Waste woes in Paradise: Srinagar’s struggle to clear garbage from streets during lockdown

In the days following abrogation of Article 370, Srinagar became a stinking mess, as municipal staff were unable to report to work and mounds of garbage accumulated on streets. While proactive officers and safai karamcharis have managed to tide over the crisis in the face of odds, waste management in the city needs serious fixes for the long term.

Television channels and newspapers could not stop talking about Kashmir. Every news bulletin, every panel discussion, every TV debate was about Kashmir and its people. Yet, what media did not, or could not, cover was the everyday ordeal in a city of close to two million, where municipal workers had not been able to report to duty for 10 days. Srinagar was stinking.

All normal operations were suspended in Srinagar from August 5th, following abrogation of Article 370. Within a few days, residents started to complain of chest discomfort, frequent sneezing, mild cough and allergies due to the foul smell emanating from garbage spilling all over the city, from the overflowing dustbins at various places. The problem was compounded by the littering by stray dogs, who thronged the dustbins for food.

Abdur Rashid Bhat, a resident of the posh Rajbagh area in Srinagar, said that it was like hell because of the foul smell; two dustbins installed by the SMC were full and garbage was littered on roads. “We were not even able to go out of our homes because of the bad smell,” said Bhat. “Since we were not able to talk to our family doctors on what precautions to take, we decided to wear masks while going out. Because of the foul smell, we had frequent headaches and stomach cramps.” He said that self-medication was the only option. “We decided to take anti-vomiting drugs and paracetamol tablets for headaches”.

There was no option other than to dispose of the garbage on the road side as all the dustbins were full. For Gulshan, a resident of Natipora area of Srinagar, going out of their house was inviting multiple diseases. “My son went out to play in a by-lane. After almost an hour, he started sneezing and complained of headache. We took him to a city hospital where he was treated by a general physician as the paediatrician was not available there,” she said. It took four days for Gulshan’s son to recover fully. “For almost a week, we continued to throw garbage in a local dustbin installed by the SMHC on a road side. We had no other choice”.

Much-awaited drive

Srinagar Municipal corporation (SMC) officials said that they were unable to contact their staff for over 10 days since the curbs were imposed. By then, over 4500 tons of garbage, according to one official’s estimate, littered the city, which generates about 450 tons of garbage daily.

“We were unable to pick up waste due to the communication blackout and restrictions in Srinagar,” said a senior health service official. “We were as helpless as everybody else.’’ For close to two weeks, the garbage was littered on the roadsides and small garbage collection centres continued to accumulate.

Sensing the urgency and public health issues posed by the accumulated garbage, Municipal Commissioner Khurshid Sanai, whose phones too had been disconnected, wrote to the Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) to restore mobile phones of SMC staff. But even after getting the clearance from the security agencies, BSNL restored mobile phones of only four SMC staff, including that of commissioner Sanai.

Soon after, chief sanitation officer Muhammad Akbar Sofi started to reach out to his staff and began the process of clearing the garbage. “I personally went to the homes of four ward officers,’’ Sofi said. “Then we framed a strategy and divided each municipal ward was divided in four sectors –- East, West, North and South”. Each sector officer was asked to visit homes of ward employees to try and personally contact their subordinates. “This way, a chain of communication was established with all municipal staff down to Safai Karamcharis,’’ Sofi added. “We could not reach everyone but we began lifting garbage from August 15th with whatever manpower we could activate.”

It was a challenging situation, admitted Sofi, as areas like Hyderpora Bypass, Rawalpora, Babademb, Kawdoora, Bemina and adjacent places all had large mounds of garbage. “These are all posh areas of Srinagar where garbage production is higher compared to other areas in the city”.

Ward Officer Choudhary Mehrajudin Buja, who participated in the operation, said that it was not easy to ‘convince’ safai karamcharies to report for duty in the absence of public transport. “So, we decided to send Hoopers (vehicles used to pick up garbage) and other SMC transport to fetch them from their homes. Our chief sanitation officer initiated the chain and made it successful.” Documents accessed by Citizen Matters show that from August 13th to 20th, the SMC was able to clear 4000 tons of garbage to Achen, the lone dumping site in Srinagar, with the help of 82 vehicles.

