementation of SWM Rules, lack of awareness and inadequate infrastructure”.

waste management issues in srinagar
Achen landfill. Pic: Abid Bashir Wani

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for managing waste. The process needs to take into consideration local realities. Just like sustainability cannot be considered niche in any sector but needs to be incorporated in the fabric and design, waste management too cannot be an afterthought but be ingrained in the systems, planning, governance and monitoring with a multisectoral, multi-stakeholder approach. 

The universal principles, however remain, applicable in lines with the existing Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 – amended in 2018, E-Waste Management Rules 2016 and Biomedical Waste Management Rules, 2016. 

  • Segregation is the key: Minimum three-way segregation of waste is mandatory across all generators. Wet or Biodegradable Waste; Dry or Non-biodegradable Waste, Sanitary Waste and Domestic Hazardous Waste. “The bins in hotels rooms and bathrooms need a rethink and a new strategy,” says Shalini. “Most hotels provide two dustbins, one in the room and one in the bathroom. The new normal must promote three way segregation with clear instructions displayed pictorially for use”.
  • Community Participation: Given the cultural nuances involved and the terrain, the local community must be involved at all levels— decision making, planning, implementation, training, monitoring and evaluation. The local community can also contribute towards collective problem solving and consensus building while exerting positive peer support for enabling sustainable waste management. 
  • Enforcement of waste hierarchy at source: Reduction of waste (given India’s commitment to phase out single use plastic and promotion of reusables and other alternatives) and composting at different levels, based on the geographies, and population—home composting, community composting, lane composting, park composting and in situ management of wet waste. Besides composting of biogas with zone level biogas across places of worship, and heritage spaces. And recycling with all dry waste channelised to waste pickers and other informal waste collectors.
  • Decentralised waste management: The ULBs must be given adequate finances and institutional mechanisms to invest in local facilities and invest in ward level micro planning. It also must be mindful of the topography of the place and climatic conditions. The long term plan must be to do away with landfills and dumping grounds. An emergency disaster waste management plan must also be factored in. 
  • Inclusion of Informal Waste Sector:  Waste management is incomplete without the inclusion of informal waste workers across the informal recycling value chain—waste pickers, itinerant buyers, waste sorters, scrap dealers, aggregators, traders and processors. A comprehensive plan must be developed for collaboration, recognising the informal waste workers’ mostly entrepreneurial nature of the profession and enabling access to finance, technology and skill development in line with the recommendations in the Swacch Bhaarat Mission Manual on Municipal Solid Waste released in June 2016 and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs document titled “Empowering marginalized groups- Convergence between SBM and DAY-NULM”. 
  • Communications and Public Awareness : All communication must be focussed and tailor made to cater to different audiences, in a language that is easy to understand. Baseline data on people living, people visiting, services offered, collection schedules, festival and event based waste management guidelines, focussed messaging around dos and don’ts and littering penalties must be addressed. Equally important is to ensure that communication must be designed with an outreach element, to engage the local public, as custodians. This includes all service providers and ancillary support providers in the tourism sector. 
  • Capacity building of all stakeholders: Demystifying the solid waste management rules, understanding roles and responsibilities of generators and service providers, officers and waste workers. Guest responsiveness, sensitisation and participation will have to be factored in the capacity building programs.
  • Governance mechanisms and grievance redressal: Activate ward committees and area sabhas for effective governance. Display micro plans at the ward level offices, and by-laws for better understanding of the rules.

In a COVID world, in order to  build resilient systems, inclusive decentralised waste management strategies must be embraced and acted upon with urgency. As Myriam Shankar, Co-founder, The Anonymous Indian Trust says: “Sustainable recovery needs sustainable planning, designs, participation and enforcement, to enable behaviour change. Sustainability cannot be attained, without sustained efforts”.

Also read:

Additional Reading:

  • Atithya: A Journal of Hospitality 6 (1) 2020, 40-46: A Study on Impact of Lockdown on Tourism and Post Lockdown Expectations of Tourists, by Asmita Patil*, Sandeep Naik**
  • Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM) being implemented in the National Parks, Wildlife Sanctuaries and Zoos in India
  • Draft National Tourism Policy
  • Alfthan, B., Semernya, L., Ramola, A., Adler, C., Peñaranda, L.F., Andresen, M., Rucevska, I., Jurek, M., Schoolmeester, T., Baker, E., Hauer, W. & Memon, M., 2016. Waste Management Outlook for Mountain Regions – Sources and Solutions. UNEP, GRID-Arendal and ISWA.

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