Municipal bodies in Bengal are heavily short of funds, as well as unionised. Hence, cleanliness is not a priority.
Quite like the garbage they are groaning under, an overwhelming majority of Bengal’s urban centers lie heaped at the bottom of a dishonourable pile of cities that have been judged as the dirtiest in the country. The Swachh Survekshan 2018, a survey of 4,203 urban local bodies with a population of over one lakh, conducted between January and March this year, has revealed that of the 50 dirtiest cities in the country, 32 are in West Bengal (see this list).
In fact, all the 47 urban centres in Bengal (Kolkata was not part of the survey) fared dismally, and the best among them - Habra in North 24 Parganas district - was ranked 363 in the list of 471 dirtiest cities of the country. Bhadreshwar in Hooghly district adjoining Kolkata was ranked the lowest, that is, it was found to be the dirtiest city in the country. The survey, which Bengal participated in for the first time this year after petulantly opting out in 2016 and 2017, revealed that the state’s urban centres fared abysmally in waste management and were, literally, overflowing with garbage.
There are a plethora of reasons for Bengal’s urban centres faring so poorly in the survey. The primary reason is that civic bodies in the state don’t prioritise waste management - collection, segregation, recycling and disposal of waste are neglected. According to the (last available) 2016-17 annual report of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB), the state generates 8,600 tonnes of waste every day and only 830 tonnes of that is somewhat scientifically processed. And nearly 1,400 tonnes of waste remains uncollected in the urban centres of the state every day. That means 42,000 tonnes of garbage - equivalent to what 4,666 garbage trucks can carry - are left uncollected in the cities of Bengal every month.
“Waste management has been a completely neglected area for the civic bodies in Bengal. The concept of regular and efficient collection of waste, their segregation and processing and recycling is absent. The state has 21 waste-to-compost plants, and only 10 of them are operational. There is just one scientific landfill at Kamarhati in North 24 Parganas district adjoining Kolkata,” said solid waste management expert Kalyan Sengupta. Even the landfill for Kolkata’s garbage has exhausted its lifespan. Sengupta says that while those running civic bodies are mostly unaware of the need for creating landfills in a scientific manner, there is little space for landfills in a state that is one of the most densely-populated in the country.
Swati Singh Sambyal of the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) says that Bengal needs to put in practice the segregation of waste immediately and focus on lessening the amount of waste it generates. That can come about only through efficient recycling of dry waste and also setting up mini composting units in each locality. “Waste management for most civic bodies in the state means collecting garbage from the garbage vats in the areas under their jurisdiction and dumping it at some open space outside the city limits. That is hardly waste management and a sureshot recipe for disaster, both environmentally and in terms of public health,” said Sengupta.
Another major reason for the poor waste management is the dismal work culture of the civic employees. “The civic employees are heavily unionised and have political godfathers who are influential and powerful at the local level. So they shirk their duties and, as a result, civic work, of which garbage handling and disposal is a major part, suffers,” said Bhaskar Ghosh, president of a resident’s welfare association at Srirampur (in Hooghly district) which was ranked a lowly 459 (in the list of 471 dirtiest cities). Srirampur, which is part of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), was included in an ambitious Rs 170 crore waste management plan titled Kolkata Solid Waste Management Improvement Project (KSWMIP) that was conceptualised and funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2007. A decade later, little progress has been made, thanks to apathy on the part of the civic bodies and bosses, lack of awareness and management issues (read this report).
Yet another reason for poor waste management is the state’s economic condition. The civic bodies don’t have the sort of funds required to collect and process waste in a scientific manner. And thanks to the huge number of poor and lower middle class people in the state who mostly dwell in slums and hovels, the state’s urban centres are filthy. Take the case of Srirampur, which was once an industrial hub with many jute and cotton mills and ancillary industries. “Right from the British days when labour colonies sprang up, civic health and hygiene has been a major issue plaguing Srirampur. The slums that the labourers, mostly from other states, stayed in hardly had any civic amenities. After the closure of industries, matters only got worse and with the Srirampur Municipality also falling on hard times (due to a sharp fall in tax collections), garbage collection and disposal became a low priority for the civic bosses. Srirampur today is buried under the garbage it generates,” said Ghosh.
Similar is the case with all other urban centres in Bengal. “Bengal doesn’t just have enough money to invest in efficient and scientific waste management. The civic bodies are starved of funds, and with poverty levels being so high, civic awareness is also very low. It has been the experience all over that civic awareness is low among poor people because their energies and attention are devoted to struggling for survival. Poverty and high density of population are the major reasons for urban centres being so dirty in Bengal,” said Debashis Talukdar, a solid waste management expert who has worked as a consultant with the KSWMIP.
Public health experts warn that the state is facing imminent disasters. “With Bengal’s cities being so dirty and garbage management being so poor, an outbreak of a communicable disease is imminent. The poor hygienic conditions in the cities that are overflowing with garbage and filth, the horribly inefficient garbage disposal practices of the municipalities, and weather conditions (hot, humid and wet) that prevail in the state for most part of the year make our cities fertile breeding grounds for virulent diseases. And with our public healthcare system also being in the doldrums, a disaster of epic proportions is just waiting to happen,” warns an expert with the Delhi-based National Centre For Disease Control who had worked with the All-India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health in Kolkata.