India is a country of 140 crore people, but it has failed to get the basics right when it comes to waste management. Kochi’s Brahmapuram waste treatment plant disaster is a case in point. In 2018, the badly managed waste-to-energy plant became an environmental hazard for its neighbours, with highly toxic smoke and dust emissions that made the lives of residents unbearable. Like a volcano before explosion, these occasional fumes and fires over the years were only the harbinger of the bigger disaster waiting to happen. Brahmapuram has a legacy waste of 5.5 lakh cubic metres in the 40-acre dump ground, mostly plastic and other toxic materials.
The waste management practice of a city of 35 lakh like Kochi is to dump garbage into a field and pray that it will disappear by itself. When locals raise objections, a committee is formed to investigate the issue. Next comes the study tour by politicians, their cronies, and family members to tourist-friendly cities of Europe that do not even have 10 percent of a typical Tier-II city population of India. Nor do the well-developed European cities have a monsoon season of six months or tropical weather. But they are good places for our politicians to roam around, especially when the exchequer pays the bills.
All that such study tours by these ‘experts’ and their extended family members to exotic cities have managed is to waste public resources for their private entertainment. So no one was surprised when the garbage mount caught fire and covered the coastal city with toxic fumes and smog for the past two weeks. It took 12 days to somewhat control the fire, and an otherwise pristine city with natural greenery, backwaters, and beaches looked like an industrial hell-hole, thanks to sheer mismanagement.
The situation in other cities isn’t better. In India, traditional dump trucks and landfills are still used as a means of waste management—methods that are highly inefficient and unsustainable. A bitter joke is that Indian ‘holy’ street cows survive more on plastic covers than grass. Rubbish dumps are infamous for spewing out hazardous pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and toxic particles. A huge chunk of residential garbage ends up in our rivers and lakes because of illegal dumping by municipal authorities, thus contaminating the natural water sources with hazardous chemicals and metals.
Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai are some of the most infamous cities having mountains made up of garbage. The ever-increasing population and lack of infrastructure have only exacerbated the problem in recent years. In Mumbai, a landfill site near Deonar has overflowed with waste for decades. It has become so large that smoke from a fire at the site in 2016 was captured from outer space through a NASA satellite. Similarly, a landfill site at Ghazipur in East Delhi is considered Asia’s largest solid waste landfill. It has been operating since 1984 despite many objections from residents. Bengaluru’s Mandur landfill too received much media attention for the same reason, and the city’s municipal authorities had to look elsewhere to dispose of the waste. The Kosapet landfill in Chennai is a prime example of India’s struggle with waste management. It has been operating since the early 1990s and has grown immensely. It covers almost three hectares and receives over 1,000 tonnes of waste daily.
The idea of landfills is not just dated but hazardous, too. Amsterdam is a shining example of how cities can reduce the use of landfills in waste management, using more sustainable solutions such as on-site organic composting and automated container collection systems. Barcelona is at the forefront of efficient waste management because of its individualised tracking approach using Radio Frequency Identification. Every citizen has a unique chip attached to their bins that tracks how much trash they deposit at various stations. This encourages individuals to dispose of with the environment in mind by sorting out plastics and paper for recycling, rather than throwing away all materials indiscriminately. Surat and Indore have achieved far better success in India than most other cities regarding garbage disposal.
As the country urbanises at an astonishing rate, it is time to move away from traditional dump trucks and landfills to manage its waste. We must act now to create a sustainable future for ourselves and coming generations. A hundred Brahmapurams are waiting to explode in many Indian cities. Unless we change the way we manage our waste, the consequences could be dire. Our cities will become uninhabitable and our water sources will be contaminated beyond repair.
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy