While working for a world bank supported project, one of my prime responsibilities was to deliver training programs for rural communities on environmental awareness, focusing majorly on the issues of water conservation and waste management. The participants of the program were mostly farmers, daily wage labourers, village market shopkeepers and general public. Although they listened to the lecture very patiently and agreed to almost all the points that I used to tell them, one of the biggest questions I used to face at the end of every program was “what should we do to our waste other than dumping it on some isolated land or ultimately burning it?”
Prima facie the question may look easy but being aware of the pathetic condition of rural waste management infrastructure, it was very difficult for me to answer. Most of the times people, ignorant of the consequences, are left with no option but to burn the waste or dump it near local water bodies or barren lands.
Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has been a great success in terms of creating environmental awareness. Studies have shown that SBM has changed the perception of people towards the value of environment, especially the younger generation has been motivated to a greater extent to become the torchbearers of a Clean, Green and Healthy India. But, the institutional and infrastructural facilities for waste management are still miserable in rural areas. This article makes an assessment of the waste management infrastructure in rural India, its access to the rural communities and finds answer to the question “whether these facilities are sufficient enough to fulfil the demands of the ever-increasing waste in rural areas”.
Growing up in a rural community has been an opportunity to observe the difference between the quality and quantity of the waste that was generated two decades ago and the waste that is generated now. The type of waste has changed broadly from agricultural and domestic to plastic and polythene wastes and the quantity of the waste has increased many folds, leading to a surge in heaps of waste in rural areas. Rise is the FMCG sector and its intrusion in the local markets is one reason for the increased consumerism and in absence of waste dumping sites and waste collection bins, stockpile of sachets, wrappers, polythene bags can be seen all around. Easily available and durable plastic bottles, glasses, and plates have replaced traditional and biodegradable “patravali” also called “pattal”. Local water bodies and drains of village markets are filled with these plastic wastes.
The amount of waste generated by a community is an indicator of the economic prosperity and increased consumerism of the people, but in the course of economic prosperity we tend to become oblivious to the threats posed by the accumulation of waste all around us. During my stay in the rural and sub-urban areas, I observed that there has been a phenomenal change in the type of eatables available in rural markets. Specifically in Bihar, a few years ago, village markets were selling jhaal-muri, pakora, chana-chiura, and various other freshly prepared and unpacked food items that were mainly served in paper plates or in pattal which are easily bio-degradable in nature. Now they have been replaced by boiled/fried eggs, chow mein, veg rolls, egg rolls, etc., which are served in disposable plastic plates. This change in the marketed products is because of less efforts required, easy to serve, easily available raw material and most importantly, increased profit.
Domestic waste in villages, which used to be mostly agricultural or kitchen waste was never considered as waste, rather as a resource. Agri-waste and food leftovers were used to feed livestock and as fuel for cooking food etc. In the recent times the quality and quantity of the waste has changed drastically. Diapers and sanitary pads are the new entrants in this segment, which along with plastic carry bags, packaging materials including biodegradable kitchen waste are dumped in the backyards without any segregation of waste.
This change in the pattern of product-use and waste generation has not been addressed at the pace it was needed to. Infrastructure facilities seem to be insufficient and inefficient to tackle the situation and the Panchayati raj system has collectively failed to fulfil the needs and demands of the changing rural communities.
SBM (Gramin) sets well-defined roles for Gram Panchayats to act for management of rural waste. Provision of waste collection and segregation has been enshrined in the document along with the appointment of sanitation workers and sanitation supervisors, but alas, nothing has changed in almost all parts of the nation except in a few. Gram Panchayat being the immediate administrative body of the village must develop its capacity to address the problem of rising waste in rural areas.