Rajendra P Gurung
Sikkim’s needs to avoid quick fix solutions to its growing solid waste management problem and focus on truly sustainable measures beyond just cleaning up.
Sikkim’s journey in the sustainable management of its solid waste began almost two decades before the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission when in 1998 it banned the use of plastic and plastic wrappers for delivery of goods and materials sold by shopkeepers. Discarded plastic carrybags blocking stormwater drains was suspected to be the prime culprit of a disastrous landslide in Gangtok town at that time. In 2005 a project funded by the Australian Government in Gangtok town conducted pilots in some areas which set up Water & Sanitation Committees, did away with the use of permanent waste vats and initiated door to door collection of household waste while taking steps to modernise the fleet of waste carrying vehicles. The foundations of the current waste collection system were built on these initiatives when the present Gangtok Municipal Corporation came into existence in 2010.
In 2008, Sikkim earned the distinction of being the first Nirmal Rajya of the country. The State was awarded the Skoch Order of Merit for Smart Technology on Solid Waste Management in the year 2015 and was adjudged the Cleanest State in the country by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), Government of India, in the year 2016. Subsequently Sikkim also stepped up it efforts in combating plastic pollution by banning the use of disposable plastic foam products (Thermocole /Styrofoam) and the use of PET bottled water in Government functions in 2016. The Swachha Bharat Mission – Rural and Urban has taken many good initiatives for improving solid waste management systems in the State, particularly by engaging schoolchildren, PRI institutions and urban local bodies. Civil Society Organisations have also taken a lead role in sensitizing the public about plastic waste pollution, composting and Zero Waste concepts and practices. In a project funded by the Asian Development Bank, under the North Eastern Region Capital Cities Development Investment Project (NERCCDIP) Gangtok City took up (i) improvement of the waste collection and transportation system; (ii) rehabilitation of the existing compost plant; and (iii) construction of a new landfill and associated facilities. Twin dustbins were distributed to all households, a new fleet of municipal trucks were acquired, a sanitary landfill was built, a new composting plant was set up and IEC was conducted extensively. With these many initiatives coupled with others like the State Organic Mission, the phrase – “Clean and Green” became familiar for describing Sikkim. But of late these intitiatives and achievements in solid waste management seem to be losing traction and a general sense of a lack of direction and purpose prevails.
Visitors to Gangtok remark on the relative cleanliness of its streets. Truly we have done a very good job of keeping our streets visibly clear of litter and have established a good revenue model for waste collection. We have efficiently achieved transporting waste from point A to point B. However where is all this waste going to and how is it being ultimately disposed of? One just needs to visit the landfill site at 32nd Mile to realise that not all is going well with the great work we had started out with. Section 4 of the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 mandates that “every waste generator segregate and store the waste generated by them in three separate streams namely bio-degradable, non biodegradable and domestic hazardous wastes in suitable bins and handover segregated wastes to authorised waste pickers or waste collectors as per the direction or notification by the local authorities from time to time”. Segretation at source is the fundamental building block to a solid foundation of sustainable waste management. Segregation began with the distribution of dustbins to households and wards such as Arithang, Daragaon and Ranipul achieved a fair degree of success. But these efforts went in vain as ultimately the segregated waste ended up being mixed together again in the landfill as the infrastructure there was not ready to handle segregated waste. Subsequent efforts have also not been coordinated and now we appear to have almost given up on pushng though segregation at source and maintaining the sustained, intense IEC required to achieve this milestone. Waste coming into the landfill area is currently being directly dumped into the sanitary landfill that was budgeted at Rs 14.5 crores and was only meant to take ultimate discards (i.e. waste having no recyclable use or value). The expected life of this landfill was 17 to 18 years- at the current rate of dumping it may not even last five years. It needs to be pointed out that the sanitary landfill was built at the site of the old dumping ground as no other suitable place for a landfill could be found. What has compounded matters is that the Rs 3 Crore new composting plant inaugurated in November last year at 32 Mile is not functioning effectively at all as it is incapable of handling wet waste and also the plant has to be sometimes shut down as spare parts need to be imported. Another “automatic”composting plant recently installed in Lal Bazaar is also not functioning well due to high cost of operations and the fact that theprocessed waste has to be cured in trays for at least two months before usable compost can be obtained. There are also talks of installing biogas plants. A recent move to outsource waste management at the landfill to an outside party under PPP Mode with Viability Gap Funding support under the Smart Cities Project seems ill advised as according information obtained, the party has made highly impossible claims of converting waste to substantial quantities of biodiesel and also generating electricity (from a Waste to Energy plant) with the municipality supplying unsegregated waste directly to them.
