On October 1, a day before Gandhi Jayanti, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a big announcement. The flagship and the equally lauded-critiqued Central government programme, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), will now have a sequel. The Prime Minister said that with the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) 2.0, his government aims to make “urban areas garbage-free”.
The PM stressed that in the second phase, “the garbage mounts in cities will be processed and removed completely as part of the SBM-U." He went on to say that at present, “We are processing about 70% of the daily waste; the next step is to take it to a complete 100%.”
The programme will also focus on source segregation of solid waste, utilisation of 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. A substantial outlay of SBM-U 2.0, as per the official release, is tipped to be around ₹1.41 lakh crore.
While admittedly rightly timed, in terms of the needs of Indian cities, the flagship mission aims to signify a step forward in our march toward effectively addressing the challenges of rapidly urbanising India and the emerging climate challenges we are witnessing. But, it is like the problem with most sequels, which are almost always worse than the original.
SBM 2.0 might end up worse than its predecessor. The latest avatar of the mission lacks an on-ground understanding of waste management in its early conceptualisation, builds 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, 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 toward garbage-free cities, might lose the focus on recycling and decentralised handling of waste. While garbage-free cities will remove waste from our sight, there will not be any effective handling of the waste using sustainable means. The below mentioned are reasons why unless redirected, the SBM 2.0 will fail to address the waste management of Indian cities.
First, Indian cities must aim for the right models. Indore, according to the rankings released by the government of India, remains dubiously the cleanest city in the country, consistently. The SBM 2.0 cannot be based on the (in)famous Indore model that scores well for waste collection and transportation but not 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 over 20% 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 of’ system to continue. This will only accelerate under the garb of “garbage-free” cities.
The mission needs to comprehend that with increasing waste generation of 4% a year and most of the waste generated, nearly 60%, being organic with low calorific value, 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 getting collected and recycled.
Third, with lots of money and resources riding, thrust on 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. This is similar to how companies or consultancies operating at scale were at an advantage to usurp smart cities projects and proposals but failed to deliver.
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 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.
Fourth, the Prime Minister mentioned the mahanayaks– the waste pickers (workers) who lead solid waste management in Indian cities- and acknowledged their contribution to our cities, especially during the COVID pandemic. 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% of waste without any state recognition.
The country’s informal sector workers play a crucial role in waste management and are the real ‘green warriors’, but they 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, SBM 2.0 needs to adopt a paradigm that incentivises cities with the 5 R’s (and not 3): refuse, reuse, recycle, recover, and reduce. It must include the most critical ‘R’, Responsibility, that the generator– be it households, markets, or companies– are accountable to deal with their own waste.
Reorienting SBM 2.0 to move toward 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 and 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, a coastal town in Kerala, which achieved 100% segregation using community-led biogas plants and composting; of worker collectives that are cost-effective and sustainable, like Pune; city planning with the spatial allocation of working with waste and protecting livelihoods, like Bengaluru. This alone will ensure that the sequel is thought through and not just rushed.
Aravind Unni is an activist and urban researcher. Tikender Panwar is former deputy mayor of Shimla. Both are members of National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanisation. The views are personal.