Failing the grade - Cities across India are ignoring the informal recycling sector, says a report by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group

If a new report is to be believed, no city in India has recognized the role of informal sector in recycling waste and that waste itself can be a tool to alleviate poverty. Chintan, a Delhi-based environmental research and action group has released a report titled “Failing the grade” which evaluates the implementation of solid waste management rules in the country with special focus on the integration of waste pickers.

Waste - A documentary by Chintan, amongst the waste recyclers living under Nizamuddin bridge of Delhi

Video courtesy: Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group

Indian municipalities, urban policy makers, and private companies ignore the informal sector while conducting business in solid waste management and in doing so, they bypass the environment and the poor, the report says. Apart from not implementing the laws of the land, they disrupt a chain that so importantly contributes to reducing greenhouse gases in our increasingly consumptive cities and towns.

Thinking around solid waste in India has been more technical than managerial. It has rarely been seen as a tool to alleviate poverty for the thousands of informal sector workers who live off such detritus by trading in it and recycling it, according to the report. It is estimated that nearly 9 to 20 percent of the waste is collected for recycling and removed from the waste stream by a range of informal sector actors - wastepickers, small and large waste dealers, itinerant buyers etc.

The CAG’s “Performance Audit of Management of Waste in India”, 2007 had amongst other things stated that “Only 17 percent of the sampled states had recognized the role of the wastepickers.” Further, solid waste was not only poorly handled due to non-compliance (by State Pollution Control Boards and Municipalities) of rules and regulations, but also, due to the lack of monitoring. New rules and policies have been put in place since and the report by Chintan examines them and understands their operational status, as well as offers a means of implementing them.

This report looks at 14 cities across India and examines the issue of inclusion through three prisms-international regimes, local private companies and the state. It evaluates the proposals the cities had submitted to the JNNURM for solid waste, corresponding Master Plans, and the reality on the ground based on visits, discussions and observations. Unfortunately, it finds that no city had fully implemented these rules and policies.

The report notes that given the large quantities, several municipalities believe that only a large facility, at a centralized level, can handle waste. There is little decentralization in collection, segregation, transportation, reuse and recycling despite several well documented pilot projects that took place in Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi etc., in the 1990s and into the 2000s.

Leading from the understanding of centralization is privatization, where large companies are entrusted with running several processes related to collection and processing of solid waste. Hence, starting from the mid-2000s, several cities have outsourced to the private companies the services of doorstep collection, transportation to the landfill, and processing waste into energy and other products. Also, several companies see profits in a business model where they own the waste and can either sell it directly or through processing.

While there are several concerns about pollution from poor waste handling, existing plans do not see these as priority. Waste-to-energy plants, for example, do not have any mechanism to monitor for dioxin, but it is likely that they will emit this highly toxic compound, endangering public health. The priority has always been to handle waste; pollution is frequently seen as an acceptable cost to pay.

Structure of the report

Chapter 1 on “View around waste” sets the context for the rest of the report. It outlines the shifting perspectives around solid waste and its management across India and the landmark CAG performance audit.

Chapter 2 on “What the law and policy says” deals with the laws and policies in India that include the informal recycling sector, particularly wastepickers.

Chapter 3 titled “How policies and rules can build a green economy” states that while this idea cannot be applied across the board, it is desirable in the context of the solid waste regime, which is facing new challenges as consumption levels rise in India. Moreover, India must learn from global experience that the predominant growth paradigm is not able to meet the needs for the poor or the planet. Rather, it worsens the situation. Ironically, wastepickers, itinerant buyers, waste dealers and reprocessors pick up and reuse or reprocess paper, cardboard, metals, plastics and glass, comprising nearly 20 per cent of the municipal waste in bigger cities. By removing paper and cardboard, wastepickers reduce the emission of Green House Gases (GHGs), and prevent a rise in temperature - they act as cooling agents. Also, by recycling metals such as aluminum, the sector prevents mining, processing and transportation, that they themselves are very high GHG emitting activities.

Chapter 4 on “State actors” says that solid waste management under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) is not inclusive of key actors from the informal recycling sector. Where they are mentioned, they are limited to wastepickers as collectors. However, these do not have detailed information or a specific strategy. Moreover, there is very little provision for the informal sector in Master Plans, thus making any plans hard to implement. Hence, the state is itself violating the policies and rules.

Chapter 5 on “Non state actors” looks at the role of agencies other than the government and organizations of waste pickers and other informal sector recyclers. It particularly focuses on corporate private players on one hand, and the global carbon market, particularly CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) on the other.

The report concludes with a set of key tools to ensure inclusion of wastepickers. It suggests that all PPP projects must ensure there is a component of including the sector as per the legal and policy mandates. This must be part of the plan and essential to receiving final clearances. Many municipal and urban local body authorities require further capacity building to understand how these rules can be implemented in practical terms. 

In cases of any processing technology, with or without Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funds, wastepickers must be assimilated at least in waste segregation, bailing handling activities through a process of identification, training and working. In case of upgradation of landfills, a model as in Quezon city, Philippines, is a good model. It allows wastepickers access to waste under improved conditions. 

Doorstep collection is mandatory. However, it must be carried out only by wastepickers or organizations working with them. Reading this with the Burman Committee Report, doorstep collection services must be provided across cities. Dry/Recyclable waste from any source must be allowed to the wastepickers or their organizations. Some basic infrastructure and support is required from municipalities for the success of these operations: cycle carts, fiscal help, space etc. As wastepickers and their support organizations do not have the deep pockets of corporate houses, they cannot provide themselves with these. 

Documentation of wastepickers, small dealers, itinerant buyers is essential to ensure complete and adequate inclusion. Monitoring is essential, to ensure no one fails the grade again. This must be carried out by a range of persons, including wastepickers themselves, city wise. 

These are some means by which rules can be implemented. It is important to hold municipalities and other urban local bodies accountable for this.

Post By: Amita Bhaduri