Waste(d) laws in India

by Ashish Chaturvedi
Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies

Last year, I wrote about the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (Clean India Mission), launched on the anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday. As part of this endeavour, and due to the limited impact of existing regulations, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has taken the bold step of amending four different regulations on waste management in one go, and carrying out consultations across the country to seek stakeholders’ feedback.

I recently took part in an informal meeting in Delhi with waste management experts from an environmental NGO, a bilateral agency and the largest environmental research organisation in India. We had decided to meet in order to think through the implications of the draft Rules, and realised quite quickly that we would need a number of such meetings to be able to fully understand the implications and also provide any meaningful feedback. We decided to provide detailed feedback to the Ministry but our discussion broadly covered the following issues.

Little attention to detail and a multitude of errors in proposed waste management regulation

First, we found that there is limited attention to detail in the draft Rules. Each section also contains multiple errors. Further, certain sections of the Rules read more like guidelines while others leave the door open for multiple interpretations. There are overlapping definitions and the roles and responsibilities of key actors have not been defined.

No overarching framework for waste and secondary resource management

Second, we also agreed that there is no overarching framework provided on waste/secondary resource management. Although the focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission is on Cleaning India, the focus of waste management in the twenty-first century cannot be only on end-of-pipeline solutions. Most waste is a resource and should be treated as such. The historical opportunity provided by the simultaneous revision of these four waste management rules should be grabbed with both hands and an overall framework for waste/secondary resource management should be developed.

However, thinking about waste is a resource does not mean that waste management will necessarily pay for itself. This is a fundamental mistake in most policy discussions on waste management in India.

To convert waste into a resource, investments has to be made. Some waste, such as paper or ferrous metals, requires less investment while others, like electronics, would require more investment. Some waste cannot be converted into a resource, for example, non-recyclable packaging like crisp bags, and is a burden on society. While drawing up policy frameworks, the government and those who support it in drafting such regulations need to be mindful of these realities and plan for each of these different waste streams.

Waste management is not only an environmental management problem – it requires adequate infrastructure and investment.

Infrastructure and investments should be consistent with current practices

Third, such infrastructure and investments need to be consistent with the extant practices of waste management in some of the largest cities in the country. Most of the waste in India, especially its recyclable fractions, is managed by the informal sector. Various studies have shown that the informal sector saves a substantial amount of resources for the urban local bodies.

While all the Rules (other than the one on E-waste) on the Ministry’s website do mention waste pickers, they pay little attention to their roles and responsibilities. Also, in spite of several failed experiences with waste to energy and large centralised contracts, the Rules do not give clear direction on prioritising decentralised solutions.

The role of manufacturers in generating non-recyclable packaging

Fourth, another glaring omission, especially from the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, is the role of manufacturers whose products lead to the generation of non-recyclable packaging and domestic hazardous waste.

Globally, the best practice is to make producers responsible for the end-of-life management of waste resulting from the products they make (PDF). Maybe the Indian Government is shying away from using Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) after the miserable failure in compliance to Rules that have mentioned EPR in the past (for instance the E-waste Rules).

Improving the Rules – (missed) opportunity for more holistic approach

I came out of the meeting convinced that our suggestions might improve the various Rules. However, I am unsure whether these improved Rules would lead to changes on the ground.

Although I am excited by the focus on Clean India, I am not sure if sticking to traditions like revision of Waste Management Rules will solve the waste management problem that confronts large Indian cities.

By continuously tinkering with waste management rules, the government is implicitly acknowledging its key role in solving the waste management problem. It seems to be saying that if we have the ‘perfect’ Rules, the waste management problem would be solved. Or a milder interpretation would be that a ‘perfect’ set of Rules will create an enabling environment for waste management. Due to the contested nature of policy processes, any emerging Rule would be far from perfect. Any change in the Rules is likely to create winners and losers. However, focusing on waste management merely as an environment policy issue is unlikely to have substantial impact on waste management.

I believe the administration has missed a big opportunity by not engaging with the issue in a much more holistic manner for example, also addressing employment generation and material recovery potential of waste/resource management. This could be initiated by facilitating a dialogue on appropriate infrastructure and capacities involving the relevant actors and interest-based coalitions who can drive the transition to a resource efficient and clean India.

The research within the Green Transformations cluster at IDS is focusing on identifying such actors and coalitions in India and beyond.

This article first appeared on the Institute of Development Studies website.

Further reading

Waste not, want not – a STEPS digital story exploring the connected lives of India’s urban waste pickers