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Cleaning India, managing waste



(Mary Douglass, 1970)

Solid waste management is a global issue. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development allows for a significant role to gender in human settlements in addressing questions of circular economy. At the same time, landfill sites have become a major source of contamination, affecting water and the air in Indian cities due to increased suspension of particulates, emanating from these sites. Instigating control and management of landfills, and biodegradable waste is critical for maintaining sustainability. India would do well to have an aim at phasing out landfilling by 2025 for recyclable waste.

In India, the traditional concept of waste and its management at the household level has always been considered someone else’s responsibility while the notification and rules of the government of India and the directive of the Supreme Court, instructs that all individuals/ families/ business houses/ Institutions/ organisations, are obliged to segregate waste into organic and inorganic forms before disposal. This relates to the global 3-R strategy of Reduce, Recycle and Reuse.

In reality, only 2-R, i.e. Recycling and Reuse to a limited sense exists in India. Recycling is done for securing some form of limited pecuniary benefits for the household and informal economy. Reuse therefore is a highly individualistic and selective enterprise, based on personal initiative. What we observe is that with globalisation, Reduction as a concept never emerged as a priority. With liberalisation and opening up of the economy, this concept has lost its vitality in the Indian waste management policy sector.

While the rest of the world has moved into the Reduction phase to counter the anthropogenic impact of climate change, emerging economies and, in particular BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), have embarked on an aggressive agenda of expanding consumption-oriented economic growth. Traditional societies with established values of frugality, restraint and sustainability have been transformed into ostentatious display of hedonistic consumerism.

The demographic dividend no doubt played its part in this transition. In fact, the notion of Reduction has disappeared from the vocabulary of our institutions and indeed from our policy mandarins. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has become the order of the day. In reality, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan can only become sustainable if we curb rampant and mindless consumption and when Reduction becomes a national ethos.

Imagination of Waste as a concept and an idea remain deeply imbricated with our identity as Indians. Despite our fastidiousness towards personal hygiene, we have practically little sense of civic-public hygiene. Indeed Gandhi’s advice to students was:


(Harijan, 8 February, 1935)

Taking responsibility for one’s own domestic waste disposal will enable the success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. There is a lack of civic sense and appreciation for public spaces. The waste outside as personified by soil, food and water has differential functional implications for an Indian. For instance, we see the ritual use of “beshyadwara-mrittika” in religious ceremonies, which has a distinct meaning than carrying on wearing the same clothes after attending a funeral ceremony. Dirt as a distinct cultural construction continues to pervade sensibilities in our subcontinent, from Nepal to India and from Pakistan to Bangladesh.

There is no rightly allotted place for waste inside an Indian home. Invariably, it must be thrown out. Thus, even to this day, traditional rural households continue to have bathrooms outside the house. Indeed, such a pervasive view of dirt continues and presents enormous challenges for the government’s ambitious Swachh Bharat campaign, despite endorsement by Bollywood actors and sports personalities. Apart from Sadhguru, Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, very few Indian religious leaders have come out in support of the campaign.

ReUse and Recycling present a significant cultural, theological and political challenge in India. Reduction of waste generation and decentralised waste management, with a sense of ownership, is limited. At the same time, bulk disposal of waste continues to exhaust landfills, raising public health risks. The case in point is Ghazipur garbage dump (65 metres tall which is just 8 metres less than Qutub Minar). With ever expanding generation of waste, a centralised form of waste management in Indian cities is no longer viable as a sustainable option.

Now, more than ever, there is a need for a policy imperative to shift from a centralised landfill model to a decentralised and reduction-recycling model of waste management.

Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views. This column appears in the print edition of The CSR Journal. To grab a copy, click here.

Dr. M. Satish Kumar is a leading international expert on colonial and postcolonial studies focused on South Asia. He has been an active advisor on subjects such as international development and education to the Department for International Development, Northern Irish Assembly, Indian Government, Royal Irish Academy, Belfast City Council and Habitat for Humanity amongst others.