Finance minister T M Thomas Isaac and environmentalist Sunita Narain release a book on urban solid waste management

Not In My Backyard inspired by events in Alappuzha and similar other stories from across the country

  • CSE has ranked Alappuzha among India's top three cleanest cities.

  • CSE’s book is one of the first of its kind attempts in India to understand the state of solid waste management in the country, the numbers behind it, the gaps that exist and the path towards harnessing the opportunities

  • The book was released nationally in June 2016 by union urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu

Thiruvananthapuram, March 16, 2017: “This book had started out as a survey—we simply wanted to know which city is India’s cleanest. We knew that once we found out which is the cleanest, we would also find out what makes it so. This would give us the answers for future policy. And one such answer was provided to us by the city of Alappuzha in this very state”: said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), at a book release and seminar organised here today. Kerala finance minister T M Thomas Isaac, Suchitwa Mission executive director K Vasuki and Narain released Not In My Backyard, CSE’s new report on solid waste management in Indian cities.

Along with Panaji and Mysuru, Alappuzha has been declared among the cleanest cities in India as per the survey conducted for the book, and has been conferred CSE’s Clean City Award.

The success of Alappuzha – focus on household-level segregation
Since November 2012, Alappuzha, which has a population of 0.174 million and produces 58 tonnes of solid waste a day, is implementing a project called Nirmala Bhavanam Nirmala Nagaram (Clean Homes Clean City). The focus of the initiative is segregation and treatment of wet waste at the source. “About 75 per cent of the waste is biodegradable, and one-third of this comes from households,” points out Thomas Isaac, member of the Kerala Legislative Assembly from Alappuzha, who leads the initiative.

In July 2012 however, the city, known as the Venice of the East for its large network of canals, backwaters, lagoons and beaches, was facing an acute environmental crisis. Rotten garbage had piled up on roadsides, and canals and drains were clogged with bags of stinking waste. Swarms of mosquitoes and flies had invaded the city, spreading chikungunya and dengue. The city looked like a waste dump.

The Alappuzha Municipality had been dumping waste for decades in a six-hectare plot it owns in Sarvodayapuram, a village in the nearby Mararikkulam village panchayat. In June 2012, the residents of Sarvodayapuram rose up in arms against the dumping in their backyard. Protests, hunger strikes and blockade of the road leading to the plant prevented the municipality’s trucks from entering. The strict stance of the rural local body pushed the city into a corner. For a few days, the municipality buried its waste, but public places for burying waste were soon exhausted.

The solution came in the form of the Nirmala Bhavanam Nirmala Nagaram (Clean Homes Clean City) project, which Alappuzha has been implementing since November 2012. The focus of the initiative is segregation and treatment of wet waste at the source. The programme was started in 12 of the most urbanised wards, covering 12,000 households, as a pilot project. A number of solutions were deployed, including portable or fixed biogas plants and pipe composting, as well as technological solutions. In 2013, the clean city drive took a new turn with the entry of Thumburmuzhi, a model aerobic composting unit. About two tonnes of waste can be processed into compost in 90 days in this unit.

As of now, 12 wards have been declared Total Sanitation Wards, with 80 per cent households having simple composting/biogas techniques and establishments with good sanitation facilities. The municipality has plans to turn another 11 wards into Total Sanitation Wards. The plan is to set up 4,200 (1 m3 size) portable biogas plants, 500 fixed plants, 13,033 pipe composts and 200 aerobic composting bins. All of these together can treat 31.9 tonnes of garbage. 

“We do not make tall claims,” says Isaac. “There is still a long way to go. Our biggest achievement so far is that all residents, shops, offices and hotels have started segregating waste,” he adds.

Waste management in India – two-fold problem
Talking about the book, Sunita Narain said: “What is absolutely clear to us as we researched for this report is that technology for waste disposal is not the problem. The problem is two-fold. One, households and institutions are not responsible for management, through segregation or payment of the waste they generate. Two, there is an absolute collapse of financial and institutional (human) capacity and so accountability in our municipal systems.”

According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates, over 90 per cent of Indian cities with a functional collection system dispose of their waste in landfills. These landfills are not made according to stipulated sanitary standards. In 2008, CPCB’s monitoring of cities found that 24 out of 59 cities were making use of landfills, covering 1,900 hectares of land. Another 17 planned to create landfills. Since land was becoming scarce within city limits, municipalities were looking for “regional sites” to dump their waste.

In 2009, the Department of Economic Affairs’s position paper on solid waste management argued that urban India was already producing some 80,000 MT of waste a day. It projected that by 2047, India would be producing 260 million tonnes of waste annually needing over 1,400 sq km of landfills. This is an area equal to Hyderabad, Mumbai and Chennai put together.

Not in my backyard (NIMBY)
From Jammu and Kashmir to Kerala, and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh, cities of every size and category are struggling with the problem of how to manage their waste, and one of the solutions that many have taken recourse to is to dump it wherever they can. But now, communities in whose neighborhoods these dumpyards have materialised, are up in arms – they are insistent that this waste cannot be dumped in their backyards.

Narain said: “As India becomes more literate and politically aware, most cities are encountering stiff resistance when they attempt to dispose of waste in somebody else’s backyard. In Pune, Bengaluru, Panaji, Alappuzha and Gurgaon, village communities have been up in arms against the dumping of waste by a neighbouring city. This resistance will continue to grow. Cities are also finding it difficult to secure ‘environmental approval’ for their landfills.”

The way ahead
The CSE report points out that a combination of solutions is required to tackle the issue of waste management. Segregation at source, imposition of usage fees and penalties for non compliance and littering, restrictions on use of landfills and structuring of waste management contracts to ensure segregation happens at source, are some of the key components that can form part of the solution. It is also important that the informal sector be recognised for its role and made a key partner in the process in waste management.

“This is how waste management has evolved in the western world; so that they have no option but to manage to reuse, recycle and incinerate, but all in their own backyard. This is why India should be celebrating its own NIMBY. For long, we have used the backyards of our cities, where the poor of the city live, or villages,” added Sunita Narain.

  • For further details on CSE’s work on waste management please
    click here