Every morning, garbage vans across Indore play the celebratory song, “Indore hua hai number one [Indore has become number one],” sung by Bollywood singer Shaan in 2017, when Indore was ranked first of 471 towns and cities on the government’s Swachhata Sarvekshan or cleanliness survey.
“Every day the garbage van makes its way from one end of the street to another methodically, and everyone comes out to give their trash when they hear the song,” said Malti Kanojia, 52, living in Amar Tekri in Indore. “Of course all of us separate gila [wet] and sukha [dry] waste.”
Since 2016, Indore’s municipal corporation has eliminated garbage dumps, ensured 100% household-waste segregation and converted waste to usable products, such as compost and fuel. It partnered with non-governmental organisations for an awareness campaign to change the behaviour of its citizens, contracted private companies to run some waste management operations, used technology, and improved municipal capacity to ensure the implementation of its waste management plan.
“Due to political and administrative will, the city has become the cleanest in the country,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager for waste management at the Center for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based nonprofit. “The city has definitely resolved about 90% of its solid waste challenge.”
Different sources give different numbers for the total solid waste produced in the country. In 2016-’17, India generated approximately 150,000 tonnes of solid waste a day – 15,000 truckloads at 10 tonnes a truck – according to the annual report of the ministry of housing and urban affairs, quoted in this reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on December 14, 2018. Local bodies collect 90% of this waste, out of which 80% is dumped on dumping sites untreated, the reply said.
Only 10% of 471 cities segregated household waste, 14% collected garbage from households, 20% conducted surveys to find out areas in the city which were vulnerable to becoming garbage dumps, the 2018 cleanliness survey found. Indore, with 1200 tonnes of waste produced daily, has been able to achieve all of these.
The success of Indore’s urban solid waste management shows that urban India can clean up if municipal bodies, NGOs, private companies and citizens come together. This is urgent as India will, by 2050, generate 3.5 times – over 543,200 tonnes or 54,320 truckloads – of the solid waste it produces today, the World Bank estimated in 2018.
Segregation at source
Young men sat in front of large screens attached to computers as they tracked the route of 468 garbage vans that collect trash door to door.
“We know the route of every van, and the exact time it makes a stop,” said Deepak Kumar, 28, project in-charge at the garbage-van command centre, which started a year ago. These men receive alerts if there is a problem on any route, such as a breakdown, road closure or if a driver is not feeling well.
Before the programme began, households would dump trash in and around big garbage cans at street corners. A privately contracted company would collect the garbage from these points, erratically. Cattle, stray dogs and flies manifested around these dump sites, residents said.
In 2016, the Indore Municipal Corporation started by collecting waste every day from households and started slowly asking residents to give segregated waste.
“When the waste segregation began, 80% of people would not segregate waste,” Gautam Kaneria, a garbage van driver for four years, told IndiaSpend. “We would explain to them why they had to this, and plead with them. If people repeatedly gave unsegregated trash, we would let our supervisors know and fine those households.”
In 2017-’18, the Indore Municipal Corporation collected Rs 27 crore in the form of user fees for waste collection, said Asad Warsi, a consultant who works with the corporation on their solid waste management plan.
“Why would the households agree to this [segregation]?,” said Warsi. “They would just mention a list of problems – water, mosquitos – they had and expect the municipality to solve. They didn’t want the municipality to come to them and ask for garbage segregation.”
Around this time, the Indore Municipal Corporation started a helpline and ordered that any problems be registered and resolved within 48 hours. Warsi credits the trust that developed between the Indore Municipal Corporation and residents for the success of Indore’s cleanup. NGOs would also explain to households why waste segregation was important.
“A lot has changed now,” said Kaneria, the van driver. “Ninety-five percent of households give segregated waste.”
The Indore Municipal Corporation also ensured that its own officials adopted the programme, suspending officials who were not doing their work in supervising garbage collection while rewarding those who worked well.
For instance, Vimla Bai, 69, a sweeper or safai mitra [cleanliness friend], a term given to workers in the government’s programme, was identified for her diligent work, and is receiving training to become a daroga or supervisor of sanitary workers, the first woman to be given this position in Indore, the municipal official supervising the command centre told IndiaSpend.
Further, for the waste collection to be successful, planners tried to understand people’s behaviour. “For instance, in one locality, people would not wake up before 10 am or 11 am, what was the point of going there to collect garbage in the morning?” explained Warsi, the consultant. “The vans go to this area only after noon.”
