For the past week, thousands of hapless East Delhi residents have had to wade through piles of garbage to get anywhere. The municipal workers entrusted with keeping the area clean are on strike because nobody has bothered to pay them. Even if residents manage to skirt the waste, they still have to smell it. The trash is everywhere and unclaimed.
This situation would have not come to pass had East Delhi put in place a decentralised waste management process. The waste would not have been handled in that singularly inefficient manner – transportation, collection and dumping or processing in a centralised way. Indeed, had decentralised composting, which is key to any decentralised system, been a part of everyday waste management in East Delhi, residents may have suffered much less.
Even as our cities periodically drown in their rubbish, decentralisation and local composting are critical tools to address the complex challenges of urban waste management. And that is why the Union government’s decision late last month to approve assistance of Rs 1,500 per tonne on the sale of compost made from municipal solid waste – 60% of which is biodegradable – is good news. But this step not good enough unless we bring composting to the forefront of managing our waste.
At non-profit organisation Chintan, we have been enabling wastepickers to compost the tonnes of city waste they gather, mostly from bulk generators. Our experience suggests the government’s initiative is great because it acknowledges the need for such a subsidy. But for this policy to actually clean up at least some parts of India, we need it to be rapidly tuned to our urban reality.
Key to enabling the change is ensuring that these incentives reach the community, or what we commonly call “colonies”. This policy should break the bio-waste deadlock. On the one hand, waste is best composted locally because it saves high transportation costs, reduces the need for larger pieces of land which are hard to find, and encourages waste generators to act responsibly about their own trash instead of having it dumped near the homes of others. In addition, the sooner the waste is composted, the less polluting it will be.
Composting the waste closest to its generation point is the most sustainable and sensible way to clean up. On the other hand, it is not true that compost made locally is easily absorbed locally. Many Residents’ Welfare Associations and NGOs, or other agencies that compost locally, struggle to find markets for the compost. If they were to benefit from such a policy, many more neighbourhoods are likely to begin composting.
This in turn would save the municipalities significant funds in collection and transportation of waste, a saving which ought to be shared with the composting community. Citizens would benefit enormously both in terms of cleanliness and financial headroom from subsidised compost. In fact, if they were citizens of East Delhi, they would enjoy much healthier lives.
The incentive should therefore not only be of use to large waste management players such as Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services, but also enable small players – those composting less than 10 tonnes at any given site daily.
Small composters, however, simply don’t have the capacity to sustain this expensive effort. To make the process viable, we need city or zone level aggregators who collect compost from smaller players and bring it to a depot for sales and subsidy. The aggregators could be a non-profit, a co-operative of women with vehicles, or simply anyone at all. Offering a viability gap fund for a year to such aggregators, on the condition they deliver a minimum amount of compost, should also be part of this policy.
It should also be kept in mind that not all towns are next to farms, and not all farms want to use compost. The policy should therefore be detailed in such a way to mandate municipalities and urban local bodies with manure or khaad in their horticulture budgets to procure 80% of this from small composters, who have used waste as the base. Similarly, public sector undertakings and others with horticulture needs should also procure such compost. This will expand what is still a very limited market.
Compost standards are defined, but testing them – even random samples across a batch – is expensive. While large players manufacturing hundreds of tonnes of compost every month can absorb the cost, small players cannot. For them, the policy should additionally subsidise prescribed laboratory tests. Without adequate testing, compost contaminated with heavy metals will pack the earth with poison.
Decentralised composting comes with strong environmental credentials and needs only a gentle policy nudge to become sustainable. Testing, creating markets, developing aggregators and offering this policy’s benefits to small composters is the way forward. If our policy doesn’t encourage decentralised handling of wet, organic waste, it would have failed the ideal of a Swachh Bharat.
Bharati Chaturvedi is the director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.