Beyond Onyx, Neel Metal Fanalca…real waste management

The Hindu’s recent City Pulse subject was the solid waste management disaster in Chennai. The outcry in the city is largely about the piling up of waste, and not the underlying, deeper and seemingly intractable issues. It is about how Neel Metal Fanalca has failed to do even what CES Onyx did, or for that matter, the Chennai Corporation is doing shoddily in the majority of Chennai Corporation Zones. Even politicians from different parties jumped into the fray, wielding brooms for photo opportunities, provoking The Hindu to write an editorial.

It is interesting against this background to listen to a connected discussion at the Muthian Auditorium in Anna University’s Centre for Environment Studies. 

There is an interesting three-day conference going on here (ending tomorrow, Sept 7) on the gamut of issues concerning solid waste management. The Hindu has reported the inauguration of the conference in today’s edition, although that report does not really provide a sense of the many complex issues concerning SWM being discussed.

I took time off to listen today to Almitra Patel, who is credited with leadership of the campaign that led to the drafting of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2000 under the supervision of the Supreme Court . Almitra, who combines her campaign zeal with a convincing technological background on the SWM-related environmental technologies continues to be a member of the Apex Court’s committee on solid waste; she has covered 137 cities in India and 22 abroad as part of her mission to study and campaign for reform of SWM.

Perhaps the most important point she made is that the problem of managing waste in India, particularly reduction and disposal, is a result of the corruption that affects all decision-making and not the lack of understanding or avaibility of solutions. Thus, city administrations and their political masters are forever chasing opportunities to award fat contracts to collect and transport waste, rather than look at sustainable solutions to reduce, recycle and remediate waste and avoid building expensive new landfills. Apparently, in some circumstances, it is cheaper to work on reclaiming ageing waste disposal sites with low cost and effective technologies compared to the cost of paying consultancy fees to for-profit companies even to look at the problem. It is not difficult to imagine which choice will appeal to our political leaders and their faithful servants in the bureaucracy.

Then there is the question of grabbing of land after initially dumping waste to ‘level up’ some sites. First, the local political ‘dadas’ put up slum-like dwellings in these areas. Later, they mature into sites attractive to builders. But beware. Amiya Kumar Sahu, president of the National Solid Waste Association of India who spoke at the meeting pointed out that some very unpleasant chemical reactions continue to take place at such sites well after the land has been built over.

Malad Mindspace, a BPO in Mumbai found that out at much expense. Their computers stopped working off and on and caused a lot of alarm. Why? Because their complex was sitting on what was a garbage dump earlier! Hydrogen sulphide was emanating from the area and affecting the working of sensitive computer equipment. Out of sight is not really a good strategy for waste, as you can see.

I am very apprehensive about the health of many of the residents in and around Perungudi, where Chennai’s waste is dumped by the thousands of tonnes, allowed to rot, leach, percolate or, on some days, go up in the air as dioxin-laden smoke.

Almitra Patel has been trying to enthuse local bodies to rejuvenate their existing landfills, through the process of bio-remediation of garbage and the formation of windrows. The technique is to reduce waste volume through the application of appropriate biological agents that will stabilise biodegradable waste and provide valuable compost. The Government of India has taken this seriously, and an inter-ministerial panel has agreed to the sale of such municipal compost along with chemical fertiliser. There are gains to be had in the form of better soil health, lower water demand in agriculture (because there is less chemical fertiliser) and overall, better waste management.

By contrast, corporate consultants in waste management are keen to provide solutions that involve high levels of investment (and thus appeal to kickback-loving administrations) and are weak in the area of sustainability.

The Anna University sessions also focussed a lot on leachate pollution (on which the MSW Rules are quite clear) and a system to measure it developed by the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi). That system is called the Leachate Pollution Index. 

All this discussion should give a sense of the intricacies in solid waste disposal going beyond the visible part of waste collection and transport — in short, the Neel Metal, Onyx phenomena. As Almitra says, leadership on good models is likely to come not so much from the highly corrupt and cash-rich metros, but the smaller towns and habitations that have a greater stake in the immediate environment.

Confining the discussion to the narrow activity of collection, compacting and transport only betrays the ignorance of the middle class in general about civic governance in our bigger cities. It is of course, disappointing that the media is, in general, unable to throw light on the bigger issues.

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