Keeping cities clean is essential for keeping their residents healthy. Our health depends not just on personal hygiene and nutrition, but critically also on how clean we keep our cities and their surroundings. The proliferation of dengue and chikungunya are intimately linked to the deteriorating state of public health conditions in our cities.
The good news is that waste management to keep cities clean is now getting attention through Swachh Bharat Mission. However, much of the attention begins and stops with the brooms and the dustbins, extending at most to the collection and transportation of the mixed waste to some distant or not so distant place, preferably out of sight.
The challenge of processing and treating the different streams of solid waste, and safe disposal of the residuals in scientific landfills, has received much less attention in municipal solid waste management than is warranted from a health perspective. If we do not rise to the occasion to manage the waste that we generate and fail to create clean and healthy cities, we will face many more man-made disasters such as we have seen in recent months in Deonar, Bellandur, and Ghazipur.
One of the problems is that instead of focusing on waste management for health, we have got sidetracked into “waste for energy”. In the process, we are opting for financially and environmentally expensive solutions such as incineration plants which are highly capital-intensive. While the National Green Tribunal (NGT) does not allow incineration of mixed waste, nor of any compostables or recyclables, enforcement is a challenge, and the danger to health from toxic emissions looms large.