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Expertspeak: An urban disposable asset called garbage

Expertspeak: An urban disposable asset called garbage

Cities in India are in blatant violation of MSW 2000, the basic rulebook for managing municipal waste. Dr Amiya Kumar Sahu, who was instrumental in framing the rulebook, tells us why garbage is a viable proposition.

Garbage is money if handled properly. The President of the International Solid Waste Association, Vienna, Dr John Skinner, asked me if I would set up an association in India. We decided to call it the National Solid Waste Association of India, which we founded in 1996. Around that time, the Government of India asked me to draft the rules in solid waste management (SWM). That draft has now evolved into the Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2000 (MSW 2000). At that time, very few people knew the definitions of garbage and we could not even gather the 10 people that I needed to register the association. Till date, our cities do not have an inventory of the garbage that they generate.

When the first conference was organised for the developing countries in Mumbai in 1997, Ratnakar Gaikwad was the Additional Commissioner, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), in charge of solid waste problems in Mumbai, he attended the conference and showed interest. In time, municipalities realised the importance of treating garbage.

Even regulatory bodies do not have the true sense of municipal waste. After the rule came into existence, the awareness and understanding has grown. Today, most metropolitan cities and municipalities understand what municipal waste is, and how it should be collected, segregated, treated and disposed of.

The process

By dumping waste, methane gas is emitted into the air, causing more global warming and climate change. SWM begins with the sources of generation, goes onto to segregation, collection, storage, transportation, treatment and finally, disposal. This is known as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The garbage you see can provide you four useful by-products:

1. Wet organic waste that should be converted into compost.
2. Dry material like plastic, metal, glass, and paper that should be recycled.
3. Small plastic bits that should be segregated after making the manure. This plastic has a high calorific value and can be made into blocks, put in the boiler and converted into Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF).
4. Demolition waste, building debris and ground waste, which is useful to recover sand.

By collecting these by-products and treating them properly, the final inert disposable matter will dip to a maximum 20 per cent.

The commercial end use

Garbage, therefore, is a good business proposition. PPP model works very well and NGOs should be involved to take it a step further. However, MSW has not been commercialised professionally, lack of uniformity being the basic problem. Commercialisation is being done at a handful of cities such as Mumbai, Rajkot, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Belgaum, and so on. There is no problem in the technology—which is not complicated, finance, manpower or certainly not in raw material. This sector has the opportunity, money, and social purpose. The problems of lack of widespread commercialisation are both attitudinal and, amongst municipalities, in management.

The business is in the management because first you have to make the public aware, you have to educate them and change their attitude towards generation of waste. The general public must be taught the right way to store waste. For example, domestic waste should not be stored for more than a day.

Where the money is stashed: There exists an informal sector of the collection of plastics, bottles, etc. But if it is done in a more formal manner, that is another form of industrial supply. Currently, cities are failing even in the basic action: segregation of waste.

If a company takes over the entire SWM process, they make money out of all the four by-products through cleaning, transporting and disposing. The most viable industries among them are recycling and composting. A supply chain is created. There is a formal establishment in these segments, and there is enough business in the country.

Amount of land: In MSW 2000, we mention the length of the site for the landfill, where it should be located, and a whole list of criteria. Depending on the per capita per day, you can calculate the waste quantity and depending on the total of
the calculated waste, you have to determine how much should go to the landfill. The government is not following the guidelines.

The amount of garbage depends on the economy. The rule of thumb is the richer the people, the more the waste. The middle class tends to reuse, recycle, recover things, and finally the poor have the least garbage, because they reuse whatever has been thrown out by people in the middle and upper class bracket.

That said, money isn’t the problem, it is availability of land.

The case of the seven islands

Decades back, Mumbai was a group of seven islands. The islands do not exist today. Gaps have been filled up with heaps of garbage; most of Mumbai’s reclaimed land is basically garbage. It is the reason why the city has a typical smell: that of degradation of biodegradable material and garbage in the soil. About six years ago, I was called by an organisation in North-West Mumbai. Many call centres have come up in the area. The organisation reported that their computers would crash inexplicably. It turned out that the offices were located on one of the oldest dump yards of Mumbai, where electrical items have been failing, property is damaged and human health is deteriorating. The dump is so huge, the garbage rose to a height of more than 100 ft. Garbage dumped in that yard wasn’t treated and what remained was H2S gas and mercaptans—a mixture of sulphur and methane gas. It’s what’s being done all over the city except for areas which have the original surface still intact. Garbage is being dumped, not disposed, there is a difference between dumping and scientifically disposing. Secured landfilling is a method that allows scientific disposal—secured as far as the groundwater is concerned, and the environment is concerned—by using leachate, monitoring the air and pollution, and collecting methane. After the whole process, the landfill is closed. Post-closure it needs monitoring for another 25 years.


It is the right time for small cities to take the initiative otherwise they will face problems like Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata in the future. These cities are in a confused state, the garbage is enormous, 8,000-10,0000 tonne per day, and the cities are dumbstruck and before they can take a step, the city manager is changed. Although the MSW 2000 rule applies to the whole country, they are alterable to suit local situations. So the policy is often conveniently tweaked to suit the needs and is restructured, unfortunately it is only restructured over and over on paper, but never implemented in practicality.

For example, when there is insufficient land in a city, the policy is changed, the authorities consult the neighbouring district or jurisdiction and establish an understanding wherein they transport the waste in their area. MMRDA initiated this in Taloja, but the problem is that every ULB may have different political parties. So you have to convince everyone in rotation and come to a consensus. That is why I don’t think this is an effective solution.

In my first waste management assignment in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I assigned the entire project to the Health Officer and none of the bureaucrats interfered. Today, Dhaka is a good example for developing nations. It is a plastic free country and the corporators stand on the streets to supervise the SWM process in action. In India, though, at the rate our cities are going, we will be able to achieve the perfect cycle between garbage generated, disposed, utilised, etc, in not less than 50 years, unless there is a drastic change in political will.

Municiapl Solid Waste Rules, 2000

The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1999 were published under the notification of the Government of India in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. In exercise of the powers conferred by section 3, 6 and 25 of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 (29 of 1986), the Central Government hereby made the rules to regulate the management and handling of the municipal solid wastes.


National Solid Waste Association of India (NSWAI) has now been in existence for almost 15 years, and provides education awareness programmes to the students, academies, municipal authorities, and also public at large.

The author is President, NSWAI. As told to Shashidhar Nanjundaiah


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