So where are we going wrong? The Centre for Science & Environment in a survey of 53 cities, whose results were declared in July 2016, ranked Gangtok the 9thcleanest city but only in the third category alongwith Shimla, Bengaluru and Delhi i.e. the focus was on collection only without segregation and processing. These cities were clean, but waste essentially was being swept under the carpet. It is true that sustainable solid waste management is a challenging task and many municipalites are struggling to cope. But Sikkim is a very small state and waste volumes relatively lesser than others. Just when we seemed to have eveything in place, finance, infrastructure, awarenes – we seem to have taken off in a totally unsustainable direction. Firstly we need to realise that centralised machines are not going to solve our problem and that there are no quick fix solutions. Maintenance of big machines is a huge liability and can result in a total breakdown of the system. Compositng can be done manually in a sustainable manner with small machines as has been demonstrated in many municipalities. We cannot avoid segregation at source – it is our legally bound duty to segregate our waste and dumping unsegregated waste with some company in the hope that by some magic wand everything will be taken care of, is being extremely unrealistic and abrogating our prime responsibilty. Waste to energy incineration should be a strict no-no in a State which takes pride in its green image- there are serious dangers of controlling and monitoring toxic gases and disposing off the toxic ash. Besides the calorific value of our waste is so low, our wet conditions requiring such high energy to achieve any level of pylorisis, that it will be economically unfeasible to operate. What happens when the vability gap funding is exhausted? While states like Kerala and cities like Pune have taken to decentralised composting and are looking at not lifting biodegradable waste at all – by providing generator level multiple solutions – we seem to have taken off in the opposite direction having/proposing three levels of centralised machines to handle the same biodegradable waste. And as for non-biodegradable waste, there is hardly any infrastructure to handle these at the landfill – only a narrow built RRC with an unused compacting machine that is totally incapable of managing the huge volumes received each day.
If Sikkim is to get back on the rails in its sustainable waste management journey, it needs to seriously take stock and rethink its waste management strategy. With growing populations, increasing urbanisation and tourist inflows, waste voumes will increase manyfold. Sustainability in this area is imperative. Sikkim needs to strenghten its waste laws and ensure their implementation with renewed vigour. The ban of plastic carry bags has been much diluted with their replacement by cloth like polypropylene (another type of plastic) bags and even the old type of plastic carry bags are returning, some in new avatars like the large black garbage bags. Single use disposables need to be totally eliminated and alternatives encouraged. The State needs to tackle segregation at source with vigorous IEC and with people’s participation at all levels. It needs to decentralize its waste management and attempt composting at household and community level and integrate the informal sector into the system. It needs to forgo centralised composting machines and incineration soutions. It should take up Extended Producer Responsibility and make manufacturers and distributors responsible for collection and return of waste generated by their products such as instant noodles and PET bottle drinks and snacks in multilayered packaging. Innovative solutions for reducing, recyling and reusing waste should be encouraged. The State’s Waste Management Policy which is in the making, should ensure that a participative process is followed to incorporate the best of ideas and long term sustainable solutions. Sikkim with its legacy of green intitatives can do it. It just requires strong will and inspired leadership to take SWM from the present morass it finds itself to a level and direction that will inspire others – just as Sikkim has been repeatedly demonstrating in other fields in the past.