Drowning in a Sea of Garbage
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — Summer is always a tough season around here. The South Indian sun is harsh; days and nights feel baked, like an oven. Wells run dry, electricity is sporadic. We suffer through hours of load-shedding.
This year has brought a new hardship: the stink of burning garbage. I first smelled it about a month ago, a vague, almost indistinct smell on a Sunday morning, like something rotten in the air. A few days later my wife woke me in the middle of the night and said something was burning. This time the stench was unmistakable, overwhelming — a metallic taste in my mouth, a chemical roughness along the back of my constricted throat.
The smell is coming from a landfill a few kilometers south of my home, outside a village called Karuvadikuppam. The landfill is Pondicherry’s main waste dump, a five-hectare, or 12-acre, sea of plastic bags, discarded clothes, batteries, shoes, tires and rotting food that putrefies in the sun, emitting methane and a host of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
The dump has existed for more than a decade. It had never bothered me before. But now, with Pondicherry growing, consuming more, discarding more, the landfill has swollen. Every day, tractors deposit around 350 tons of waste. Over the years, the dump has accumulated an estimated 150,000 tons of garbage. The fires, some the result of spontaneous combustion, some lit by municipal workers to make room for more waste, have gotten bigger. The smoke, the dioxins, travel farther — all the way to my bedroom.
As it is in Pondicherry, so it is across the nation. India is drowning in garbage. The cities alone generate more than 100 million tons of solid waste a year. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has said that if there were a Nobel Prize for filth, India would win it. It’s a damning indictment, but it rings true.
No vacant piece of land is safe, no scenic picnic spot immune. Forests are despoiled with water bottles and paper plates, rivers and canals choked with plastic bags. Smoldering landfills of the kind by my house are ubiquitous — outside (and even inside) cities, along beaches, by the side of highways, on farms and fields that have turned barren from chemicals in the waste.
In part, the country’s garbage crisis is a tale of rising consumption. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Indian municipal waste is expected to increase 130 percent between 2001 and 2030, primarily due to urbanization and new prosperity. The type of waste generated is changing, too — an increase in plastics, e-waste and other hazardous and nonbiodegradable materials will only exacerbate the crisis.
Equally, though, the waste problem points to a stunning failure of governance. In 2000, the nation’s Supreme Court directed all Indian cities to implement a comprehensive waste-management program that would include household collection of segregated waste, recycling and composting. These directions are ignored with impunity. No major city runs a comprehensive program of the kind envisioned by the Supreme Court. Indeed, the O.E.C.D. estimates that up to 40 percent of municipal waste in the country remains simply uncollected.
Even medical waste, theoretically controlled by stringent rules that require hospitals to operate incinerators, is routinely dumped with regular municipal garbage. A recent study found that about half the country’s medical waste is improperly disposed of.
Garbage is a complicated problem. Even in the developed world, which started confronting its own crisis decades ago, and where financial and institutional capacity is far more robust, waste disposal remains a contentious subject. A recent debate on the Web site of The New York Times, for example, revealed strong differences of opinion in the United States over the merits of replacing landfills with incinerators, which dispose of garbage by burning it at high temperatures, sometimes converting the resulting heat to energy.
A few businesses and politicians have recently shown interest in using incinerators to address India’s waste problems. Many citizen groups and experts are skeptical. Almitra Patel, an activist who has been involved in shaping Indian solid waste policy for 16 years, told me that in her opinion incinerators were “absolutely out of the question” for Indian waste. “Incinerators and waste-to-energy schemes have become a huge scam,” she said, adding that inefficient and corrupt municipal authorities simply do not have the capacity to operate them under the strict conditions required to ensure they do not add to environmental pollution.
Instead, Ms. Patel and others advocate a solution known as biomining, a process by which organic wastes in unsegregated garbage are converted to compost, and which in many ways is well-suited to the Indian condition.
It’s cheap, more efficient in hot climates, and generally effective given the high organic content of Indian waste.
But biomining has its limitations, too, notably that it deals only with organic garbage, leaving behind nondegradable substances like glass and plastic. In Pondicherry, a group of citizens has been trying to convince the government to biomine the Karuvadikuppam dump. I have been part of those efforts. But as I’ve visited the dump this summer and as I’ve met with government officials — some recalcitrant, some venal, some just uninterested — I’ve come to realize that what we’re trying to do is only a first, if very necessary, step.
A real solution requires a far more ambitious effort that would change the way government works, increase citizen awareness and instill a sense of civic consciousness in a population that maintains rituals of hygiene at home but litters public spaces and neighbors’ yards without compunction. Most important, solving India’s garbage crisis means interrupting the country’s current trajectory of development — changing the way it consumes, nudging it from the path of more-more-more it has so gleefully borrowed from the West and that, it is now clear, is leading us all to global perdition.
So solving the environmental problem in my backyard requires whole-scale social, political and economic transformation. That’s a daunting proposition. I’ve never seen myself as someone to change the world. But as I’ve smelled the dioxins in my bedroom over the last month, as I’ve felt their sting in my eyes and heard my children’s rasping, phlegmy throats in the morning, I’ve come to believe we have no choice. We’ve built an unsustainable world. Either we change it, or we lose it.