Garbage pile ups become major problem for India cities

Water logging and garbage pile-ups seem to be the never ending problems of Indian cities. But two events in the recent past have gone on to prove that there is something horrendously wrong the way we dispose of our waste.

Chandigarh, India’s best planned city, went down under in this season’s rains , with the swirling waters turning wide, leafy avenues into pools and swamping the upscale sectors, the likes of which the perfect city had not seen since French architect Le Corbusier designed it in the 1950s. A similar fate awaited its neighbour Mohali, another smart city, when its drainage system collapsed under heavy downpour as people watched in horror water entering their homes.

The second event happened on September 1 when a 50-metre mountain of garbage in Delhi’s Gazipur landfill broke off and collapsed into the Hindon canal, sweeping in its wake cars and motor bikes and leaving two people dead and several injured.  The landfill overshot its limit of 15 feet way back in 2002.

Small wonder that poor waste management is turning our cities into pollution bombs. These two events are inter-connected and have a lesson for us in managing our cities. For instance, Chandigarh’s  natural storm water channel, the Northern Chos, had not been cleaned up for the past two decades; whereas in Mohali a project to replace narrow storm water pipes with broader ones had been hanging fire for close to five years. Moreover, growing population pressure on Chandigarh has led to rapid but haphazard  urbanisation in its periphery, blocking the natural drainage, thus, making the city and its suburbs prone to unprecedented water-logging.

No wonder the ‘City Beautiful’ had to see an ugly chaos one day. But the water-logging problem was not confined to Chandigarh or Mohali alone. Most of the cities in India collapsed under monsoon deluge, including Mumbai. In several parts of the Maximum city, people waded in waist-high water, and even the Navy was called in for rescue operations. It was the heaviest downpour since July 26, 2005 when rains had caused the worst havoc in decades, but it seems no lessons learnt in 12 years.

Similar reports came in from Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Agartala. If people are blamed for flooding on the streets during rains by carelessly throwing garbage, including plastic materials, that block the drains, the administration should equally share the blame for mismanagement of waste disposal.

The way we manage our garbage will decide how well prepared we are for the monsoon rains because a robust sewage system is a prerequisite for a smart and clean city.

India’s ever-growing landfills are bursting at the seams. Gazipur was just symbolic of what could happen with these landfills. Urban India generates 3 million trucks piled high with garbage every day, that is half the distance between Mumbai and Los Angeles if the trucks are laid end to end. According to statistics, more than 70 per cent of collected urban  waste is dumped straight into the landfills.

The capital city generates around 9,000 metric tonnes of waste every day and has just 3 landfills. The Maximum city, too, has 3 landfills to handle 9,600 metric tonnes of waste daily. Prediction Research shows that if India continues to dump untreated garbage at its current rate, then we will need a landfill of size 66,000 hectares which is 10 metres high and can hold 20 years’ worth of waste– an area 90 per cent of Bengaluru. And these landfills contain waste that cannot be regenerated.

India’s urban population of 429 million citizens produce a whopping 62 million tonnes of garbage every year. Of this, 5.6 million tonnes is the plastic waste, 0.17 million tonnes is the biomedical waste, 7.90 million tonnes hazardous waste and 15 lakh tonnes e-waste. As much as 43 million tonnes of solid waste is collected annually, out of which only 22-28 per cent is treated, while the rest is left untreated and dumped at the landfill sites.

A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report shows the biggest threat to the environment comes from plastic, with 60 major cities in India together churning out over 3,500 tonnes of plastic waste. Then we have the municipal corporations turning city parks and playgrounds into dumping grounds for garbage as it happened in a South Delhi park after the Gazipur incident. From solid urban waste, including plastics, to sewage to chemical or industrial waste – every waste is mismanaged and has become a mammoth problem in the face of rapid urbanization. One is forced to ponder how close are we to a dream of Swachh Bharat.

What is the way forward? Theare many innovative solutions and many straight
forward ones. Delhi is pushing for a decentralised waste-water treatment that is supposed to solve not just the sewage crisis but also produce a huge amount of recycled water. That can be one solution.

Many are using innovative ideas such as  schools goers in Kerala are throwing away more than a 150 million pens a month in a ‘Pen Drive’ to reduce this mountain of plastic waste, while children known as ‘dibba gangs’ in Indore are beating metal boxes to stop anyone from open defecating. We have to manage our waste so that our cities and the denizens don’t choke on garbage.

Yashwardhan Joshi is a Journalist of long standing and commentator on issues of Administration and Social Issues.