For its information campaign, the Indore Municipal Corporation roped in religious leaders giving sermons on the importance of cleanliness as mentioned in religious texts, schools, through cleanliness competitions and oathtaking ceremonies for children pledging a clean city, said Warsi.
The collected waste is taken to 10 transfer stations across the city, where staff make sure the waste is properly segregated. From these transfer stations, the waste is taken to the waste processing facility.
At the facility, 645 tonnes of recyclable waste is daily sifted through and separated by 300-odd workers. Sarthak and Basix, two NGOs that Indore has collaborated with, has further integrated the informal sector to sort waste, said Sambyal of CSE. The recyclable waste is sold to either the recycling industry or to companies that use recycled material.
As much as 550 tonnes of organic waste is produced daily. It is converted to compost which is sold to farmers and landscapers as manure. Sometimes it is given free of charge as farmers agree to transport the compost at their own cost.
Non-recyclable waste is sent to a cement plant at Neemuch and to the MP Rural Road Development Corporation to be used in the construction of roads, said Sambyal of CSE.
This central waste processing facility is built on what used to be Indore’s largest dumping ground. In 2018, the municipal corporation rented machines to segregate the legacy waste and clean the facility up. A part of this cleaned-up dumping ground was planted with trees and is being converted to a park. Delhi is now undertaking a similar exercise to clean up its dumping ground, reported the Times of India on September 20.
Construction waste is sent to a separate privately-operated facility, where it is ground to different sizes, and then used as raw material for making bricks, paver tiles and material to edge footpaths, procured by the government for its NREGA and other public works programmes.
Decentralised waste management
An organic waste collection centre lies inside the triangle at the end of Chhappan Dukaan, the literal name of the busy lane dotted with small eateries. Just three stores, Vijay Chaat House, Young Tarang and Johny Hot Dog produce 12,000 portions every day, on average. The market produces, on average, 1.5 tonnes of food waste daily.
All food outlets separate food waste and cart it off to the small garden inside a traffic triangle at one end of the street. At 10 pm, the operations team from Swaha, the NGO managing composting, weighs the trash, and prepares it for the composting van, said Mukesh Yadav, 22, who works the night shift. “We use gloves and because this waste is composted daily, the smell is not really a problem,” said Yadav, who said he had forgotten his gloves that day.
After the initial composting in the mobile van, the compressed waste is sent for further processing to another centre.
The amount of food waste generated is recorded, and written in a small booklet that each food shop owner has. Stores pay a fixed charge based on the weight of the garbage they produce.
“This is beneficial for food owners too,” said Gunjan Sharma the owner of Young Tarang, a food store, and the person spearheading the cleanliness drive in the market. “We come to know of the wastage and can start planning better and even save money if we reduce this wastage.”
Said Jatin Dhakar, 40, and owner of Vijay Chaat House, “There is a lot of awareness now. There is a wish to keep Indore at number one in cleanliness and all of us are trying to do our part. See around you. It’s so clean. Our customers also use dustbins that we provide outside the stall.”
Said Sharma, showing the certificate issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, “We are a certified clean street food hub.” Now Sharma is planning a disposable free market and wants to appoint an agency that will manage a commercial dishwasher and provide clean utensils to all food outlets.
It is cheaper and more hygienic to process waste near the source of waste production, as fewer people are exposed to the waste. It is also more environmentally sustainable. Indore is trying to set up mobile composting machines, like the one used in the market, near all bulk waste producers such as hotels and residential apartment buildings.
Across Indore, on average, Swaha collects about 8-10 tonnes of compostable waste daily.
“It took time for us to understand and design a machine that would be robust for Indian conditions,” said Jwalan Shah, 27, one of the founders of Swaha, the organisation that created the machines used in Chappan Dukkan. “You can’t just use a machine from abroad and expect it to give you the same results.” The company also runs the operations of several of these machines provided to big residential townships and hotels, such as Sayaji and Effotel.
Indian waste contains a higher proportion of organic waste than several western countries and food is more curry-like which makes it difficult to handle, explained Shah. The machines are designed to work efficiently even if the material is not all organic.
Swaha’s machines are designed to ensure minimum spillage, minimum human contact with the waste, and are equipped with mechanisms to easily lift heavy trash cans. “Our machines are compact, simple so that they don’t need a graduate to run them, and tough and rugged given the Indian environment,” said Shah.
Waste to fuel
For the decentralised processing of waste from the vegetable, fruit and flower market, a biomethanation facility – which converts organic waste to methane – has been set up opposite the market.
