Taking Urgent Steps: Waste Management Strategies for our Towns

Tikender Panwar

Two clocks are ticking at an unprecedented pace, and both, if not addressed and managed promptly, will prove to be extremely perilous.

The first is the climate clock, which indicates that the world is just over five years from crossing the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark of temperature rise since the industrial period began. The second is the waste clock. On July 28, 2023, it was reported that the total waste generated worldwide had exceeded the global waste management capacity. Simply put, this means that the current developmental trajectory is not sustainable. Currently, the world generates 2.3 billion tonnes of waste annually, of which 38% is uncontrolled, meaning it is disposed of in the ecosystem without treatment. India alone generates around 62 million tonnes of waste per year.

The impact of the waste clock is glaringly evident across urban centres, with peri-urban areas being particularly vulnerable. The prevailing approach involves collecting waste and dumping it in landfill sites, which is a common practice even in states like Himachal Pradesh. However, the type of waste entering the state presents unique challenges. Nearly 70% of the waste is neither recyclable nor biodegradable. The producers of such waste are often situated in remote industrial zones, while the consumers reside in urban centres, resulting in a lack of effective waste management solutions.

According to an affidavit filed by the Chief Secretary in the NGT in March 2023, Himachal Pradesh generates around 365 tonnes of waste per day, a significant increase from the 2017 figure of 342.35 tonnes per day. Alarmingly, over 60% of this waste falls under the uncontrolled category.

A recent landmark order by a division bench of the HP High Court addressed solid waste management in the state, shedding light on the failures of urban governance structures. The fact that the High Court had to intervene in the matter underscores systemic issues. Over the years, policy frameworks have prioritised capital-intensive techno-centric solutions, neglecting the localised nature of solid waste management problems.

Consequently, many towns find themselves ill-equipped to handle municipal waste despite investments in waste-to-energy plants and bio-methanation.

Take, for instance, the case of local governments in Himachal Pradesh. In Shimla, the largest municipal corporation, with 34 wards, there are only five sanitary inspectors. Across the state’s 50 urban local bodies, there are fewer than 20 inspectors. In Shimla alone, with a population exceeding 200,000, the workforce responsible for waste management has dwindled to less than 200, with many positions labelled as “dead cadre” and subsequently outsourced.

While technology is essential, replacing it with human resources has proven disastrous over the past few decades. In this context, the recent court order emphasising holistic solutions is significant. It advocates for the involvement of local bodies in environmental governance, collaboration with stakeholders and a focus on extended producer responsibility (EPR). The order also stresses the importance of waste audit and digital waste management apps, along with prioritising the filling of human resource vacancies. Furthermore, it emphasises training and capacity building for local bodies and parastatals to handle waste more effectively and scientifically, including neighborhood-level treatment.

In conclusion, urgent steps are required to address the mounting waste crisis and prevent towns from becoming overwhelmed by trash. The recent court order sets a precedent for holistic environmental justice, highlighting the need for collaborative efforts and innovative solutions at the local level. Only through such concerted actions can we effectively tackle the waste clock ticking towards a catastrophe.

Holistic solutions needed towards waste management: HC

  • There should be involvement of local bodies in environmental governance.
  • Collaboration with stakeholders and focus on extended producer responsibility (EPR) needed.
  • There should be stress on waste audit and digital waste management apps.
  • Filling of human resource vacancies should be prioritised.
  • There should be training and capacity building for local bodies and parastatals to handle waste more effectively and scientifically.

Tikender Singh Panwar is the former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.

This article was first published as ‘Urgent steps needed to save towns from turning into trash hills’ on April 10, 2024 in The Tribune

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgement: Posted by Sameeran Galagali, a Research Intern at IMPRI.