We’re now paying a Swachh Bharat Cess, as a result of which the service tax rates have gone up from 14% to 14.5%. The question everyone is asking is: How should these funds be spent?  It has a simple answer. Let us just focus on solid waste, or trash.

If the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to keep up with the public support it has received, it must show results on the ground – the kind of results that people see in their everyday lives, in their own neighbourhoods.

Overall, more than 60% of the solid waste produced in India is organic. It can be turned into compost with appropriate treatment. But  left alone, this waste starts stinking, releasing greenhouse gases, and offering a home for flies to lay eggs. What could be a more sensible solution than to invest in composting?

But we need to be careful here as centralised composting facilities won’t solve the problem as is apparent from the case of pampered Delhi. My colleague Seth Kolker, who interned with Chintan, studied the city's experiments with centralised composting. A plant at the Bhalaswa landfill processes some 350 to 400 metric tonnes per day, or TPD, of waste. A facility at Tikri Khurd can handle 125 TPD but is being expanded to 200 TPD. A third plant nearby the Okhla landfill processes another 200 TPD, for a total of about 700 TPD.

Theoretically, working optimally, they take care of only 16% of the compostable waste – 84% of the available supply goes to – well, waste. Few other cities have the unique advantage of three compost plants. Even with this infrastructure, Delhi’s organic waste is unable to be adequately handled. As India rapidly urbanises, many more towns and cities will come up and generate even more waste.

We need therefore to think of smart ways of using this cess to help in addressing the organic solid waste of these towns and cities.

Decentralised composting

Decentralised composting is a strong alternative to centralised composting. It substantially cuts down the cost and pollution of transporting a substantial portion of the waste to a centralised plant. Based on local initiatives and monitoring, it is also far less polluting because it does not involve spending hours mixed with hazardous and other waste.

In cities like Pune and Bangalore, community composting is becoming a way of life. However, for middle class citizens, the greatest producers of waste, such composting facilities are far more expensive than they can afford.

One way therefore would be help start such initiatives with a grant, which can be administered by the local municipal or deputy commissioner, based on a per quintal processing cost. Till a majority of the community begins to pay its waste dues, such composting units would also require a provision of up to six months’ running costs, mostly comprising of labour and the purchase cost of composting microbes.

Finally, the compost is rarely absorbed locally. It must be sold in the market, but is too expensive. Perhaps the cess could be used to help subsidise this compost as well, currently considered too small and fragmented to be bothered with. It can then be marketed by IFFCO and others, per the rules.

One needs to understand the requirement for this subsidy for compost as it competes in the market with another product that enjoys much more generous subsidies: chemical fertilisers. In the financial year 2009-10, the central government subsidised these products by about Rs 49,980 crore. To get a perspective, just 12% of this subsidy from one year could cover the costs of establishing compost plants in at least 400 cities all across India.

It is important to understand the role of subsidies because if all subsidies were taken away, a tonne of  urea would cost about Rs 23,000, but compost will cost only about 60%  of this. We should use the cess to kill two birds with one stone – clean our cities and add value to our soil, not to mention providing green livelihoods.

Recyclable waste

A second, equally important issue is the 20% recyclable waste. Currently, over 20 lakh desperately poor waste-pickers in the informal sector gather such trash to sell to the recycling trade. Available data shows they save significant greenhouse gas emissions as well – more than three times that any waste project receiving carbon credits in India.

Most actors in this chain are small, and just about above the poverty line. Yet, their labour and entrepreneurship has honoured India with its label of having the highest recycling rates. We have to ensure their inclusion in any grand plan of our waste management which must of course first start by recognising them for the important role they play.

Diverting at least half the cess to them for upgrading their work by strengthening them economically and socially would be a great way to help build a resilient micro-economy.  They need social security and many of them ask for small loans to upgrade their work, infrastructure or even to diversify. A waste recycling fund from this cess would be a perfect way ahead. Using this corpus, the government could offer social security, fund municipalities to register the informal sector, pay the recurring costs of their social security, help waste traders build safer, better designed shops less likely to catch fire, and also help waste reprocessors to upgrade their technologies for greener recycling.

Unlike other schemes, waste management will not be successful via well-designed infrastructure alone. It requires significant investment in building social assets – something that this cess can do.

The cess comes from citizens. It must be used to ensure a Swachh Bharat for all citizens, whether it is the middle-class homemaker in a small town or a waste-picker in a metro.

Bharati Chaturvedi is Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, New Delhi.