About 20 tonnes of waste is collected every day, and converted into 750 kg - 800 kg of bio compressed natural gas or bioCNG, said PhD student Subhash of Mahindra Waste to Energy Solutions Ltd. The company has a contract with the Indore Municipal Corporation, to operate the plant for 15 years.
The gas produced is used to run city buses, and sold as a cooking fuel to hotels and the Indian Institute of Management, at a subsidised rate. Waste of 1 tonne to 2 tonnes a day from the flower market is kept separately, and mixed with slurry to produce compost.
Every night, 800 km of main roads are swept by machines, footpaths and road dividers are washed by a water mist. This uses 400 litres of water every night, most of it recycled water from the three sewage treatment plants set up by the Indore Municipal Council, Warsi said. Internal roads that make up the rest of the 2,200 km are swept, and the waste is collected in gunny bags, collected by vans and taken to the waste processing facility.
The first six months of road cleaning between 20,000 and 30,000 metric tonnes of dust was cleared, said Warsi, the consultant.
In a decade, Indore, will produce 2,000 metric tonnes of waste daily, up from the current 1,200 metric tonnes, according to estimates, said Warsi. The aim is to reduce this waste and keep it at 1,500 metric tonnes, especially by reducing plastic waste and usable food waste, he added.
India’s cleanliness survey is based on on-ground verification, citizen feedback, processing of waste, innovative approaches, financial sustainability and recovering solid waste management expenses, segregation at source and quality of service and implementation. In 2019, of 100 cities with a population of over 100,000, Indore ranked first. The runner up was Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, followed by Chandigarh and New Delhi.
Indore was ranked first in 2017, up from 25 in 2016, a position it has maintained for over a year. Though the project was originally pushed by the then municipal commissioner Manish Singh, the programme has continued to be implemented and improved by the current commissioner, Asheesh Singh, experts and residents said, showing that the programme is not dependent on a single person.
Further, segregating waste has become a habit; residents were surprised when this reporter questioned them about garbage segregation and collection.
Financially, the city’s model is highly cost-intensive, said Sambyal of CSE. Indore has made a capital investment of Rs 180 crore into the program, and spent Rs 155 crore on its operations in FY 2017-2018, Warsi said.
“Many cities do not get that kind of money for solid waste management and sanitation,” Sambyal said. But Indore also has a robust collection of user fees, high penalty charges, and makes revenue from the sale of compost and dry waste, which makes it a win-win situation, she said.
The programme collected Rs 27 crore in user fees, while the rest of the operation expenditure was funded by property taxes, Warsi said. Households pay between Rs 60 and 150 a month based on the waste they generate, and commercial facilities pay Rs 3 per kg of waste.
Indore aims to decentralise waste processing, such as in the street food and vegetable market. “This would help reduce user fees, and the end-user could benefit from the end product of waste processing, and help the Indore Municipal Corporation reduce transportation and processing costs,” explained Warsi. The corporation aims to reduce expenses by 10% every year, through such initiatives, Warsi said.
Decentralised waste processing is followed in other cities such as Mysuru, Karnataka and Panaji, Goa, Sambyal said.
India’s trash emergency
“It has been categorically laid down that (a) clean environment is (the) fundamental right of citizens under Article 21 and it is for the local bodies as well as the State to ensure that public health is preserved by taking all possible steps. For doing so, financial inability cannot be pleaded,” a 2019 order by the National Green Tribunal noted.
Cities, with a population of more than 100,000 produce 67,000 tonnes a day or 44% of the total waste generated in the country, according to this July 18, answer in the Lok Sabha.
The NGT had asked the central government and states to form and implement an action plan based on the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. After pushing the deadline several times, the NGT announced that any state or union territory which does not comply with these statutory obligations shall be liable to be proceeded against as per the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the NGT said. The state would be asked to pay a fine, and the senior officer of the state or local body could also be personally liable, the order added.
“The stark reality is that no one wants to pay for this,” said Shah of Swaha, the company making mobile composting vans. “No one believes they are responsible for the garbage they produce even though India has always followed the principle that the polluter pays.”
But “the success of Indore shows that this is doable”. It’s a lighthouse project for MP, and for other similar cities across the country, said Warsi, the consultant.
“Earlier I thought cleaning was just about sweeping,” said Sharma, the food shop owner. “Everyone would attack Chhappan Dukaan. It was like all the dirt was here. Since then we had a target. We would make the market so clean that it could be used as an example.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.