From Waste Disposal to Safe Disposal

The solid and waste management sector in India is fast transforming from a neglected sector to a strong, technology-centered sector with a focus on safe disposal and regional landfills.  The change is likely to have a more significant and lasting impact on public health and the environment than any other sectors' development thus far.

With municipal solid waste generation in India rising to over 40 million tons per annum and expected to double in the next 10 years, the solid waste sector is emerging as a priority area for Indian urban authorities.  Efforts were made over the last decade to improve service levels, but limited success was achieved in meeting the standards set under the national regulatory framework (Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000).  The situation had remained particularly grim with respect to treatment and disposal. Uncontrolled dumping of wastes on the outskirts of towns and cities continued to be the norm—leading to serious implications both for public health as well as environmental pollution, especially groundwater contamination.

 Discourse Shifts Opinions

 Sector discourse over the last three years has helped achieve significant shifts among key opinionmakers; these have reflected in policymaking at the national level as well as in the development of state level strategies.  Water and Sanitation Program-South Asia (WSP-SA) has effectively contributed to the shift in the solid waste management (SWM) discourse in India from a strong technology-centered paradigm to policy and institutional issues that underpin poor service outcomes. During 2006, through logical progression, WSP successfully worked at refocusing attention—at the national, state, and local levels—on safe disposal as the key outcome of SWM and getting this incorporated into policies, strategies, and practice.

WSP-SA identified factors that led to seeming inaction on the treatment and disposal front. These included:

  • A weakened appreciation for the underlying goal of SWM—that is, public health and environmental benefits—in the face of rising prominence of secondary goals such as ‘town beautification’, ‘civic pride’, and ‘waste minimization’.
  • The absence of an environmentally and economically viable model for development of a solid waste treatment and disposal facility.

In addition, a host of other institutional factors have hindered the development of sustainable treatment and disposal systems, such as (a) lack of managerial and technical capacity at the local government level; (b) inadequacy of financial resources; (c) non-availability of appropriate land; and (d) fragmented management of the SWM function.


A combination of advocacy as well as strategy-building initiatives were used to overcome a series of perception barriers and assist in developing economically and environmentally viable models for safe disposal.   At the level of advocacy, efforts were made to clarify and reinforce health outcomes as the primary goal of sustainable SWM, and also to establish the close linkages between health outcomes and systems for ensuring safe and sanitary disposal, for instance, sanitary landfills (SLFs).

To support these messages, several studies were initiated and disseminated, for instance, case studies of initiatives in small towns, review of treatment projects implemented in India, study on health impacts of groundwater contamination in Kerala, among others. These advocacy efforts are finding an echo in recent solid waste projects under development in big and small cities such as Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Surat, Asansol and Chandigarh. These projects display a clear shift away from standalone treatment facilities towards integrated treatment and disposal facilities. Landfills are being increasingly seen as an integral component of a SWM system—either in conjunction with treatment facilities or otherwise—for achieving the goal of safe and sanitary disposal. The growing acceptance of SLFs is clear from the fact that while three years ago there where no landfills under development, today over 22 cities have projects for SLFs at different stages of development.

At a strategic level, an alternative approach was developed in the form of regional facilities (based on inter-municipal cooperation), to overcome traditional economic barriers to landfills—that is high costs and non-availability of land. Analyses were undertaken on the economies of scale and land efficiencies gained from a regional approach.  These were presented at various workshops, roundtables, and meetings to make a case for regionalization. This consultative process brought in support from an array of stakeholders, ranging from government agencies and policymaking bodies to international nongovernmental organizations such as Green Peace.  Interactions with international experts and study tours exposure was provided to people working with such models being used in different parts of the world.  As a result, the regional approach is getting mainstreamed into national policymaking and state-level sector strategies.

The fact that this approach is being internalized is evident from some recent developments:

  • It has been incorporated as a model for developing SLFs in the draft version of the revised Municipal Solid Waste Rules.
  • It is part of state sector strategy in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Rajasthan (representing a target population of 75 million).
  • It is being considered for adoption by state governments of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh (representing a target population of over 60 million).

Efforts are on to incorporate further changes in national regulation to rationalize clauses relating to disposal of mixed waste.   Concrete steps taken by various agencies are an encouraging indication of the changes to come.  As advocacy and strategic efforts continue, more and more people are beginning to realize the value of public health outcomes that flow from waste management.  

Contact Name: 
Vandana Bhatnagar
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