October 10, 2021

SBM 2.0, Sequel of Failure of 1.0

Tikender Singh Panwar

ON October 1st – a day before the Gandhi Jayanti – the prime minister made a big announcement. The flagship and the equally lauded - critiqued central government programme: Swachh Bharat Mission will now have a sequel. The prime minister said that with the Swachh Bharat 2.0 Mission, his government aims to make the “urban areas garbage-free”.

He stressed that in the second phase - “the garbage mounts in cities will be processed and removed completely as part of the SBM-U”. SBM 2.0 will also focus on source segregation of solid waste, utilising the principles of 3R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), scientific processing of all types of municipal solid waste and remediation of legacy dumpsites for effective solid waste management. The outlay of SBM-U 2.0 as per the official release is tipped to be around ₹1.41 lakh crore.

Let us see what happened with SBM 1.0. The municipal waste generation in India is nearly 1,47,613 tonnes per day(330 million tonnes  MSW a year). Only 60- 65 per cent is collected and just over 22 per cent is processed. Where is the rest going? Obviously being dumped in the landfills and open spaces. No wonder that the supreme court had to comment on one of the sites saying that soon this site will cross the height of Qutub Minar in Delhi.

Likewise, 67.3 per cent do not have a piped sewage discharge system. The Delhi canals which used to provide clean water decades ago are now sewage nullahs. This is the story of most of the cities. Nearly 163 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 210 million lack access to basic sanitation in the country.

The SBM 1.0 was supposed to address these issues but instead further accentuated the problem with the push for more informalisation in the sanitation sector. All that it did was to use Mahatma Gandhi as a mascot of SBM and turn him into a senior sanitary inspector!

And now the SBM 2.0 once again lacks an on-ground understanding of waste management in its early conceptualisation, build castles on the failures of the SBM 1.0 and is reliant on technology – privatised ‘models’ for solving complicated urban governance issues.

Moreover, if smart cities are any cue to go by, the SBM 2.0 will be another scheme that aims for speed and scale but will fail to deliver and eventually come to a grinding halt. The SBM 2.0, with its push towards garbage-free cities, might lose the focus on recycling and decentralised handling of waste. While garbage-free cities will remove waste from our sight but will not effectively handle the waste using sustainable means.

First, Indian cities must aim for the right models. Indore, according to the rankings released by the government of India, remains very dubiously the cleanest city in the country, consistently.  The SBM2.0 cannot be based on the (in)famous Indore model that scores well for waste collection and transportation but not the segregation and recycling of waste. Indore is not an aberration; most of the top cities featured in the Swachh Sarvekshan rankings share a similar story- ensuring that the waste is picked up and employing an army of trucks and machines for processing. Keeping waste as garbage- what is out of sight, is true, out of mind.

Second, it is only decentralisation that will work and not (re)centralisation of the process. Effective waste management is expensive, often comprising 20–30 per cent of municipal budgets, and that is usually invested in heavy vehicles for transportation and centralisation collection, processing, and management practices. All of which favours the transportation contract lobbies that would want this ‘lift and dispose’ system to continue. This will only accelerate under the garb of “garbage-free” cities.

The mission here needs to comprehend that with the increasing waste generation of four per cent a year and most of the waste generated - nearly 60 per cent is organic with low calorific value – decentralised households and the policy must prioritise community waste practices. Therefore, rather than being garbage-free, we should aim for zero waste communities where all organic waste is composted with only the inorganic is collected and recycled.

Third, the thrust for the technology-centric waste management needs to be handled cautiously. There is a threat of using outdated and obsolete waste management practices, which are now not employable in the global north but are looking for markets in the developing contexts. For example, grappling with legacy waste landfills in Indian cities, solid waste incineration is often presented as a quick-fix solution to reduce rapidly growing waste volumes while producing energy. However, incineration is among the worst approaches cities can take to achieve both waste reduction and energy goals. It is expensive, inefficient, and creates environmental risks. The residents of south Delhi in areas around Sukhdev Vihar, Ishwar Nagar, New Friends Colony, Jasola, Sarita Vihar and Haji Colony stand as testimony to the waste-to-energy (WtE) plant in Okhla. There is a need to steer clear of such expensive and unscientific practices for SBM 2.0. Low calorific value waste is not a good source for energy generation.

Fourth, the prime minister mentioned the mahanayaks – the waste picker (workers) who lead the solid waste management in the Indian cities. Disappointingly, he failed to talk about the need for mandatory inclusion, skilling, and taking into the formal fold the waste pickers who manage to recycle around 20 per cent of waste without any state recognition. According to a report, more than 60 per cent of the workers engaged in waste management have moved from the formal to the informal sector in the last decade.

The informal sector workers operate without protective equipment such as gloves, masks, and other essentials that offer dignity and safety. Major cities' existing models do not promote the inclusion of waste workers, instead, incentivise mechanisation. When adequately supported and organised, informal recycling can create employment, improve local practices, reduce poverty, and substantially reduce municipal spending.

Fifth, rather than focusing on tech-led solid waste management practices, the SBM 2.0 needs to focus on getting the basics right and adopt a paradigm that incentivised cities with the 5 R’s (and not 3): refuse, reuse, recycle, recover, and reduce. And not forgetting to address the most critical ‘R’ – Responsibility, that the generator –markets, or companies – are accountable and owe a responsibility.

Reorienting the SBM 2.0 to move towards zero waste communities and not garbage-free cities must be the call. The mantra of speed and scale can work if communities and people are involved, and the effort promotes a decentralised – localised approach to waste management. We need to emulate principles of 5 R’s, decentralised segregation, recycling, and compositing with mandatory inclusion of workers. Maybe we need to talk about alternate models like Alappuzha with 100 per cent segregation with community-led biogas plants and composting; of worker collectives that are cost-effective and sustainable, like Pune and so on. This alone will ensure that the sequel is thought through and not just rushed.