This October marks a decade since the enactment of India’s Municipal Solid Wastes (Management & Handling) Rules, 2000. Issued to forestall the nation’s looming garbage crisis, the landmark notification prescribed detailed guidelines for garbage management, assigned responsibility for such services to local officials, and set deadlines by which officials were to bring services and facilities into compliance. The rules were enacted under the Environment (Protection) Act 1986, which specifies penalties for violations. But in the decade since the rules were gazetted, the nation has grown considerably—and visibly—dirtier as the annual amount of waste produced by towns and cities increased an estimated 40 percent (from 35 to 50 million tons) and the rules were widely flouted.
The rules mandated daily, house-to-house collection of waste, and directed that waste should be segregated at source to facilitate composting of biodegradable matter and recycling of non-biodegradable material. The rules also banned littering and the indiscriminate burning of waste, and specified standards for upgrading open dumps to modern, sanitary landfills. Dumpsites were to be upgraded, and new processing and disposal facilities were to be inaugurated by December 2003. That deadline passed, yet few localities implemented the new compulsory procedures. Rather than imposing penalties, the government extended the deadline to December 2008.
That five-year grace period proved to be a missed opportunity for most localities. At the end of 2009, an exasperated Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, exclaimed, “I think that our cities have the dubious distinction of being the dirtiest cities in the world.”
In March 2010, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Urban Development lamented that in most parts of the country solid waste still is not managed in accordance with the rules. Rather, residents discard their waste in and around open bins at intersections, in vacant lots, or in the gutter. Employees of either the local sanitation department or a private contractor occasionally collect and relocate the waste to a dumpyard. A considerable portion of municipal waste is never transported to a dump. Instead, it is swept into small heaps and burned on the curb or pavement. Such treatment of solid waste has severe consequences for our health.
Public health authorities have long recognized that litter jeopardizes health by clogging drains, thereby creating ideal conditions for the breeding of pests that spread disease. Poor waste management has been blamed for exacerbating flooding in Mumbai in the summer of 2005, and for the plague in Surat in 1994. However, during the past decade studies of pollution in India have greatly increased understanding of the hazards of mismanaged solid waste, particularly the dangers of open dumpsites.
Open dumpsites are on-going environmental disasters. It has been estimated that nearly a third of methane from India is emitted by decomposing solid waste. In addition to contributing to climate change, methane combusts, igniting trash that then smolders, polluting the air with toxins and smoke. Chemicals from waste and ash mix with moisture, forming leachate that contaminates groundwater and pollutes wells for kilometers. Analysis of air samples collected from dumpsites in Chennai by a local group, Community Environmental Monitoring, found many pollutants at levels that greatly exceed safety limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Recent studies of groundwater pollution around dumpsites in Delhi and Chennai conclude that such sites are doing widespread, long-term damage. A recent study of a dump outside of Bangalore by Environmental Support Group Trust , reports similar damage to the environment and human health.
Scientists working at the Centre for Marine Environmental Studies at Ehime University, Japan, monitor pollution in many Asian countries, including India. Their studies have detected high levels of extremely dangerous insecticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins and furans in people and animals living near dumpsites in Chennai and Kolkata. The scientists describe dioxins and furans as “the most dreaded” of the pollutants classified as persistent organic pollutants. Banned by the Stockholm Convention, dioxins and furans accumulate in the environment, animals and humans, and gravely endanger health, especially children’s health. Exposure to dioxins and furans is believed to increase the risk of cancer, impair development of the brain, endocrine, central nervous, and immune systems, and cause reproductive disorders. According to the scientists, openly burning waste generates these banned hazardous chemicals that pollute food and livestock, and thereby affect people.
Near Perungudi dumpsite in Chennai, studies found high levels of dioxins and furans in samples of breast milk from lactating mothers. The average level of toxicity in the samples was at least 25 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended limit for daily intake by infants, probably indicating increased risk of cancer and other disease. Samples of breast milk collected at a Kolkata dumpsite were even more contaminated. Particularly unsettling, the studies often found that contamination is ubiquitous, meaning that samples from reference sites several kilometers from the dumps also were contaminated, though at lower concentrations. In Chennai and Kolkata, studies also found that dumpsites are contaminated by PCBs and insecticides at levels hundreds and thousands of times higher than in general soils. Taken together, these findings indicate that persistent toxic substances are accumulating in the environment and in human bodies because of careless waste management.
Scientists often understate the implications of their findings. However, in these reports, the scientists clearly convey alarm:
“Finding ways to decrease levels of dioxin-related compounds in human breast milk has become mandatory to save infants from possible toxic effects. . . . It can be anticipated that the pollution caused by dioxin-related compounds may increase further, and hence residue levels in human breast milk may also increase in the future because the release of these contaminants are not at all controlled . . . It is imperative that dioxin exposure should be decreased using urgent control and regulation of dioxin-related compound pollution sources.”
