Piling Up: Urgent need to tackle mounting waste across Indian cities

Urgent need to tackle mounting waste across Indian cities

Today, a total of 143,558 metric tonnes per day of municipal solid waste is generated in India, of which only 24.8 per cent is scientifically processed. The remaining is either dumped in sanitary landfills or is crudely littered. This inefficiency in handling waste stems mainly from the inability of most cities to carry out proper segregation, transportation and storage of waste. Moreover, state governments lack expertise in using modern methods of waste treatment and also do not have the required resources for its execution. In most cities, collection services are not extended to unauthorised or remote settlements due to their inaccessibility or lack of capacity of inhabitants to pay for these services.

To address this ever-worsening issue, the central government took several measures recently such as the reduction of the goods and services tax (GST) levied on waste-to-energy (WtE) plant equipment, the introduction of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the Smart Cities Mission, as well as the recently announced New Tariff Policy in the power sector. These measures have helped improve the situation to  some extent. According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), 24.22 MW of power is currently being generated from waste and an additional 172 MW is being generated as off-grid captive energy. Further, as of April 2018, there is about 675 MW of biomass-based (non-bagasse) and 519 MW of bagasse-based cogeneration capacity.

Government initiatives

For the longest time, the waste sector has been deprived of government support in terms of regulatory clarity and policy formulation. Against this backdrop, the central government has recently taken several policy initiatives for improving the municipal solid waste management (SWM) scenario in the country. These noteworthy measures have been taken by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the Ministry of Power and the MNRE to give an impetus to the segment.

  • SWM Rules, 2016: One of the notable steps taken was the introduction of SWM Rules in 2016. These rules were initially put in place in 2000 and have been superseded by these revised norms. The new norms prescribe segregation and channelisation of recyclable waste for reuse and recovery, biodegradable waste for composting, vermi composting and biomethanation, and combustible waste for refuse-derived fuel and energy recovery. It further permits only non-usable, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, non-combustible and non-reactive inert waste to be transferred to sanitary landfills. The new rules have created the framework for waste management urban local bodies (ULBs) to adhere to.
  • New Tariff Policy: In another important development, the recently introduced New Tariff Policy has mandated that power discoms buy all the electricity generated by WtE plants in a state. This has done away with developer concerns regarding the lack of power offtake from their plants by discoms, which have several cheaper options such as from coal- and gas-based power to solar and wind power. Moreover, remunerative tariffs set by the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) have helped increase investor interest in this segment. The CERC has set a tariff of Rs 7.90 per kWh for electricity sold by WtE plants, compared to about Rs 2.50 per kWh applicable for many thermal power plants.
  • Exemption from competitive bidding: The MNRE has also made an exception for WtE projects in its recently released guidelines for competitive bidding-based award of renewable energy projects. WtE projects have been kept outside the purview of these norms, given that each WtE project is unique in terms of its scope, timeline, waste characterisation, technology, etc. Hence, one tariff cannot suit all projects. These projects are yet to prove their commercial viability and the technology is yet to mature. Thus, keeping them out of the competitive bidding regime prescribed for the other renewable energy sources is a step in the right direction.
  • More funds allocated for SWM: Greater attention to the waste management sector was also given in the deliberations of the Finance Commission, as the Twelfth Finance Commission directed that 50 per cent of the $167 million annual grant-in-aid for ULBs be allocated for the development of SWM projects through public-private partnerships. The provision of funds for the SWM segment has been increased by successive finance commissions. The Twelfth Finance Commission provided $416.7 million, while the Thirteenth Finance Commission has provided $1,550 million. Apart from this, relief in income tax has been provided for waste management agencies and the issue of tax-free municipal bonds has been permitted by the government.
  • GST relief: The recently notified GST rates have also brought cheer to the WtE segment. While GST is levied at 5 per cent for key equipment for WtE projects, services provided for waste management are exempt from the tax. These initiatives augur well for the development of WtE projects in the country.
  • Swachh Bharat Mission: Access to improved sanitation is at the top of the government’s policy agenda and to this end, the flagship Swachh Bharat Mission was launched on October 2, 2014. Under the mission, municipal SWM is an important admissible component comprising primary waste collection, secondary storage, transportation, processing and final disposal in engineered landfills. According to the Clean India dashboard set up under the mission, of 82,607 wards, 51,734 now have 100 per cent door-to-door waste collection, up from 33,278 in November 2015.
  • Swachh Survekshan initiative: This initiative is a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission and has triggered mass awareness with respect to the SWM. Smart cities such as Jabalpur have already deployed large-scale WtE projects to process municipal solid waste. Indore retained its number 1 rank in the Swachh Survekshan survey 2018 by maintaining a high level of cleanliness in the city.
  • Smart Cities Mission: The ambitious mission has paved the way for SWM projects that are aimed at enhancing sanitation and hygiene. For instance, 11.5 MW of WtE plants were commissioned in Jabalpur under the mission. Raipur Smart City Limited will be introducing a smart fully underground waste collection bin system to optimise waste collection in the city. Further, many other cities have invited bids for SWM projects under the mission.
  • NITI Aayog recommendations: Besides government initiatives, think tank NITI Aayog has also made recommendations in its three-year agenda (2017-18 to 2019-20) for efficient solid waste disposal. The suggestions include a two-fold solution – the installation of WtE incinerators for larger municipalities and the composting method of waste disposal for semi-urban areas and small towns.


Despite ongoing initiatives, there are a number of challenges plaguing the development of waste management projects. Not surprisingly, most of these relate to funding constraints, and lack of sufficient land and technology prowess.

One of the greatest hurdles to effective treatment of waste is the lack of proper waste disposal methods. ULBs spend anywhere between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 per tonne on waste management. Of this, 60-70 per cent is spent on waste collection (funds given to rag- pickers) and the remaining on transporting the collected waste to landfill sites. As a result, almost nothing is being spent on treatment and disposal.

Setting aside urban spaces for utilising them as landfill sites is another formidable issue. With increasing urbanisation, the lack of adequate space for dumping of waste has resulted in littering on streets. This has resulted in externalities such as health hazards.

In addition, despite the introduction of many innovative WtE technologies like pyrolysis and plasma gasification technology for converting waste to energy, their uptake has been slow. It has been seen that ULBs lack expertise as their staff and engineers do not have the requisite training and knowledge. Moreover, these techniques are expensive as compared to conventional methods of incineration or combustion, which make them unattractive.

The way forward

Though the initiatives taken by the government are laudable, policy and regulatory gaps still persist. The policy framework does not have the necessary clauses for financial penalties for non-compliance of the rules by a ULB. NITI Aayog has suggested exploring the possibility of setting up a central authority – the Waste to Energy Corporation of India (WECI) – for fast-tracking the setting up of WtE plants across smart cities. More such measures are needed for achieving the sustainable SWM goal. Moreover, expertise to at least make the right technology choices, if not develop new technology, is also the need of the hour.