With a population of 17,475 (Census 2011); the town of Uttarkashi was recently in the news and social media because it’s ULB – Uttarkashi Nagar Palika Parishad – was caught during the illegal dumping of municipal waste in the Bhagirathi river, which is a tributary of Ganga. The viral photos of the incident caused huge hue and cry over Facebook and WhatsApp groups, the judicial intervention also followed when the High Court ordered to initiate a magisterial inquiry into the matter.

Incident shows, sustainable management of waste remains a mounting challenge for rapidly urbanizing towns and cities of Himalayan Uttarakhand.

Why Uttarakhand matter?

Bhagirathi assumes its own importance in both the historical and geographical narrative of river systems in India. Bhagirathi, which originates in India, is one of the major rivers of Northern India and is considered to be another source of river Ganga (other being the Alaknanda River). The water for Bhagirathi is formed at the holy Gaumukh, which is approximately 20 Kms. away from the famous town of Gangotri.

Uttarakhand is a crucial state in terms of two major environmental components; first, for harboring and nurturing the Himalayas and second, for giving birth to holy Ganga.

Ganga is the most important river of India. It forms the largest river basin in India and serves almost half of the national population. Keeping this in mind, the State Program Management Group (SPMG) for Namami Ganga has been the nodal agency for developing, executing and monitoring projects aimed at rejuvenating and keeping Ganga clean. SPMG has been created under the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of Uttarakhand.

Central government allocated Rs. 885 Cr. to SPMG for implementing almost 21 different schemes under the Namami Ganga Program for Uttarakhand (Hindustan Times, 2018). The schemes were related to sewerage network, managing discharge of industrial effluent, waste management, community participation, cleaning of Ghats, tree planting and sensitization and awareness activities at the village and town level. The SPMG identified 15 priority towns in Uttarakhand for the purpose of implementing these schemes. Uttarkashi also featured in the list along with other towns like Badrinath, Joshimath, Srinagar, Rishikesh and Haridwar.

(Waste being dumped at Badrinath Road, Srinagar, Uttarakhand. Credits: Rishabh Shrivastava)

Waste management scenario in Uttarakhand

As per a recent reply in Parliament on 4 January 2019, India presently generates 53 Million Tonnes Per Annum (MTPA) out of which only 46% (around 24 MTPA) is processed. As per the same reply, the Himalayan state generates 5,13,190 MTPA and only 38% of it is processed. As per a CPCB report, Uttarakhand is generating approximately 1400 Tonnes Per Day (TPD) and not more than 20% of it is getting treated. As per another reply in Rajya Sabha last year on March 8, out of the earlier 912 wards (pre delimitation of wards), only 3% of total wards actually practiced 100% source segregation and 715 wards didn’t even have a proper door to door collection facility of solid waste.

Apart from numbers, the policy and legal compliance remains flouted and almost negligible on the ground. The CAG Report of Uttarakhand 2017 conducted a performance audit of ULBs with respect to waste management and revealed that ULBs of Dehradun and Haridwar city are not following the Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2016 notified by Government of India. The report also revealed that segregation at the household level remains practically zero, which is in contempt of the rules.

As per a study published in Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences (Wani & Ahmed, 2013), Srinagar (which is another rapidly urbanizing town of Uttarakhand), is struggling to scientifically manage the waste. The study shares a very simple fact that the city has only one dumping landfill which is being used since 1987 for waste disposal. Collection efficiency remains extremely low in the city.

What happened In Uttarkashi?

Town of Uttarkashi currently produces 7-9 tons of waste per day (UEPPCB, 2017). The town is also not equipped with door to door collection of the waste facility. However, the state pollution control board claims (on paper) that it has provided Nagar Palika Parishad with all the requisite waste management tools like 60 RCC dustbins and 30 containers. The Uttarkashi NPP has also been provided with a tractor-trailer, two refuse collectors and fourteen tricycles. The entire waste of Uttarkashi town is emptied in pits constructed for waste dumping at Mahidanda road (UEPPCB, 2017).

(A report on the incident by local media. Pic Credits: Ayush Joshi)

However, in practice, the regional media has highlighted that municipal waste was earlier being dumped in a local water stream named Tekhla but soon the High Court intervened and the dumping in Tekhla stream was banned. Thereafter the Uttarkashi Nagar Palika Parishad started using Ramlila Maidan (Ground) for dumping the waste.

After the recently held ULB elections in the state, swearing in ceremony of Uttarkashi Nagar Palika Parishad’s Councilors and Chairman was scheduled to be held at the Ramlila Maidan and the very next day a grand rally of Trivendra Rawat, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister was scheduled to be organized in the same location. As a result of which, just after the completion of swearing in ceremony, the entire garbage was dumped in the Bhagirathi River and the very next day the ground stood cleared of garbage mess for CM’s rally!

Rudraprayag, a small Himalayan town, having a population of 9,313 (Census 2011) was also in news due to the same reason, the only difference was that the river changed. The Rudraprayag Municipality was caught illegally dumping the solid waste in the Alaknanda River (Hindustan Times 2018). Prior to this, in November 2018, an expedition team of CISF conducted a cleanup drive in areas close to Rudraprayag, where non-degradable plastic was rotting since last many years (Times of India, 2018). This was mostly because lots of tourists visited or passed by the area.

(Ramlila Ground in Uttarkashi after the swearing in ceremony. Pic Credits: Ayush Joshi)

Learnings and a way forward

Solid waste management remains a crucial area of intervention from development policy and sustainability planning point of view. As per WHO, unscientific waste management increases the risk of proliferation of several diseases especially in developing economies where delivery infrastructure is not robust.

Sustainable Goal Numbers 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 14 (Life Below Water), 15 (Life on Land); all calls out for sustainable management of waste. Management of solid waste shares an indispensable sharing with all these mentioned SDGs.

Uttarakhand, placed in an extremely fragile ecological zone, is currently reeling under an enormous quantity of waste being generated by various hilly towns and cities, which are also urbanizing at a rapid pace added with extra pressure from the floating population of tourists.

Along with unified policy actions at a state level, technically innovative and sustainable measures need to be adopted by local city governments. And, not to forget, citizens hold the key to the final success of taking the Himalayan state on a sustainable path.

Making cities zero waste, hundred percent resource recovery and promoting sustainable and zero waste tourism must find a place in the waste management vision of the state government. Without this, the ULBs will continue to dispose of waste in rivers, polluting environment and violating law of land.

(The article was originally published in Citizen Matters)

(Author is the Lead – Public Policy and Communications at SDC Foundation. He tweets at Writer_Rishabh