The Bellahalli quarry landfill — where a large portion of Bengaluru’s waste is dumped, caught fire around 6:30 pm on Tuesday. The incident occurred in the wake of a recent High Court observation, where a division bench cautioned the BBMP that incidents of fire in garbage dumping landfills in the city could result in a disaster similar to that of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
The HC had ordered the BBMP to make sure that the seven solid waste processing plants in the city are completely functional.
Has waste management in the city reached an impasse?
Justice B S Patil and Justice B V Nagarathna had also warned at the hearing that in case the quarry landfills caught fire, thousands of people could die if the gas from the fire remained uncontrolled. Apart from toxic gas emissions, the quarry has also been the cause of multiple disasters in the past. A year ago, a rag-picker called Mithun died at the landfill after being buried alive under a pile of garbage dumped by a BBMP vehicle. There have also been reports about insects from the landfill damaging crops in the vicinity.
On the other hand, operating the seven processing plants doesn’t seem feasible either. Residents from areas surrounding these plants have been protesting about stench and fire incidents at the plants.
“These plants are not being fed. They are running below their capacity. A part of the problem is the failure to segregate-at-source. The wet waste needs to be segregated and sent to the processing plants, which is not happening right now. Because segregation isn’t happening, the mixed waste ends up being dumped at the quarries,” says Sandhya Narayanan, a solid waste management expert.
Is citizen action the way ahead?
According to the Segregation Score Card compiled by the BBMP for Swachh Survekshan 2018, five out of the 198 wards in the city have achieved segregation levels of over 80%, including Doddabommasandra (91%), HSR layout (85%) and Kuvempunagar (85%). Sandhya says that most of the top wards have had active citizen movements.
“Nearly all the top ranking wards have Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) and citizen’s groups working together with BBMP officials and conducting door-to-door awareness campaigns to achieve high levels of source segregation,” says Sandhya.
But this doesn’t seem to be enough to ensure the segregated waste is processed properly. According to Sandhya, “This data only reflects what happens at the source level. There is no data regarding what happens to the garbage after it reaches the collection point. But the amount of waste processed at the plants is less than the amount of waste reported to be segregated, which means that some of the segregated waste could also be ending up at the quarries.”
Kathyayini Chamaraj, Executive Trustee of CIVIC and solid waste management activist, says, “Segregation-at-source works only if waste remains in the segregated trucks and is directly taken to the plants. If the waste is put in a compactor at the ward-level collection centre, then it again becomes mixed waste and ends up in the quarry landfills.”
Local processing plants in each ward
According to an earlier HC directive, the BBMP was to create ward-level micro plans to ensure in situ management of garbage, since neither the processing plants, nor the landfills were a viable solution for waste management. But the ward committees have not made much progress.
“A two-part manual was given out by the BBMP to ward committee members, who were supposed to come up with an action plan based on the BBMP micro plan. But so far, there has been very little response from the ward committees,” Sandhya says.
Only 16 wards have identified a location for the local composting plant so far. Actually establishing these plants and ensuring their functioning, however, is a long way ahead, Sandhya says.
In last week’s hearing, the HC had also demanded a list of wards that hadn’t yet identified locations for ward-level waste processing plants as per an earlier directive from the court so that action could be initiated against these wards.
Even Dry Waste Collection Centres (DWCCs), which have been around for a while, are not fully effective, according to Sandhya. “There are 166 DWCCs, but the dry waste doesn’t always reach them. The workers (pourakarmikas who collect waste) are often not paid on time by the contractors and the BBMP. Instead, they’re allowed to manually pick and sell the dry waste,” she says.
While increased supervision and accountability around the entire garbage collection process is needed to achieve better segregation and processing, Kathyayini says that this is not possible without improving the infrastructure.
“According to High Court directives, there should be closed, segregated collection of garbage by door-to-door collection vehicles. The collection vehicles must be closed, and garbage should not be visible. It should also not touch the ground, and must be transferred directly from the collection vehicle to the compactor or processing plant or secondary storage unit,” says Kathyayini.
When asked about the few wards that have achieved high segregation in spite of existing infrastructure, she says, “The collection may be segregated but the vehicles are open. That is against the rules. The pourakarmikas are inhaling the stench everyday. We are recommending best practices and infrastructure from cities within India and abroad in our trainings, but there hasn’t been much response.”
Apart from manually handling the garbage and inhaling the stench, the pourakarmikas also regularly have to deal with delay in payment. According to a recent report, the lack of safety gear, including gloves, has resulted in their fingerprints wearing out, preventing them from recording biometric attendance and collecting their salaries.
Kathyayini says that instead of following the High Court’s orders, the BBMP has been moving away from segregation-based waste management system by signing an MoU with a French firm to establish waste-to-energy (W2E) technology at two of the seven processing plants. Kathyayini said that the BBMP has said that the W2E technology will use biomethanation and not incineration, but W2E will only create more problems. “Waste-to-energy will only create more problems. BBMP should focus on following the directives for closed, segregated garbage collection and processing.”
With landfills posing a disastrous threat, the processing plants not functioning to their optimal levels, ward committees showing reluctance and W2E moving away from segregation, the BBMP doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy to tackle the growing problem of waste management in the city.