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Policies and People | How India is learning to manage its waste

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On the eastern fringes of the shiny Capital city of Delhi, along a multi-lane, congestion-free national highway is the city’s largest landfill at Ghazipur. On Monday, a fire broke out in the landfill and it took firefighters two days to tackle it. The Ghazipur fire was yet another reminder of India’s burgeoning waste problem, and the need to find long-term waste management solutions.

According to a NITI Aayog-Centre for Science and Environment report (Waste-Wise Cities), released in December 2021, urban India generates between 1,30,000 to 1,50,000 metric tonnes (MT) of municipal solid waste every day – some 330-550 gram per urban inhabitant a day. This adds up to roughly 50 million MT per year; at current rates, this will jump to some 125 million MT a year by 2031.

“What is also of concern is that not only is the quantity increasing, but the composition of waste is changing – from high percentage of biodegradable waste to non-biodegradable waste. The waste characterisation determines the strategy for its management,” says the report. In addition, there is the problem of legacy waste lying in dumpyards scattered across cities. It is estimated that some 800 million MT has been “disposed of” in the 3,159 dumpsites across the country, according to data from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

The Union government has recently released the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), emphasising making cities Garbage Free.

“India’s urban areas are drowning in waste because of the change in our lifestyle. Today, like the West, we use lot of packaged food and that generates a lot of waste. Unfortunately, there is not much segregation at source. This is filling up our landfills. Other than educating people, municipalities can also think about mandating user fees for picking up and segregation,” says Sanju Soman, CEO, SUSTERA Foundation, Kerala. “The other issue is that civic officials are not aware of best practices across India. They need to be trained in best waste management practices”. 

The coastal states, he added, also face another problem: Marine litter. “The large amount of plastic waste ending in our oceans is affecting the marine ecosystem, which is leading to a livelihood and health crisis,” adds Soman. 

The good news is several Indian cities are forging new ways to tackle the crisis. While cities such as Alappuzha, Indore, and Panaji have focussed on source segregation, Bhopal, Dhenkanal, Jamshedpur, and Surat have invested in material processing. When it comes to plastic waste management, Bicholim, Gangtok, and Kumbakonam show the way.

And then there is Ambikapur, Chandrapur and Taliparamba. These towns have no Ghazipur-type landfills.

How Ambikapur became a zero-landfill town

Ambikapur is a small town in Chhattisgarh’s Sarguja district. It proudly calls itself a “zero-landfill” town though it generates nearly 48 tonnes of waste every day. The town does almost 100% source segregation, collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of waste, a result of an initiative involving self-help groups.

It all began in 2015.

Before that, the town did not have an effective system of managing its solid waste management and one could see overflowing community bins and waste dumped indiscriminately near roads and streets. With no segregation at source, mixed waste used to be collected from these dumps and off-loaded at a dumping site outside the town.

The dumpyard was in a poor state, without a liner or leachate and gas collection systems. Open burning of the waste was common, and the resulting emissions of hazardous gases were adversely affecting the communities living nearby. While huge amounts of funds were spent to tackle the problem, most projects failed because of a lack of public participation.

In March 2015, the district administration called a meeting of all stakeholders (local body members and officials of the municipal corporation) and laid down an action plan.

To begin with, about 643 volunteers were trained and 623 of them were selected to form Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Sixty-two of these SHGs came together to constitute the ‘Swachh Ambikapur Mission Sahakari Samiti Maryadit, Ambikapur’. The town has notified by-laws for solid waste management; plastic, construction and demolition waste and e-waste management; and instituted user charges and a ban on plastics.

How the system works

The town runs a “Garbage Clinic” model, facilitated by the local administration. Under it, 17 Solid and Liquid Resource Management (SLRM) centres have been set up, one in each zone. Each centre collects source-segregated waste from two to five wards (600-1,500 households), using a fleet of pedal-rickshaws and e-rickshaws.

The waste is brought to the SLRM centre for secondary segregation into 20 non-biodegradable categories – paper, plastic items, plastic covers, cardboard, glass, metal items, rubber items, leather items, aluminum-coated paper, aluminum-coated plastic, thermocol, cloths, medical waste, tablet covers, electronic items, wooden items, chemical items, x-ray films, expired tablets and inerts. The recyclables are channelised to recycling plants; the non-recyclables are baled, packed, and weighed.

The remaining non-biodegradable waste is transported to reclaimed land for tertiary segregation, where the waste gets further segregated into 156 categories. After the tertiary segregation, the non-recyclables are compressed and converted into cubes, which are then sold to cement plants as a substitute for fuel because of their high calorific value.

Before the current system was put in place, the cost of cleaning the town was met by the AMC. Following the introduction of the Garbage Clinic model, there has been a decline in expenditure and a rise in incomes of the AMC.

The involvement of women-dominated SHGs and the willingness of the AMC to integrate them into the town’s solid waste management system has been a remarkable step. User charges are collected from households and the income from the sale of waste and manure is then used to pay the salaries of workers who have made this model successful.

The AMC has ensured that no waste is dumped in landfills and that all the waste is treated and used as a resource for generating revenue. Over 6,986 sq m of land has been freed from encroachments and a sanitation park has been built at a cost of 280.54 lakh.


•Ambikapur has become the first municipal corporation in India to be free of garbage dumping sites; it is also ensuring the scientific processing of organic and inorganic waste.

• There has been a positive impact on public health: a dip has been noted in the disease burden of the town. For example, cases of acute diarrhea reduced to 77 in 2020 compared to 156 in 2015.

• The initiative has helped reclaim 16 acres of land valued at 25 crore, and has generated over 500 green jobs.

• It has empowered the women who are members of the SHGs; they have been provided uniforms and safety gear, which gives them and their work a sense of dignity and security.

• The city’s waste management system has become financially sustainable: waste collection and transportation costs have gone down, while there have been increases in the collection of user charges as the service gets better, and in sales of recyclable material and compost. Viability gap funding support has been reduced.

• The Chhattisgarh government has adopted it for replication across the state.

As India grapples with mounting waste problems, innovative initiatives such as these are a ray of hope for all, and workable templates for laggard cities.

The views expressed are personal

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