In a retrospective summary of three decades of research in India, Ehime University faculty members, Dr. Annamalai Subramanian and Dr. Shinsuke Tanabe, write, “As a result of such extensive use of agricultural and industrial chemicals and uncontrolled production of wastes, the entire Indian environment and biota such as its atmosphere, freshwater sources, estuaries, coastal and offshore areas, inland soils, fish, birds, bats, river dolphins, food stuff, marine mammals, and human milk have been reported to be loaded with a multitude of mixtures of persistent organic pollutants.”
Drs. Subramanian and Tanabe write, “The levels of many of the persistent toxic chemicals in the Indian environment, food stuff, wildlife and human are one among the highest in the world . . . . This is certainly high time for the government and related agencies to take a serious look on the matter and take urgent necessary steps. The data available on the Indian Persistent Organic Pollutants pollution scenario shows need for every concern.”
However, the studies also present encouraging findings. The studies report that traces of some of the most dangerous pesticides have declined in India in recent years, and attribute this decline to the government’s restrictions on the manufacture, sale and use of such poisons. This demonstrates that regulations, when enforced, can safeguard public health and the environment.
The potential of the municipal solid waste management rules to improve India’s environment is evident in several localities that have brought their waste management services into greater compliance with the rules. One such example is Pammal municipality, a suburb of Chennai.
Every morning, rain or shine, 150 women and men push tricycles fitted with large bins through the streets of Pammal. Along their routes they announce their presence by blowing a whistle, alerting families in the neighborhood to bring their wastebaskets outside. In front of each home, garbage that has accumulated over the past 24 hours is handed from residents to the collectors. Titled “Green Ambassadors,” the collectors work for Exnora Green Pammal, an NGO that has managed garbage from all homes in the municipality since 2005.
Ideally, residents segregate their waste, putting biodegradable material, such as kitchen scraps, in a green basket, and everything else in a red basket before handing the baskets to a Green Ambassador. Upon collection, the Ambassadors quickly do a second sorting, distributing different categories of recyclable items from the red baskets into bags suspended around their tricycle’s bin. Plastic beverage bottles go into one bag, old sandals into another, plastic milk packets and oil covers, glass and metal into other bags. Such recyclable waste is segregated into several categories and sold to scrap merchants. Biodegradable waste from green baskets is deposited separately in the tricycle’s bin, to be transferred to a larger vehicle for transport to Exnora Green Pammal’s one-acre vermicompost facility on the edge of Pammal. There, earthworms transform the kitchen waste of Pammal’s 100,000 residents into rich compost that gets packed and marketed under the brand name Exorco, Excellent Organic Compost. The remaining waste that can’t be composted or recycled, approximately 20 percent of the total, is deposited in the municipality’s dumpyard.
By managing waste in this way, Pammal’s residents and environment are protected from the hazards of mismanaged solid waste. And by preventing the emission of over 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, the entire planet benefits as well.
After seeing the impact and benefits of proper solid waste management in Pammal, other localities have invited Exnora Green Pammal to establish the same service in Mangadu, Panipat and the Department of Atomic Energy Townships at Kalpakkam. As neighborhoods become cleaner, residents quickly recognize the connection between hygiene and health. Mr. L. B. Suresh, a resident of Mangadu, says, “Before this system was introduced our money went to doctors because we became ill from pollution. Now money is saved because disease is prevented. They should do this everywhere.” Mr. P. M. Jaikar in Pammal remarks, “It is better to spend money on waste collection than on medicine. Clinics are crowded because of the polluted environment.” In Panipat, Mr. Harjinder Singh Dilawari observes, “Now residents are more healthy, so we have less medical expenses. The residents are very happy and appreciate this greatly.”
The experiences of such localities demonstrate that universal enforcement of the rules could make the nation dramatically cleaner. According to a projection by scientists at the Energy Resources Institute, due to growing population, affluence and urbanization, the present annual amount of garbage produced in towns and cities may increase five-fold, to 250 million tons, by 2050. How such a volume of waste is managed will greatly determine the quality of life for future generations. The country’s waste management rules idle at a crossroads, waiting for someone to take the driver’s seat.
Dr. Lucas Dengel, proprietor of EcoPro , and Dr. Sanjay K. Gupta, an authority on solid waste management, kindly commented on drafts of this post. Dr. Annamalai Subramanian at Ehime University generously sent me many studies that he and his colleagues have published. Any errors in the post are entirely the author’s responsibility.