After fighting a losing battle with the growing tide of municipal waste, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has notified the new Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 with clear responsibilities assigned to various classes of consumers. For these rules to have any significant impact, however, the local bodies in charge of implementation should appeal to the rational impulses of communities — a small effort at segregating trash at source would be a good thing for their household budgets. Cities and towns would then have to provide the logistical chain to evacuate waste, with a cash compensation system in place for the consumer. In the absence of such a system, the rules issued 16 years ago failed spectacularly. Urban municipal bodies found it convenient to merely transport waste to the suburbs, sometimes through private agencies that secured lucrative long-term contracts. Policy failure is all too evident when Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar says that the estimated 62 million tonnes of waste a year is not fully collected or treated. Worryingly, it will go up to some 165 million tonnes in 2030, and dramatic episodes of air and water pollution from mountains of garbage as seen in Mumbai and Bengaluru in recent times could be witnessed in more places.
A productive start to containing the problem could be made if urban governments show the political will to rein in bulk generators of municipal solid waste. For instance, the provisions in the new rules for hotels and restaurants to support composting, or biomethanation, and for large housing societies, commercial establishments and other bulk producers to segregate waste, need to be rigorously enforced. Cess funds collected for the Swachh Bharat programme could be deployed to scale up infrastructure for composting, biomethanation and recycling, which Mr. Javadekar admits are grossly inadequate. Evidently, the Centre and the State governments have not so far taken the existing rules seriously: less than a third of the collected waste is being processed. Even where environmentally conscious citizens segregate at source, the chain of management dumps it all in landfills. The central monitoring committee under the Ministry should ensure that local bodies do not continue functioning in business-as-usual mode. They should align their operations, including waste management contracts, with the new rules under the annual operating plan. The Ministry should also enlist the services of ragpickers under formal systems such as cooperatives. Although there are provisions for fines for littering and non-segregation, this should be a second-order priority for municipalities, which should focus principally on creating reliable systems to handle different waste streams. If India could start with the separation of its ‘wet’ waste from the rest and produce good compost, that could transform cities and towns into clean and green havens filled with trees, gardens, lakes and rivers. It would also salvage millions of tonnes of recyclable plastic, precious metals and other materials. Garbology studies confirm that landfills swallow precious wealth every day. The time has come to recover it.