“We are becoming a wasteful society,” says prominent Indian Environmentalist Sunita Narain

Anita Nautiyal & Sunita Narain
Anita Nautiyal & Sunita Narain

By Suresh Nautiyal, Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (UKPP) & Green Forum India (GFI), New Delhi, July 11, 2016

“We are becoming a wasteful society, said Ms. Sunita Narain, Director-General Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi India while speaking at the book release ceremony for Not in My Backyard, co-authored by her along with Swati Singh Sambyal at India Habitat Centre (IHC), New Delhi. Mr. M. Venkaiah Naidu, a central Indian minister, officially released the book.

Mr. Naidu also presented Clean City Awards to three “cleanest” cities in India – Alappuzha (Alleppey) in Kerala, Panaji (Panjim) in Goa and Mysuru (Mysore) in Karnataka. Representatives of several government, political and civil society organisations including from the Global Greens, Asia Pacific Greens Federation (APGF), Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (UKPP) and Green Forum India (GFI) were present on the occasion.

According to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi, India, these three cities -- Alappuzha, Panaji and Mysuru -- actually work on waste management. The rating for the awards was done by CSE as part of a survey of the clean cities. “The fact is that the above-mentioned book started as a survey. “We knew that once we found which was the cleanest city, we would also find out what makes it so. This would give us the answers for a future policy,” stated Narain on the occasion, adding that what was absolutely clear to them as they researched for the report was that technology for waste disposal was not the problem. “The problem is two-fold. One, households and institutions are not responsible management -- through segregation or payment of the waste they generate. Two, there is an absolute collapse of financial and institutional (human) capacity and so accountability in our municipal systems,” added Narain.

According to her, the best option, in this scenario, they have found, exists in Kerala, where municipalities have withdrawn from the waste business. People segregate and compost; informal recyclers collect and sell. “This is perhaps the most exciting model for future waste business in the country. And even if it cannot be emulated completely, it holds important lessons for other cities,” opined Narain.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) India estimates, over 90 percent of the Indian cities with a functional collection system dispose off their waste in the landfills. These landfills are not made according to the stipulated sanitary standards. In 2008, CPCB’s monitoring of cities found that 24 out of 59 cities were making use of landfills, covering 1,900 hectares of land. Another 17 cities planned to create landfills. Since land was becoming scarce within city limits, municipalities were looking for ‘regional sites’ to dump their waste.

In 2009, the Indian Department of Economic Affairs’ position paper on solid waste management argued that urban India was already producing some 80 thousand MT (million tonne) of waste a day. It projected that by 2047, India would be producing 260 MT of waste annually needing over 1,400 square kilometre of landfills.

While introducing the book, Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director-General of CSE, pointed out that as India became more literate and politically aware, most cities were encountering still resistance when they attempted to dispose of waste in somebody else’s backyard. In Pune, Bengaluru, Panaji, Alappuzha and Gurgaon, village communities have been up in arms against the dumping of waste by a neighbouring city,” he said adding that this resistance will continue to grow.

As regards the CSE findings, it was clear that apart from several new and exciting findings, it was imperative need for policy changes in garbage management. “The last survey on waste management, to understand quantity and composition, was done a decade ago. The methodology used to calculate waste generated was too simply extrapolating an assumed quantity estimate with the population. There is, however, no real onground data available. In addition, not much information is available on the composition of waste in terms of organic, bio-degradable, or plastic, or the quantum. In essence, what had started as a survey was turning out into a gap analysis,” clarified Narain.

In 2007, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India published a damning report on the ‘first generation’ of solid waste management and a lack of compliance with MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) Rules.  The report found that the waste was collected in 22 percent of 56 sampled municipalities, segregation was done in 10 percent, storage in 17 percent, transportation using covered trucks was done 18 percent of the sampled municipalities and only 11 percent has waste processing capabilities. The report also found that only six municipalities had landfills, others were dumping in open sites.

Narain, in her speech, said that segregation of the waste at the source was the only solution of waste management. “The more mixed waste, the more toxic it is,” pointed out, demanding that the Government of India should make an effective Landfill Act as land was very precious and we were running out of it.

She said, processing of the waste was to be another priority. “Reusing, reusing and recycling are the only answer. Segregate the waste and compost the bio-degradable waste. Biological treatment of the waste is vital. “We as the generators of waste have the responsibility to manage it. We do not have to be the polluters. We are responsible for the waste and we have to fix it. We have become the wasteful society and we have to correct it,” pointed out Narain.

The CSE Head lamented that the rich were generating waste, while the poor had to clean and clear that waste. “The informal recyclers have to be recognised. Their contribution has to be recognised. The kabaris (informal waste collectors) are collecting, reusing and recycling our waste and we do not recognise them,” lamented Narain, adding that the citizen have to promote zero waste as there was no alternative to that.

The book release and the Clean City Award ceremonies were followed by a day-long workshop next day to share the best practices from across the country in solid waste management. Representatives from the cities rated by CSE, municipal authorities and regulators, media people and civil society functionaries also came together to deliberate on the three key phrases of the workshop – Reinvention, Opportunities and Way Ahead.  


Anita Nautiyal & Sunita Narain
Book release ceremony