Saturday, February 9, 2013

Observations from India's Waste Crisis

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In 2012, for the first time in the history of India, the country has seen nationwide public protests against improper waste management - from the northernmost state Jammu and Kashmir to the southernmost Tamil Nadu. A fight for the right to a clean environment and for environmental justice led the people to large scale demonstrations, including an indefinite hunger strike and blockade of roads leading to local waste handling facilities. Improper waste management has also caused a Dengue Fever outbreak and threatens other epidemics. In recent years, waste management has been a major unifying factor leading to public demonstrations all across India, after corruption, fuel prices and a young woman’s gang rape. Public agitation has resulted in some judicial action and remedial response by the government, however, the waste management problems are still unsolved and might lead to a crisis if the status quo persists without any long term planning and policy reforms.

Hunger Strike in Kerala

The President of Vilappilsala Village Panchayat went on a hunger strike recently, against her counterpart, the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram. Thiruvananthapuram is the state capital of Kerala, and Vilappilsala is a village 22 km away. Since July 2000, Thiruvananthapuram has been transporting about 80% of the 310 tonnes per day of waste it generates to a composting plant and an adjacent dumpsite in Vilappilsala village. Since the same month, respiratory illnesses reported in Vilappil Primary Health Center increased tenfold, from an average of 450 to 5,000 cases per month. People who used to regularly swim in the village’s aquifer have begun contracting infections; swarms of flies have ever since been pervasive; and a stigma of filth affected households throughout the community. This was a source of frustration as locals who, as Indians, prize the opportunity to feed and host guests, found them unwilling to even drink a glass of water in their homes. Currently, there is not a single household which has not experienced respiratory illnesses due to the waste processing plant and the adjoining dumpsite. (1)

On the other hand, Thiruvananthapuram’s residents had to sneak out at night with plastic bags full of trash to dispose them behind bushes, on streets or in water bodies, and had to openly burn heaps of trash every morning for months. This was because the waste generated was not being collected by the city as it could not force open the composting plant and dumpsite against large scale protests by Vilappilsala’s residents. In August 2012, about 2,500 police personnel had to accompany trucks to the waste treatment plant as they were being blocked by local residents lying down on the road, and by some, like village’s President, by going on an indefinite hunger strike.

Municipal Commissioner Replaced in Karnataka

In response to a similar situation in Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka, where the streets were rotting with piles of garbage for months, the municipal commissioner was replaced as a result of the waste management crisis in the city. Against the will of local residents, a landfill which had been closed following the orders issued by the state’s pollution control board in response to public agitation, had to be reopened soon after its closure as the city could not find a new landfill site.

Dengue Outbreak in West Bengal

Even if partially because of improper waste management, Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal and the third biggest city in India, experienced a Dengue Fever outbreak with 550 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. This outbreak coincides with a 600% increase in dengue cases in India and 71% increase in malaria cases in Mumbai in the last five years. Rain water accumulated in non biodegradable waste littered around a city acts as a major breeding environment for mosquitoes, thus increasing the density of mosquito population and making the transmission of mosquito related diseases like dengue, yellow fever and malaria easier. (2) (3)

Rabies in Jammu & Kashmir

Rabies due to stray dog bites is responsible for more than 20,000 deaths in India every year (4). Improper waste management has caused a 1:13 stray dog to human ratio in Srinagar (compared to 1 per 31 people in Mumbai and 1 per 100 in Chennai), where 54,000 people were bitten by stray dogs in a span of 3.5 years. Municipal waste on streets and at the dumpsite is an important source of food for stray dogs. The ultimate solution to controlling stray dogs is proper waste management (5). The public has been protesting about this stray dog menace for months now with no waste management solutions in sight, but only partial short term measures like dog sterilization.

Waste Management Crisis

In light of the large scale public protests in Kerala, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, and Tamil Nadu and the change of Bengaluru’s municipal commissioner, the issue of improper waste management has already become political. However, local governments which are responsible for waste management will not be able to provide or implement immediate solutions. While policy gridlock ensues, public health of Indians will continue to be affected, quality of life will continue to degrade, and environmental resources will continue to be polluted.

The inability to provide immediate solutions to waste management in these cities is not the crisis; the true crisis is yet to come. Not just ten or fifteen, but there are 71 cities which generate more waste than Thiruvananthapuram (310 tonnes per day), and like Thiruvananthapuram, they have limited resources to handle it (6). During the course of the next decade, public unrest is expected to spread as these cities try to grapple with increasing quantities of waste. This will lead to a waste management crisis if government authorities do not leverage the current situation which has resulted in increased awareness to bring about long term reforms.