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The Devastating Waste Management Problems That Plague India

India is now overflowing with trash and pollution thanks to decades of improper waste management.

India has the second-largest population in the world by country, yet it also has one of the worst waste management structures in the world.

For a good deal of India's modern history, waste management principles have been an afterthought and the country's poorer population has suffered greatly because of it.

Too much of the country's sewage flows directly into the rivers, which creates a serious health hazard, particularly in rural areas, where people often use the rivers for washing. On top of this, a lack of enforcement of standards for industrial waste management leads to additional problems. 

While these problems have historically been quite bad, India's government is starting to take the country's waste management problems much more seriously. In this article, we'll take a look at some different aspects of India's waste management problems, as well as look at how they are being handled. 

The solid waste problem

India's rapid population growth is centered in dense urban areas, which creates a number of issues regarding the management of solid waste disposal. 

Trash management in urban areas has traditionally been handled by individuals and property owners, or through a collective bin system, with small firms often used to remove the waste. This is then transported to a low-lying landfill system with some intermediate processing of municipal solid waste.

The open dumping and overflowing landfills are creating serious pollution and health hazards. Both surface and groundwater are affected by this.

According to a study by scientists at the School of Environmental Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University, high levels of nickel, zinc, arsenic, lead, chromium, and other metals are part of the solid waste at landfills in many metro cities, especially in Delhi. These dangerous chemicals leach into the groundwater, causing illnesses both in the city and in villages downstream. 

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While many modern cities were built on foundations of solid waste management principles, much of India's urbanization occurred without planning or regulatory oversight. This, combined with very low levels of recycling, has meant that massive cities like Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), with a population of 8.4 million, are left drowning in their own waste. 

Most densely-populated urban cities across Europe and the United States have a trash management infrastructure, whether that be door-to-door trash pickup or trash dropoff locations. Cities across India tend to lack this structure, and where they do have regular trash pickups, the workers who haul the trash away often go on strike to protest low wages and unfair working conditions. It's a perfect storm. As a result, trash in India chokes its rivers, streets, and virtually all aspects of its ecosystem.

Bangaluru, known as the "Garden City", is often considered to be the tech hub of India. It now finds itself with vast amounts of garbage scattered throughout. 

cows eating trash
Cows eating trash in Jaipur, India, Source: Marcin Bialek/Wikimedia Commons

As India has become a more economically prosperous country, it's citizens began producing more and more trash, but few updates were made to the trash management infrastructure as the cities expanded.

The president of the National Solid Waste Association in India had this to say about Bangaluru specifically: "Bangaluru used to be India’s cleanest city. Now, it is the filthiest.”

Focusing in on Bangaluru as a case study of India's waste issues as a whole, the problem began back in the 1980s when tech companies started settling here. The massive growth that often comes with tech brought large numbers of people into the city, mostly to work in well-manicured, self-contained tech campuses. 

The problem was that the rubbish infrastructure had not expanded to accommodate the increase in both people and businesses. Effectively, the tech campuses had no place to send their trash. This meant that the trash was often trucked away and dumped on land outside the city, whose owners were paid to take it.

It wasn't until 2000 that the city government started a door-to-door trash collection program, but this mainly handled oversight of the pickup. The areas where the trash was dumped were still not being properly managed. While the trash-pickup system was improving, there wasn't much scientific thought being given to what was happening to the trash after it left the city, or to reducing the amount of trash through recycling efforts. This has meant a great deal of groundwater pollution for the city and its surrounding urban areas. 

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The city today is looking for new places to safely dump roughly 4,000 US tons (3,628 kg) of trash it produces each and every day, without causing further harm to the environment. Solving these issues will not be a quick fix and few expect it to be handled rapidly and efficiently.

There's another problem, too - lack of proper waste management education in the general public. 

pigs scavenging through trash
Pigs scavenging through a local trash dumping area in India, Source: Michael Cannon/Flickr

Because the culture of India has historically treated waste as, "out of sight out of mind", convincing significant portions of more than 8 million people in the city to not just dump trash anywhere they can is a challenging task. 

In order to make a change, it won't just take a comprehensive waste management system to be put in place in Bangaluru, and in India as a whole, it will also take community change and a major shift in opinion. 

The wastewater problem

I've done a decent bit of talking about the solid waste problem that plagues India, but I'd argue that improper wastewater management might be an even larger issue. 

As recently as 2014, it was estimated that as many as 60% of Indian households didn't have access to a toilet. People without toilets defecated in the open, often in shallow holes or troughs, from where the waste flowed into nearby rivers and streams.

Beginning that year, the government launched a major latrine-building initiative aimed at giving everyone access to an indoor toilet within five years. On the completion of the project, in 2019, the government claimed to have constructed 110 million toilets. 

However, critics say the government focused too much on building toilets and not enough on making sure people actually used them. On top of this, they claim the government didn't ensure the new toilets were properly maintained, or that the sewage was properly disposed of. Others suggest that roughly 10% of the population still defecate outdoors.

Studies found that people defecate in the open largely due to a lack of adequate toilets and water facilities, but also because of a lack of awareness about proper sanitation and hygiene. In fact, attitudes towards defecation pose a significant challenge, as many people in rural areas consider defecating in an open space to be cleaner than having a toilet inside their home. One survey, taken in 2018, found that 44% of people in rural areas were still defecating outdoors.

woman getting water from polluted river
A woman getting water from a polluted river, Source: Wikimedia/Thyme28

And this contributes to the estimated 350,000 Indian children who die annually from waste-borne diseases. 

All this said, India's largest cities do have proper sewage systems, but while the systems in large urban areas generally work, sewage systems in some rural areas are subject to a lot of down-time. India's Central Pollution Board estimates that fewer than half of the sewer systems in India work effectively the majority of the time. And having a sewer system is only half the battle.

Treating the wastewater before it flows into rivers is the final step, something that is often missed out on in the country as a whole. 

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Several organizations in India have stepped in to further the wastewater handling practices in urban areas. The Consortium for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment System Dissemination Society (CDD) focuses on splitting the wastewater management problem into small subregions, rather than trying to solve an entire city's issues all at once.

The systems they have put in place advocate for the development of smaller-scale wastewater treatment facilities that also focus in on reusing the treated greywater. 

The CDD has registered 150 clients across India, which is progress, but nowhere near what's needed to clean up the country's water system as a whole. 

Wastewater treatment facilities are becoming more and more common across India, as the country's waste problem has reached a tipping point in many areas. Many regions now find themselves with heavily polluted water, thanks to the lack of modern waste management practices. 

For many in India, though, there is a renewed drive to focus on the future and work towards solving this problem. Large scale government investments are being planned for wastewater facilities and the country is slowly coming around to dealing with the waste that is being created. 

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However, it is, unfortunately, going to be a long, slow road to sustainability for much of India. Much of the push for waste management is coming from decentralized organizations, meaning that change is really only being made in small pockets of India overall.

In order to make rapid, actionable change, the country as a whole hopefully will announce sweeping investments in wastewater and waste management in the coming years.

Waste management is one of the unglamorous elements of city management. It is not often noticed if the city is well-run, but it's very difficult to miss if a city is poorly managed. 

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