The Brahmapuram dump yard fire that engulfed the Kochi city in Kerala for over a week since March 2 has been successfully put off. A major tragedy has been averted. Well, the company which was awarded the contract for treating the municipal waste reportedly did not fulfil its obligations. With regard to what went wrong, relevant details are expected after various agencies concerned complete their probes and submit their reports. Also, an expert team is to provide detailed recommendations on preventing such incidents besides making waste management scientific and effective.
Kochi is not the first instance of garbage dump fires affecting the health of citizens. Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill site (covers 70 acres) which has seen several fires was famously expected to surpass the height of the Qutub Minar. Such fires are usually caused due to aerobic decomposition of waste stored in dump sites which releases methane gas and the presence of combustible substances increases the risk of fires. Underground fires are difficult to extinguish because it would go undetected. In Alabama, a landfill caught fire last year which spread over 24 km area. It took three months and around USD 2.8 million was spent to put out the fire.
The cause for concern is heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), as studies indicate, generated in municipal landfill fires poses a potential threat to human health. Notably, PAHs can penetrate the body through the respiratory and digestive systems besides by direct skin contact with particular substances such as soot and tar.
A vital municipal responsibility, solid waste management is meant to protect the environment. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, provide the statutory framework for management of solid wastes in the country. The local authorities are required to arrange for door-to-door collection of segregated solid waste from all households, including slums, informal settlements, commercial, institutional and other non-residential premises.
Throughout the waste chain, be it collection, treatment or disposal there are several challenges. But they are worth overcoming because, ultimately, an effective solid waste management system promotes good health.
The CAG conducted a performance audit on ‘Solid Waste Management in Urban Local Bodies’ for the period 2012-13 to 2016-17 in Karnataka to assess whether management of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and special waste (including construction and demolition waste) was effective, efficient and carried out economically/scientifically. It was found that 92 per cent of the waste was collected and only 26 per cent was processed each year and a major portion of the remaining MSW was dumped at landfills. However, CAG had appreciation for Kumta, a town in Karnataka known for its ancient temples and beaches. With a population of around 30,000, the town municipal council of Kumta introduced decentralised composting systems such as pipe composting (household waste) and pit composting (horticulture and market waste) for converting wet waste into compost in 2016. It also initiated collection of food waste from 40 restaurants and marriage halls which resulted in processing of considerable wet waste thus, reducing the burden on the landfill site to that extent.
The good news is that 70 percent of the MSW is scientifically processed (from 18 percent in 2014). That is of the 1,40,557 metric tonnes (MT) of MSW generated daily, 98,324 MT is treated and 42,233 is untreated. There are 1924 sites identified across the country for development of landfills. 305 landfills have already been constructed, 126 are under construction, 341 are in operation. 17 landfills are exhausted and 11 landfills have been capped.
In 2021, Niti Aayog and Centre for Science and Environment published some best practices in municipal waste management. Alappuzha city focussed on source segregation which decreased the operational cost of dealing with municipal waste as well as created a source of revenue. Indore’s robust communications strategy helped to bring about behavioural change at the mass level and motivate citizens to embrace segregation. In Panaji there was 99 per cent waste segregation in households. In Mysuru the collected biodegradable waste is converted to compost by means of scientific methods which is packaged and sold to nearby farmers and the horticulture department.
Jamshedpur has deployed nearly 1400 ragpickers and established dry waste collection centres to manage its non-biodegradable waste, where the waste is further segregated into paper, metal, wood, cloth, non-recyclables and packaging materials. Notably, more than 20 km of roads have been constructed in Jamshedpur using non-recyclable plastic waste collected. Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh had a garbage mountain laced with municipal waste. But since 2019-20, women self-help groups began sorting out the waste at source (household and commercial areas) ahead of loading it in their rickshaws to be taken to the “Garbage Clinic” where secondary segregation is carried out by another SHG team. The organic waste is then converted into compost and sold. Papers, plastics, leathers, rubbers, wooden pieces, glass, metals and others are separated from the bulk garbage. The town boasts of “garbage cafes”, where one can get a full meal in exchange for one kg of plastic waste. It has the country’s first digitised garbage management system and freed itself of dustbins.
The Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U), launched on October 2, 2014 by the Government of India with central share fund allocation of Rs 14,623 crore (of which Rs 7365.82 crore is allocated for SWM) aims at making urban India free from open defecation and achieving 100 percent scientific management of municipal solid waste in 4,041 statutory towns in the country.
Subsequently SBM-U 2.0 launched on October 1, 2021 with an allocation of Rs 36,465 crore (of which Rs 10,884.80 crore is for SWM) and operational in all urban local bodies across the country hopes to achieve “Garbage Free” status through 100 percent source segregation, door-to-door collection and scientific processing of all fraction of waste, safe disposal in scientific landfill by 2026. The scheme also envisages remediation of all legacy dumpsites and convert them into green zones.
Remember what happened in Western India during 1994? Well, uncollected solid waste blocked drains, caused a major flooding followed by subsequent spread of water borne diseases including an outbreak of plague-like disease killing over 50 people and affecting tens of thousands.
Environmental problems can become big and urgent if not tackled routinely in a timely manner. It needs to be appreciated that health, hygiene and sanitation are the crucial components of urban existence.