The real challenge for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan


The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, one of the Narendra Modi’s flagship schemes, may be missing out on one of the key ingredients of clean cities: waste management. Although the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan lays a lot of emphasis on collecting waste in cities, it does not seem to have given adequate attention to waste management, the recently released draft of the State of Environment Report 2105 shows.

Most of the solid waste generated in cities is dumped in landfill sites, which the report describes as “non-scientific” and “rudimentary”. These sites, apart from being health hazards, also pose a serious threat to land and water resources. The report, published by the environment ministry, notes that 1,285 new landfill sites have been identified across the country but it does not say when these new sites are likely to become operational.

Many of India’s big cities are struggling to treat their sewage as well. According to figures from the 2016 compendium of environment statistics, Delhi’s sewage treatment capacity was only 60% of its total sewage generation. The figure is less than half for many big cities in eastern and central India.

The waste-management problems of cities do not seem to be reflected in the Swachh Bharat rankings of cities published recently. For instance, Indore, Bhopal and Surat, which ranked first, second and fourth, respectively, based on their Swachh Survekshan 2017 scores, are each able to treat less than half of the sewage they generate.

As several commentators have pointed out, a key drawback of the Swachh Bharat rankings is that they rely too heavily on perception. The environment ministry data suggests that the perception about cleanliness of cities may differ quite sharply from the reality.

As India urbanizes, the problem of waste management will only grow. What compounds this problem further is the growing volume of hazardous waste generated in the country. According to the state of the environment report, the number of hazardous waste generating industries has risen from an estimated 36,165 generating 6.2 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 2009 to 42,429 generating 7.8 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 2015. More than half of India’s hazardous waste is generated in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Smaller firms or micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), as they are classified in India, seem to be generating most of the industrial waste and pollutants in the country as they are not subject to the strict pollution control norms which apply to big industries. The share of highly polluting industries which do not comply with pollution norms has increased by around 8 percentage points between 2010 and 2014, according to the state of the environment report.

Clearly, a “Swachh Bharat” (or clean India) is possible only when these issues are dealt with in a holistic manner. Piecemeal initiatives to clean streets, or to clean rivers, will not succeed without adequate waste management infrastructure and pollution control measures. A classic example is the Clean Ganga Mission, which is facing challenges because of inadequate sewage treatment in Varanasi and unregulated discharge from leather tanneries in Kanpur.

The battle for a cleaner, greener and healthier India cannot succeed without an overarching framework to deal with the generation, management and disposal of waste.

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