New Perspectives on Waste Handling in Mumbai

By G. Venkatesh
January 2009

The Author is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway.

Metropolises grapple with a host of concerns – the prices which one has to pay for the benefits which living in big cities confers on its citizens. Waste management however need not be looked upon as a burden; it could be a boon, a blessing which can solve some other problems of the city, if some lateral thinking is applied.

Solid waste handling in Mumbai is characterized by three disposal methods – composting, land-filling and recycling. Reportedly, INR 5 billion (approximately USD 100 million) are spent on waste collection and transport every year in the city (that is INR 400 or USD 8 approximately per capita of the population serviced); even after that, a lot of the wastes are simply dumped. There is no efficient cross-docking where the wastes could directly go to recovery/recycling centres without stopovers at dumping grounds. The informal sector – rag-pickers – of course, do a good job and earn a livelihood from frequent visits to garbage dumps in the city. Adopting Western world models would endanger and jeopardize the livelihoods of these rag-pickers who come from faraway villages in the country to the city where “no one sleeps hungry”.

Energy recovery from wastes is at a very nascent stage in India, while it is well-entrenched in the western world. As this writer gathered from the Additional Municipal Commissioner (Bombay Municipal Corporation) recently, there is a clear motivation for utilizing the energy content of wastes by bio-methanation. Tenders have been invited and things should be up and moving in the near future. In fact, the Gorai landfill (near Goregaon in western Mumbai) may soon develop into a source of power supply with the methane gas (landfill gas) being utilized. Of course, the discussion centered on the obstacles and the problems on-the-ground. What works for Jack may not work for John! What is easily achievable in a country like Norway for instance, cannot be achieved in India.

One could of course think of energy recovery by incineration (combustible wastes) or by anaerobic microbiological treatment (biodegradable wastes). The latter finds favour over the former owing to a host of factors, which are not elaborated upon in this report. A field trip to Matheran was conducted in the first week of January by this writer to obtain information about the Nisargaruna biogas plant conceived and constructed through an MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Agency) venture with technological support from the BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), Trombay. It is amazing how bacteria can be put to good use by humans to solve one of the most pressing urban problems – solid waste management. The said plant has been operational for 12 months in the serene, sylvan surroundings of the hill station. Built with an initial capital investment of around INR 4 million (USD 160,000), the unit demands an operating cost of INR 50,000 per month, while yielding a monthly revenue in excess of INR 100,000 – a 100 per cent profit margin! There are two saleable commodities – biogas as a source of heat energy, and manure (sludge which includes non-biodegradables and dead / live micro-organisms). While the sale of biogas is accomplished by virtue of a contract with a nearby hotel (transport distance is small and the pipeline length thereby is not substantial), the manure is sold at INR 10 (20 US cents) per kilogram to whosoever wishes to purchase it. The personnel-in-charge of the plant informed us that three more hotels (about 500 metres away from the site of generation) have expressed interest in purchasing the biogas. That would mean that more pipelines would be constructed and the capacity utilization of the plant will be enhanced in the months to come. What is striking is that while the transport distances are definitely reduced, the transport is undertaken manually – handcarts and on horseback. That is 100 per cent emission-free. Small and simple, the plant covers an area of just 2000 square metres.

Mr Nipurte, the caretaker of the biogas plant informs the writer that there were visitors from other districts of Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu who were inspired and motivated by this venture and took away some tips and hints back to their home-districts and home-states. The venture, he feels, will catch up like wildfire and very soon, may be entrenched in cities and towns India-wide.

Borrowing from Matheran

The said plant can serve as a model and motivation for waste-to-energy community projects in Mumbai. Several decentralized operations supplying energy for a small percentage of the innumerable applications which draw from the grid / gas supplies. The clientele could, just like at Matheran, be one or more hotels. By volunteering to treat its solid wastes itself to as great a degree as possible, communities within Mumbai would be working shoulder to shoulder with the municipal corporation in this aspect of sanitation. Separation (segregation) can be done at source (either by the residents, if they would be kind enough to cooperate) or at a site close to the biogas plant, from where the recyclables can be sold or given away to rag-pickers. The sale of biogas will yield revenue (profits possibly) which may either be considered as an ROI, or be siphoned off into other small developmental projects within the community. The initial investment of course needs to come in from philanthropists who would be keen to give to society what society has given them (a watered-down version of what JFK exhorted Americans to do when he was President).

Mr Jehangoo Balsara, a senior citizen and resident of Cuffe Parade whom this writer met, was enthusiastic even as he advised yours sincerely to be mindful of the “human elements” involved. Technology and money, he said are always there, but what is required is the citizens’ will. Projects founded on cooperation of all players involved – the beneficiaries and the benevolent – are destined to succeed in the longer run.

People’s Project

The support and backing of the hoi polloi – the citizens of Mumbai – will make the path ahead for this project smoother and tractable. True “community projects” – academia, industry, society and government coming together and working shoulder to shoulder with the fulfillment of the intended purpose in mind need to be conceived. Of course one should strive for a Pareto optimum, where benefits gained by anyone does not leave anyone else worse off (envy of course cannot be accounted for here!)

(Thanks to Mr Nipurte (Nisargaruna biogas plant), Mr Prahlad Deora, Mr Ravindra Jamenis and Mr Nariman Mehta of Manisha Pharmoplast Pvt Limited)


Copyright © 2009, ECO Services International