Tuesday, August 4, 2009


The domain of municipal solid waste management is characterized by a very high degree of disorder – starting from the point of generation to collection, transport, treatment and disposal. We should not expect a private operator to come with the ‘Midas Touch’ – he is only rendering an essential service which our ULBs are finding difficult to deliver and in the process perhaps saving us from the biological warfare that we are inflicting on ourselves across the length and breath of the country.

Solid waste management involves 3M –material, men and machines. It is akin to an industrial logistics operation wherein unfortunately value addition to the feedstock in financially viable terms is not possible; instead the objective is to efficiently remove (by deploying men and machines) an offensive, putrefying and invariably pathogenic material away from habitations, dispose it off safely and thereby safeguard public health. In this context, the prime objective of treatment is not to convert ‘waste into wealth’ but to reduce its offensive and pathogenic characteristics, reduce its volume and thereby minimize its (ecological) foot-print for safe disposal in a sanitary landfill. Unfortunately when it comes to treatment, our national policy is heavily influenced by ‘holistic’ and ‘idealistic’ principles of ‘resource recovery’ and we are being made to believe (by some pied pipers) that some day a combination of technology and a private operator will be available which will provide the ‘Midas Touch’ and convert our garbage into gold. We must not harbor the illusion that just because a treatment plant looks like a factory, it would or should also have the profitability of an industrial enterprise. It is high time that we draw lessons from the cumulative experience of several failed MSW treatment plants which were constructed during last 3 decades across the country (A. Compost: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Vijayawada, Thane, Bhopal, Gwalior, Shimla, Shillong, Mysore, Trivendrum, ..….; B. Biomethanation: Lucknow, Chennai, Vijayawada ; C. Mass-burn: Timarpur @ Delhi ; D. RDF: Baroda, Devnar @ Mumbai, Vijayawada, etc…and every plant had its own story and a distinct villain – for Vijayawada, please see my previous post on this blog) that they can not generate positive revenues (either under ULB or private operator control) by selling either compost or refuse derived fuel or electricity. There are large number of risk factors involved at every stage of the supply chain and processing operation which can be summarized by the Murphy’s Law which states that – if any thing that can go wrong will go wrong… any time. In terms of one of the fundamental laws of science the situation is characterized by the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which states that - for a high disorder (entropy) system, the energy input required to bring desired level of order is commensurately high and therefore the input cost will be much higher than the value of the processed outputs. It is in recognition of these tenets that world over all the MSW treatment plant operators are given ‘gate fee’ in proportion to the ‘accepts’ (all mixed waste received at the plant) which typically varies from USD 60-200/Metric Tonne. Even in China which has gone ahead in a major way in construction of mass-burn facilities, the gate fee is as high as USD 40/Metric Tonne. Gate fee is the main revenue stream in the overall business model of MSW treatment plants and not the proceeds from sale of compost or electricity. Unfortunately in India the treatment plant operators are not being offered such financial support and instead only a ‘tipping fee’ corresponding to the ‘rejects’ (typically arbitrarily fixed at 20-30% of ‘accepts’ @ USD 5-15/Metric Tonne) is offered only to the landfill operators. It is argued that ULBs can not afford ‘gate fee’ at all. In that case it must be recognized that ULBs then do not qualify for creating an asset which in all likelihood is going to become a ‘non-performing asset’ very soon. In spite of lot of experience of the failed plants, unfortunately we do not seem to find the necessary corrections being incorporated in the policy.

In the entire chain of operations, and from the point of view of a private service provider it’s only the transport component which has the potential to generate positive revenue. This component gets paid according to the tonnage and haulage distance which are easy to measure. The flip side is that the transporter is not interested in segregation and would rather mix construction debris, drain silt, road sweeps as well. It is not surprising that there are more private players bidding for that segment than the treatment and disposal end. In several smaller ULBs one finds even municipal councilors vying for these lucrative contracts under pseudonyms.

Let us also not be under the illusion that NGOs can deliver services for collection, treatment and carry out awareness without charging appropriate fees. In order to sustain their operations, offer incrementally higher level of service and ensure occupation health and safety of their workers, they need to carry out their operations as efficient private operators – involving technical expertise, equipment, manpower, operating capital, safeguards, etc. In return for their services, the municipality and the polluters at large must be prepared to pay appropriate fees. It is not surprising to find several well intentioned initiatives getting into difficulties for a variety of reasons.

Lastly, it must be recognized that segregation at source is a utopian preposition especially in a society which is characterized by high degree of ‘disorder’. It has been 9 years since the MSW Rules were brought into force and we do not have any municipality out of 5000 odd across the country which can claim to have achieved success on this front, notwithstanding short-lived isolated instances. In the higher and the middle income group households, while the family members are least concerned, it’s the maid servant who generates and handles the waste – wet, dry, green, brown, etc... The maid servant has several handicaps – lack of education, awareness and concern and she is quite mobile – here today gone tomorrow. On this front it would be surprising to find more than 1% within the sector community itself who preach source segregation and are practicing this at their homes ! Then what to talk of the low income section of the society and the millions living in unauthorized colonies and squatter slums – its not on their radar at all.

Conclusion: Under the excuse of paucity of land for sanitary landfill we are observing cancerous growth of open dumps across the urban landscape of India and creating biological minefields for the society at large. Our rules and policies need to be brought in synch with the reality and our efforts and resources need to be deployed more objectively in proven solutions such as sanitary landfills.

Asit Nema

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