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Comments on SWM Interventions/Policies and for a Consultation on 9th April 2022 in response to directive from Karnataka High Court

Environment Support Group has been involved in initiating resilient and sustainable structural reforms in waste management through field, policy and legal interventions for over two decades now.  Our work, primarily based out of Bangalore metropolitan area (14 million) and Karnataka State, is in coordination with similar efforts nationwide. We work closely with trade unions advancing labour, occupational and health rights of those handling waste, and we also work with vulnerable communities suffering serious contamination due to waste disposal, to ensure their Rights to Health, Clean Environment, Life and Livelihoods is upheld.

Overall our approach is to consider prevailing waste management as emblematic of the nature of prevailing governance which we find is centralised and corporatised, with weak (or no) democratic participation, and such factors constitute a major reason for the prevailing woeful state of affairs – in ‘waste management’ as it is with municipal and rural governance.

In the background note below, we provide details of our ongoing efforts, particularly those centred around our Public Interest Litigation before the Karnataka High Court (WP 46523/2012, connected with WP 24739/2012).

In a recent direction, the High Court has sought the opinion of Petitioners to the batch of cases (which has been heard now for a decade) to provide an “action plan” to resolve the vexatious solid waste management situation in Bengaluru, and across Karnataka.

Given that this is a Public Interest Litigation, the outcomes will have far reaching implications on how SWM is governed and also on various other aspects of environmental governance.  To ensure the action plan required by the Court is developed on principles of humaneness, sustainability and resilience, and it is evolved out of a participatory process, we request you to review the background note to this litigation that explains briefly the outcomes and various challenges that need to be addressed.  On the basis of this we request you to provide your considered opinion on what can be submitted to Court at this stage. It would be really helpful if you will review the note carefully and provide your written comments by Saturday, 8th April 2022 to [email protected] (please retain the same subject line).

In addition, ESG is organising a half-day interactive workshop (the venue will be decided shortly) on 9th April 2022 from 10 am to 1 pm for those in the Bangalore region. If you wish to participate in this workshop, please RSVP to our colleague Janani Suresh ([email protected]) who assists in coordinating our Inclusive Urbanism efforts. We will also try and make this workshop accessible online live, to benefit those outside the Bangalore region. This workshop will be organised with support from Break Free from Plastic.

Background note to efforts to decentralise waste management and develop humane, sustainable and resilient solid waste management strategies.

In 1976 Mr. IPD Salappa submitted a report which he had been commissioned to prepare by then Chief Minister of Karnataka Mr. Devaraj Urs.  The report proposed various schemes and programmes to redress the awful working and living conditions of workers handling waste in cities across Karnataka. To prepare which Mr. Salappa crisscrossed the state by bus, by bullock cart, an occasional car ride and also by foot, visiting all the municipalities.  The condition of workers he describes in his report is really no different from we see today – in Bengaluru, across the state of Karnataka and one may well argue across India as well.

Focus on workers handling waste: From the 1990s, ESG has been working closely with Pourakarmika’s – as workers handling waste are referred to in Karantaka – and their unions, towards ensuring their health, economic and occupational rights are central to any effort to resolve the prevailing solid waste crises.  In parallel, we have engaged with Dalit communities* north of Bengaluru (25 kms out of the city) and other such communities who are resisting dumping of the city’s waste in their forests and grazing pastures resulting in contamination of their water, air, soil, and just about everything living there. 

Toxic landfills: As a consequence of such persistent efforts by these communities and ESG, by 2012 we managed to stop two massive landfills in Mavallipura, and ever since have been straining to get these villages and their commons decontaminated.  We also have documented the health impacts on communities  – at least 50 have died due to contamination in Mavallipura and surrounding villages- and are working to secure compensation for them, also to ensure the guilty are punished. (See: ESG report – Why Phase Out Mavallipura dated October 2009“Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy”- A report prepared by ESG on the MSW situation in Mavallipura village, July 2010 and ESG Report: “Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy Intensifies” – February 2018).

Public Interest Litigation: As part of these efforts, in November 2012 ESG joined ongoing Public Interest Litigations in the Karnataka High Court (with WP 46523/2012 c/w WP 24739/2012) which raised public health concerns on the terrible state of solid waste management in the Bengaluru (earlier called Bangalore) metropolitan area. While some of the petitioners argued for a strong State approach, we argued for a ground up strategy to resolve the waste creation and management conundrum.  

Part of our effort was to invoke the promise in the Constitutional 74th Amendment (Nagarpalika) Act, 1992 which required public involvement in municipal affairs through constitutionally mandated Ward Committees, but which had never been constituted even two decades later. In that sense we were arguing that without decentralisation of governance, it would be impossible to resolve the waste crisis, or just about any environmental crisis. (See: Solid Waste Management and Strategies by ESG (zip)ESG campaign to make Bangalore a Wasteless City and petition to the Chief Minister of Karnataka)

Decentralisation of Waste Management: The Court echoed our concerns and in February 2013 directed the State Government to constitute Ward Committees, so that orders of the court to decentralise waste management – by ensuring every ward in the city manages its waste within the ward, which meant it would be composted and recycled locally – could be implemented effectively. Vested interests, however, were keen on centralising waste collection and disposal – such as truckers and landfill lobbies –  and ensured this order was not implemented for years.  Finally in 2018 under the threat of Contempt of Court based on ESG’s submissions, the Court ensured ward committees were constituted. However, their functionality has not been satisfactory subsequently.

