TA Interview: Swachh Survekshan 2019 only promoted visible cleanliness!

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Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) recently launched the results for Swachh Survekshan 2019. This time Swachh Survekshan was conducted in all the cities and towns of India becoming one of the world’s largest cleanliness survey. However, experts have raised concerns over the fourth edition of this survey. New Delhi based environmental think tank, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has released its independent assessment of Swachh Survekshan 2019 which reveals various loopholes and raises serious doubts over the way in which this year’s cleanliness survey was conducted.

TA interviews Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager for Municipal Waste Management Division at CSE and seeks her views on the recently concluded Swachh Survekshan 2019.

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How was Swachh Survekshan 2019 different from previously held editions of the Pan India cleanliness competition?

In many ways, first, the number of cities has increased from 73 in 2016 to 4,237 in 2019. The methodology has also been modified to give more weightage to sustainable waste-management practices instead of mere cleanliness (CSE played a major role here).

During the 2019 survey, data on cities was collected from four separate sources and each source was given a weightage of 25%. The first source was data on sanitation and waste management, provided by the cities themselves through on an online portal. The second was a star rating protocol given to cities by a third-party certifier on the progress they have made towards being Garbage Free and Open Defecation Free Cities. The third source of data was from on-field direct observation by surveyors from a survey agency. Last, all the above were supplemented by a process of citizen feedback. The feedback was collected from citizens directly either through phone calls or through the Swachhata App/Swachh Manch. A minimum of 0.1% of the city population was supposed to be surveyed for the feedback.

As it can be seen, during the 2019 survey, 75% of the score was dependent on information collected through a third-party certifier, direct observation by a survey agency and citizen feedback. In general, this is a good methodology to ensure that correct information is captured on the performance of cities. But this methodology also demands a strict protocol to ensure best practices are followed during survey and certification.

As per the recent assessment conducted by CSE, many components of Swachh Survekshan 2019 were compromised due to political expediency. Can you elaborate on that?

I personally feel that the survey was rushed up (more so due to the coming elections, to prove BJP led cities or cities with local government that are led by BJP are cleaner*). The survey could have been done in a better way in terms of on-ground assessment and analysed better. There are also loopholes in figures, if India was practicing 52 percent of processing rate, cities would have appeared a lot cleaner in the real connotation- we would not have seen dumpsites a few kilometers outside every city or that would have also meant municipalities depending on less land for disposal, but land is what the municipalities need for waste management which is basically disposal.

Do you think the campaign has compromised its objective and digressed from the core idea of promoting sustainable waste management in India?

Absolutely, time and time again, the focus has been on visible cleanliness and short silver bullet solutions (like waste to energy), cities practicing these have been rewarded, having analyzed the top 50 cities in the survey, it is clear, that the push is more for centralized capital intensive solutions than sustainable low-cost solutions, also decentralized waste management has been reduced to cute pilots, they are not being replicated. Why? We all need to ask, waste management has to be frugal, many states have understood this, then why in spite of having a legal framework in place (SWM Rules, 2016) we are not being able to implement it.

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In your opinion, is Swachh Bharat Mission good for just political and social optics or has it really induced behavior change amongst the masses? 

Swachh Survekshan has truly been a game changer in terms of increasing awareness and involving citizens in sanitation and waste management, however, this is one side of it, it has not done what it promised- we should have had by now a consortium of cities at least 50 that should have been zero waste- these cities would then have helped other cities to learn about sustainable waste management, this was just merely a competition, it was a way to push cities to become better at waste management, however it has not happened, cities have only worked for 2-3 months to get better ranks, that be all , and to do that, have submitted false data in many instances- I cannot accept that cities have 100 percent collection, 100 percent segregation and 100 percent processing, this is false data.

Can you share with us an example of any best practices from any city or town of India depicting a fluent and sustainable model of waste management?

There are umpty such towns- I have to start with Alappuzha that practices decentralized waste management in its true spirit, every household segregates and treats wet waste at source, Panaji and a lot of rural areas in Goa have been doing better waste management past many years, I agree that their work has dwindled in Goa, but it is still trying and trying hard then shortcut solutions, then there is Mysuru (also acknowledged in Survekshan) which is planning to shift to zero waste solutions now, then Panchgani, Vengurla (which are fairly smaller cities but working hard to minimise waste and find solutions to over 15-20 streams), the work CSE did in Muzaffarpur in Bihar ( wherein all 49 wards of the city segregate and source segregation levels are somewhere between 70-80 percent, has 3 decentralized centers that process and sell compost and have dry waste MRF’s) has led to replication of decentralised model in 42 other ULBs, there is a state level policy on decentralized waste management as well; there are just many, not one.

How do you view the status of compliance by different states with the Solid Waste Management Rules (SWM) 2016 notified by GoI?

I think have answered this above, it is lax, in fact it is bad for all waste management rules, 2016- segregation levels are still low in fact there are so many technology providers coming up who are promoting processing of mixed waste; if such technologies will come they will defy the need to segregate, why are such providers allowed? With plastic, 50 microns carry bag is banned but 51 microns bags are being manufactured- how sustainable and recyclable are these, we need to check? No work on packaging waste which constitutes 40 percent of the plastic waste, what about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)? No action.

Biomedical waste is being managed well in big cities, but in smaller cities, it is a huge problem, it gets mixed with municipal waste daily, hospitals do not segregate, who checks that? Noone. With e-waste, again a huge issue of non-compliance and EPR still hasnt been streamlined.

How would you review the five years of this mission and some quick recommendations to make Swachh Survekshan more robust and authentic

Any city that hasn’t started segregation should not be rated, this has to become the minimum benchmark, this will also push for segregation. There is also a need for bye-laws in every city as per the SWM Rules, 2016 that emphasize on segregation, have penalties for non-segregation and littering and user-fee collection. Also, cities should minimize the usage of plastics by banning single-use plastic items, survekshan should check this. CSE also calls for the Survekshan to strictly assess the implementation of all the Waste Management Rules, 2016 as part of its assessment.

(* more than half of the top 50 cities in Swachh Survekshan 2019 are being managed by local governments of BJP)

Image Sources:

Image 1: Official Twitter Account of MoHUA

Image 2: CSE

Image 3: Washington Post

Image 4: Swachh Survekshan 2019 Instagram


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