“We were bound to join our duties to lift the garbage from our respective areas,” said Abdur Rashid Lone, a safai karamchari. “What else could a junior employee do when his superior knocks his door and wants him to join duty immediately?” He said the situation was so bad that they frequently sneezed and coughed while lifting the garbage. “It was a difficult task as an atmosphere of intense fear prevailed on the roads, where only security forces personnel were present. After a couple of days of work, we managed to feel a bit at ease after signalling to the security forces personnel that we were out for clearing garbage”.

SMC officials admitted that though garbage clearance in Srinagar has gained pace, the communication shutdown and other restrictions still in place are hampering their operations. There are over 48 wards in Srinagar and each ward has its Safai Karamcharis, all employees of the SMC.

Today, the cleanliness drive across the newly designated union territory of Srinagar is in full swing with all safai karamcharis back at work. “At present, people are cooperating with us fully and garbage is lifted from every locality in Srinagar during the wee hours,” said SMC Commissioner Khurshid Sanai. He said as such SMC is facing no difficulty in lifting or removing the garbage from Srinagar areas. “Postpaid phones are working and land lines are also functional. We are in touch with all the area heads and ward officers through phones and our all teams are functioning normally at present”.

Unscientific waste management

While the municipality has made commendable progress in tackling the immediate crisis, waste management in Srinagar for the long term requires a systemic overhaul.

In 1985, the state government had provided 64. 6 acres of land to SMC at Achen, some eight kilometres from the commercial hub of Lal Chowk, Srinagar. According to SMC officials, since there are no major industries in Kashmir, industrial waste production is less in Srinagar but all the waste produced by shops, homes and hotels is dumped at Achen. Achen is barely three kilometres away from Kashmir’s tertiary care hospital—Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Soura.

Residents of Achen however have been protesting saying the foul smell from the landfill site is causing serious health hazards. “Claims by municipal officials that the site will cause no issues proved wrong,” said Ali Muhammad, 70, a resident of Achen. Commissioner Sanai however said scientific methods are used to sift waste before dumping.

A senior SMC official also said that under a pilot project, they have now started waste segregation at source in some pockets of Srinagar. But rag pickers are not allowed at the Achen dumping ground, even though the SMC’s Solid Waste Management Action Plan draft said that the role of rag pickers must be encouraged at the ward level and collection points, so that the waste reaching the Achen landfill is somewhat segregated.

About the need for more dumping sites in and around Srinagar, he said the issue has been taken up with the government. He also said that as per the Solid Waste Management Action Plan 2018, a compost plant with a capacity of two tons per day has been commissioned at Achen. At least 80 trucks are used to dump waste. The compost produced at the dumping site is packed in 20 kg bags at the rate of Rs 3 per kg. The SMC is exploring options to sell this produce in bulk to government departments.

Arif Shafi Wani, a senior journalist in Srinagar who has widely covered environment issues in the state, however refutes the claims of scientific waste management at the Achen site. “SMC has been claiming that waste is being dumped following scientific methods, but these claims are on paper only. We need to procure modernised equipment to treat waste. At present we don’t have any major waste treatment facility in Srinagar. We are far behind in waste management compared to other cities of India.”

It is a reflection of the municipality’s apathy that for the entire population of Srinagar there is only one dumping site, said Arif. “Garbage dumping is a serious issue given the fragile environment of Srinagar. Pollution is also taking a toll on people. In such a situation, we need to have a state-of-the-art waste management system in place. It should be done in the same way as in developed countries. Otherwise, we are heading towards a big environmental disaster.”

Political situation hampers work

On July 13th, the Chairman of the State Level Monitoring Committee constituted by the National Green Tribunal for implementation of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 for the state of J&K had sought a report from Deputy Commissioners of all the districts on the status of implementation of the Rules. As per a committee handout, Rule 12 specifies that the Deputy Commissioner of a district has to periodically review the performance of local bodies on waste management.

The Chairman of the Monitoring Committee, Justice (Retd.) Janak Raj Kotwal, former Judge of High Court of Jammu & Kashmir, asked the Administrative Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Department to call for reports from the Deputy Commissioners, while pointing out they have received several reports from different sources of unscientific transportation, dumping and disposal of solid waste, which are causing air and water pollution.

However, due to the uncertainty that has gripped the entire valley of Kashmir in the wake of bifurcation of the erstwhile state into two Union Territories (UTs), monitoring by the Deputy Commissioners couldn’t achieve set targets.

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