Reform of Solid Waste Management law: Another key gain from this litigation is that ESG secured a stay on the Indian Environment Ministry’s attempt to promote a most disastrous amendment in 2013 to the 2000 Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, an amendment that effectively promoted centralisation of waste management including toxic and wasteful waste to energy projects.  The 2013 proposals thus threw into the gutter all efforts of civil society to decentralise waste management which had found support in Court.  (See how disastrous the amendments proposed were in these comparative notes: Draft Municipal Solid Waste Rules 2013 – MoEFESG Comments to the MoEF Draft MSW Rules 2013Comparison of MSW Rules 2000 with Draft MSW Rules 2013).  

Persuaded by our arguments, which were also supported by other co-litigants, the Court restrained the Union Environment Ministry from notifying these problematic Rules and directed that nation-wide Public Consultations are first held, and new rules are formalised only after placing them for the Court’s “scrutiny”. The rider was that the new Rules must follow the principles of decentralised waste management and efforts to minimise waste generation that had been advocated by ESG and other petitioners and had been upheld in Court orders. (See: Kar HC orders in WP 46523/2012 – may not be updated. For an updated review of the orders in this case, click https://karnatakajudiciary.kar.nic.in/hckweb/casemenu.php and then choose Bengaluru Bench, Writ Petition, Case no 24739, year 2012 and then review orders). 

Plastic Waste: As a consequence of these efforts and directives, the much improved and now prevailing Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 were enacted, which actually promote decentralised waste management primarily.  Besides, these new Rules set the tone for subsequent amendments to prevailing Plastic Waste Management Rules 2011 with the enactment of Plastic Waste Management Rules 2018. More recently some regression has occurred with the issuance of Extended Producer Responsibility Guidelines 2022 and a 2022 amendment to Plastic Waste Management Rules; both are deeply problematic as they promote centralisation of plastic waste management and Waste to Energy projects (incineration). (See: https://newsonair.com/2022/03/31/249-waste-to-energy-plants-set-up-in-the-country-informs-union-minister-r-k-singh/)    

Waste to Energy: A review of these developments suggest waste management efforts have seen chequered progress.  Across India there is yet hope that there will not be an easy transition towards Waste to Energy (incineration) projects, despite  constant push for them from national and international consultants and financial institutions, which the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is eagerly supporting – even claiming they are ‘climate friendly’.  (For a critical examination of their hazards, which we have submitted in Court, see: Waste to Energy?summarising HC directions on various strategies for SWM and on the establishment of WTE plantson centralization of waste processing mechanisms, including economic analysis of WTE plant proposalswaste to energy plants being set up at Mavallipurafunctioning of State Level Advisory Body and incineration plant being set up by 3Wayste).

Privatisation of Waste Management: Currently, there is also a strong move to promote private management of waste handling operations and Bengaluru has taken a lead in setting up a corporation. This initiative has divided the community of civil society in Bengaluru, with some supporting the move. We have opposed it in Court, and presently the privatisation effort has been shelved. (See: new waste corporation).

Karnataka SWM Policy: ESG also played a key role in drafting of the Solid Waste Management Policy for the State of Karnataka along with various public agencies, trade unions and civil society organisations. This was based on a Court directive, and the final draft was presented to the Government through the Directorate of Municipal Administration in July 2020.  This draft effectively promoted a strong approach against plastic manufacture and disposal (thus strongly questioning the need for petrochemicals based packaging, even promoting handmade products), promoted workers’ rights and community centred decentralisation of waste management, argued against waste to energy (incineration) on principles of economic unviability, etc.  This draft was reviewed by all municipalities of the State, placed for public comments as well, and on finalisation should have become Karnataka State’s SWM Policy. Instead, a policy promoting centralisation and corporatisation of the SWM sector and one that failed to uphold several progressive features that so many of us have been working towards over decades was adopted, a policy promoted by a local legal policy review firm. This has now been challenged in Court as opposed to judicial directives.  (See: dilution of working draft on Karnataka Urban SWM Policy; medical opinion on Mavallipura Rapid Health Survey)   

All such complex developments have evolved over the past decade with judicial oversight even as our collective efforts continue for pro-public, pro-worker, pro-environment results. All this even as we  resist environmentally disastrous consumption-disposal-incineration culture, whose toxic burden will have disastrous health and economic consequences.  Clearly, powerful corporate interests, especially those who profit from petrochemicals and plastics, do not want these efforts to succeed.  They most certainly do not want judicial action against the prevailing highly profitable promotion of massive production of plastics for consumer and industrial use,  despite their irreversible intergenerational environmental and social impacts.

Recent Karnataka High Court direction: The direction of the Karnataka High Court to Petitioners in WP 24739/2012 c/w WP 46523/2012 needs to be seen in this context. The relevant extract of the 17th March 2022 direction is:

“5. Several orders have been passed by this Court from time to time issuing various directions. The compliance affidavits have also been filed by the respondents. It would be appropriate that the petitioners may prepare a chart giving the details of the orders of this Court and the directions issued therein as well as the compliances made by the respondents. They may also indicate the directions which have not been complied so far. The petitioners may also indicate the further action plan which is required to be taken. 

6. In the meantime, the respondents shall continue to comply the earlier orders of the Court and file the compliance affidavit on the next date. 

7. List on 13.04.2022.”

A comprehensive approach to assist the Court with progressive interventions needed will have longstanding results that will uphold Polluters Pays Principle, Public Trust Doctrine, Precautionary Principle and the Principle of Intergenerational Equity, amongst others.  It would be a step in making this living planet safer. 

*Dalits are communities socially and economically depressed due to the oppressive caste system and most workers handling waste emerge are Dalit from the lowest of low castes, even outcastes.

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