Dumping waste right into Bhagirathi: What Uttarkashi’s garbage problem tells us

Uttarakhand generates approximately 1406 Tons of solid waste per day and none of this is getting treated. It is high time we address this huge challenge faced by cities and towns of Himalayan Uttarakhand.

Uttarkashi was recently in the news and social media because its ULB – Uttarkashi Nagar Palika Parishad – was caught  dumping municipal waste illegally into the Bhagirathi river, a tributary of Ganga. The viral photos of the incident in November 2018 caused huge hue and cry over Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and  the High Court ordered a magisterial inquiry into the matter.

This incident showed, sustainable management of waste remains a mounting challenge for rapidly urbanizing towns and cities of Himalayan Uttarakhand.

Why Uttarakhand matters?

Bhagirathi assumes its own importance in both the historical and geographical narrative of river systems in India. Bhagirathi, which originates in India, is one of the major river of Northern India and is considered to be another source of river Ganga (other being the Alaknanda River). The water for Bhagirathi is formed at the holy Gaumukh, which is approximately 20 Kms. away from Gangotri town.

Uttarakhand is a crucial state in terms of two major environmental components; first, for harboring and nurturing the Himalayas and second, for giving birth to holy Ganga.

Ganga is the most important river in India. It forms the largest river basin in India and serves almost half of India’s population. Keeping this in mind, the State Program Management Group (SPMG) for Namami Ganga has been the nodal agency for developing, executing and monitoring projects aimed at rejuvenating and keeping Ganga clean. SPMG has been created under the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of Uttarakhand.

The central government allocated Rs. 885 Cr. to SPMG for implementing almost 21 different schemes under the Namami Ganga Program for Uttarakhand (Hindustan Times, 2018). The schemes were related to sewerage network, managing industrial effluents, waste management, community participation, cleaning of Ghats, tree planting and IEC activities at village and town level. The SPMG identified 15 priority towns in Uttarakhand for the purpose of implementing these schemes. Uttarkashi also featured in the list along with other towns like Badrinath, Joshimath, Srinagar, Rishikesh and Haridwar.

Waste management scenario in Uttarakhand

India presently generates 53 Million Tons Per Annum (MTPA) out of which only 46% (around 24 MTPA) is processed. Uttarakhand generates approximately 1406 Tons Per Day (TPD) and none of this is getting processed. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs,, out of the earlier 912 wards (pre delimitation of wards) across the state’s urban local bodies, only 3% of the wards actually practiced 100% source segregation. Another reply in Rajya Sabha on 8 March 2018 revealed that only 5 crores has been released, out of the allocated 57 crores allocated for Solid Waste Management since 2014 for Uttarakhand.

Apart from numbers, the policy and legal compliance remains flouted and almost negligible on ground. In 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) conducted a performance audit of ULBs with respect to waste management and revealed that ULBs of Dehradun and Haridwar city are not following the Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2016 notified by Government of India (GoI). The report also revealed that segregation at the household level remains practically zero, which is in contempt of the rules.

As per a study published in Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences (Wani & Ahmed, 2013), Srinagar (another rapidly urbanizing town of Uttarakhand), is struggling to scientifically manage the waste. The study shares a very simple fact that the city has only one dumping landfill which is being used since 1987 for waste disposal. Collection efficiency remains extremely low in the city.

What happened In Uttarkashi?

Uttarkashi, with a population of 17,475 (Census 2011) produces 7-9 tons of waste per day, according to the Uttarakhand Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board (UEPPCB)’s 2017 numbers. The town is also not equipped with door to door collection of waste facility. However, UEPPCB in its annual report has claimed that it has provided Nagar Palika Parishad (NPP) with all the requisite waste management tools like 60 dustbins and 30 containers (though it is not clear why it is the PCB’s job to provide infrastructure). The Uttarkashi NPP has also been provided with a tractor trailer, two refuse collectors and fourteen tricycles. The entire waste of Uttarkashi town is to be emptied in pits constructed for waste dumping at Mahidanda road.

However in practice, municipal waste was earlier being dumped in a local water stream named Tekhla. In October 2018, the High Court intervened and stopped the dumping in Tekhla stream. Thereafter the Uttarkashi NPP started using Ramlila Maidan (Ground) for dumping the waste.

A report on the incident by local media. Pic: Ayush Joshi

Post the ULB elections in the state in November 2018, the government decided to hold the swearing in ceremony of Uttarkashi NPP’s Councilors and Chairman at the Ramlila Maidan followed by  a grand rally by Trivendra Rawat, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister in the same location. As a result, right after the completion of swearing-in ceremony, the entire garbage was dumped in the Bhagirathi River to ensure the ground was cleared of garbage for the CM’s rally!

Rudraprayag, a small Himalayan town, having a population of 9,313 (Census 2011) was also in the news for the same reason, the only difference was that the river changed. The Rudraprayag Municipality was caught illegally dumping the solid waste in the Alaknanda River. Prior to this, in November 2018, an expedition team of CISF conducted a cleanup drive in areas close to Rudraprayag, where non-degradable plastic was rotting since last many years. This was mostly because of the large number of  tourists here.

Learnings and the way forward

Solid waste management remains a crucial area of intervention from development policy and sustainability planning point of view. Uttarakhand, placed in an extremely fragile ecological zone, is currently reeling under enormous quantity of waste being generated by its towns and cities, which are also urbanizing at a rapid pace added with extra pressure from floating population of tourists.

Along with unified policy actions at a state level, technically innovative and sustainable measures needs to be adopted by local city governments.

As per the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016,  ULBs have key responsibilities including door-to-door waste collection mechanism, managing segregated streams of waste, setting up of decentralized compost plants etc.

However the ULBs in India are plagued by their own set of fundamental problems like budget constraints, manpower shortage, lack of technical expertise, inadequate political legitimacy and representation which makes it difficult for them to execute their routine civic tasks. The same issues have hampered the performance of ULBs in Uttarakhand.

For instance, Dehradun ranked 21 out of the 23 cities in Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (ASICS), India’s first and only independent benchmarking of cities using a systemic framework, developed  by Bengaluru based Janaagraha. In urban governance, the city of Dehradun was able to score only 3.1 marks out of 10. The average income of Dehradun Municipal Corporation (DMC) stood at Rs. 13 crore in comparison to Lucknow’s 256 crore. The per capita expenditure of DMC stood at Rs. 546, one of the lowest. The short tenures of Municipal Commissioners and inadequate political freedom to corporation (despite 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments) have further exacerbated the problem.  

Making cities zero waste, hundred percent resource recovery and promoting sustainable and zero waste tourism must find place in the waste management vision of the state government. Without this, the ULBs will continue to dispose of waste in rivers, polluting the environment and violating the law of the land.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in the Gati Foundation’s blog.]

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