Sustainable urban waste management in India

segregating wasteBy Fiona Marshall and Pritpal Randhawa

Today in Delhi government officials, representatives of waste pickers associations, NGOs, industries and resident welfare associations will participate in the launch event for our new policy brief on Rethinking urban waste management in India. This is just one of the outputs from a joint venture between the STEPS Centre, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Delhi-based NGO Toxics Link as part of our sustainable urbanisation initiative. We propose a rethinking of urban waste management through a sustainability lens which embraces the informal sector and brings together environmental protection and social justice agendas, which are often seen as divergent.

The event coincides with the recent release of amended national waste management guidelines, which we have been seeking to influence as part of our environmental health in transitional spaces project. In this work we have been examining how different interest groups frame urban waste management challenges, and how this links to understandings of sustainability, complexity, risk and uncertainty and priorities for intervention. We have been exploring how and why particular waste management options (such as those that focus on waste to energy technology) become dominant, including the power relations and politics behind decision making processes, and the incentive schemes and partnerships that reinforce particular ways of doing things.

Working with a diverse range of stakeholders we have been promoting dialogue on the implications of current centralized waste management approaches in terms of the environment, health and social justice. We have been highlighting the winners and losers, the transfer of risks across time and space and between social groups, and the difficulties associated with the failure of participatory decision making processes, lack of accountability, simplistic understandings of material and social flows of waste, and lack of recognition of the informal sector.

We also learned from the multiple examples of alternative waste management strategies, and worked with people from some of the many excellent initiatives practicing and promoting them, to consider the ways in which these alternative waste management pathways were able to address the need to bring together the social justice, environmental and health concerns of sustainable urban waste management. Building on this collaborative work, we were able to distill a set of eight principles for rethinking urban waste management through a sustainability lens.

We think these principles could be adopted at multiple levels, but a key target for policy intervention has been the national Solid Waste Management rules. These are the guidelines formulated by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate change (MoEFCC) that play a central role in determining how waste is collected, segregated, stored, processed and disposed of in Indian cities.

An earlier draft of these rules was released in 2013, but faced a Karnataka High Court’s stay order for being “regressive”. Alongside this court case, several groups raised objections against the rules. The STEPS Centre, through its partner Toxics Link in Delhi, submitted formal objections and organised a multi stakeholder dialogue (including the MoEFCC) to discuss the critique and alternative ways of understanding and managing waste.

We were delighted when, as a result, Satish Sinha from Toxics Link was the invited to become a part of the review committee responsible for producing the current draft rules. Much of the discussion at today’s policy brief launch event will focus on discussion around the eight principles for rethinking sustainable urban management. Reflecting on the features that have been included, but also key gaps, particularly in terms of providing guidelines for implementation, appropriate forms of participation in decision making and procedures for accountability.

For example, in line with our policy brief, the new rules are moving beyond an ‘environmental policy only’ perspective on urban waste. National and state urban development agencies have been asked to formulate policy on solid waste management in the context of rules that need to be translated into city level waste plan by the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and others. Many new stakeholders have been involved in the management of urban waste and their responsibilities have been assigned, but it seems that no mechanism is suggested in the rules that integrates all the stakeholders, or considers accountability if they are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

Similarly, the role of the informal sector (waste pickers) has also been recognized in the new rules, but there is no proposal to develop guidelines to establish the involvement of waste pickers. Waste pickers associations are already coming together to offer coordinated solutions, and there are a number of promising examples of informal sector organisations being supported in constructive ways to address environmental health and livelihoods concerns – which are often seen as contradictory. For example, the movement for street hawkers to sell safe food by providing them with clean water and washing stations, instead of banning them as sellers of unhygienic food. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 is an outcome of this movement led by National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI).

It is also very encouraging to see recognition of decentralised technologies such as biomenthanation, and composting as beneficial for the processing of organic waste. The new draft rules now state that communities should be involved in waste management and promotion of decentralised processing, and there is even mention of the need to ‘incentivise the sale of city compost’. This is an important issue in the current context of highly subsidized inorganic fertilisers which discourage compost purchase. We suggest that this should be taken several steps further by involvling NGOs and waste pickers unions/cooperatives in the promotion of decentralised processing, which itself should be incentivized.

The new draft rules clearly show that the policy process related to urban waste management is beginning to open up to new perspectives. Since the process for reviewing the earlier version of the rules was slightly democratized, the tone of the new rules is quite different from the usual official perspective of understanding urban waste. Inspiring local initiatives, which embrace urban complexity and diversity in India, have provided much of the basis for the interventions by the STEPS environmental health project, which through its partner Toxics Link, has contributed to shaping this new policy perspective.

The debates that follow today’s launch have much potential to contribute to a wider urban sustainability discourse. They are occurring within the context of major ongoing government led initiatives on urbanization; such as the plan to create 100 ‘smart cities’ to support economic growth and provide technological solutions to water and waste management, and The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (clean India mission).

We argue that these types of initiatives suggest an absence of complexity in urban environments, lack an inclusive approach to urban development; and by failing to engage effectively with local partners and contexts or recognize the politics of sustainability may miss opportunities to address urgent challenges of sustainable urbanization. Our case study in rethinking urban waste management through a sustainability lens, highlights many of these issues and suggests a collaborative way forward.

Fiona Marshall is a STEPS member, Professor and Environment and Development at SPRU and convenor of the environmental health project. Pritpal Randhawa is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Photo credit: Segregating waste in Delhi, by Pritpal Randhawa

Find out more

Read the briefing

The story of our environmental health project is told in a new ‘Story from STEPS’ about the working lives of India’s urban waste pickers, showing the hidden connections between everything that matters in the city:

A resource collection of our work on sustainable urbanisation: