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Swachh Survekshan disappoints again, sweeping waste under the carpet a myopic approach

Chandra Bhushan
cleanliness, cleanliness drive

Billed as the world s largest cleanliness survey, Swachh Survekshan 2019 was recently released by the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA). Indore was awarded the cleanest city and Chhattisgarh the cleanest state in the country. Despite being critical of its methodology and results in the past, I have been a big supporter of Swachh Survekshan because I have witnessed, on ground, the real impact of the Survekshan in increasing awareness and involving citizens in sanitation and waste management issues. It, therefore, pains me to see how such an important programme, instead of being strengthened, was diluted this year because of political expediency.

Survey compromised

Swachh Survekshan was started in 2016 by MoHUA to rank and recognise the performance of cities on sanitation and solid waste management. The idea was that such a ranking would instill a sense of competitiveness amongst cities and thus improve waste management practices across the country. Over the last four years, the number of cities covered under the survey has increased manifold from 73 cities 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. But, as I will explain later, the result of the survey has again awarded cleanliness over sustainable waste management. But my main concern this time is the manner in which the survey was diluted to expedite the release of the ranking.

During the 2019 survey, data on cities was collected from four separate sources and each source was given a 25% weightage. The first source was data on sanitation and waste management, provided by the cities themselves on an online portal. The second was a star rating 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. Lastly, 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-MoHUA app/Swachh Manch. A minimum of 0.1% of the city population was supposed to be surveyed for the feedback.

As can be seen, during the 2019 survey, 75% of the score was dependent on information collected through a third-party certifier, from a survey agency and from citizen feedback. In general, this is a good methodology to ensure that verified 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. Unfortunately, this was not ensured during the 2019 Survekshan.

Firstly, Swachh Survekshan 2019 was completed in just 28 days to ensure that the results were declared before the announcement of the election dates. For comparison, the 2018 Survekshan was done in 66 days, which the MoHUA had then termed as record time . Such a short period for a survey is fine as long as the survey agency is able to put together a large number of qualified surveyors/certifiers to visit cities for data collection and observation. But this was not the case. The assessment by my colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) indicates that the survey was carried out in a shoddy manner. Not every city assessed was visited by the surveyors. For instance, site visits were made in only six to seven of the 20 cities that were rated in Bihar. The remaining cities were asked to share documents and pictures on the online portal. The quality of surveyors was also questionable. Many state urban departments and cities, on condition of anonymity, complained of corruption and incompetence of surveyors. The mayor of a city informed us that the certifier who came to assess the star rating was not even a graduate and had no clue about waste management in general . Overall, the quality of survey and third-party assessment was poor and this is clearly reflected in the overall results and rankings.

Questionable results

While releasing the results of the Survekshan, MoHUA claimed that the country-wide segregation of waste-at-source has increased to 60% and waste processing has gone up to 52% (compared to a low 18% at the start of the Swachh Bharat Mission). Both these claims are over-exaggerated. An assessment by CSE indicates that segregation levels have reached about 40% and waste processing is not more than 30%. In fact, in the top 50 cities, only Indore, Mysuru and Ambikapur have segregation levels of over 80%. Other top cities like New Delhi, Visakhapatnam, Wardha, and Pune have segregation levels between 20-39%. Some of the other top cities like Rajkot, Vijayawada, Ghaziabad, Jamshedpur, Chandigarh, Karnal, Jabalpur, Raigarh, Satara, Ranchi, Neemuch launched the segregation campaign just a few months before the Survekshan and have segregation levels of below 20%. Jaipur and Sagar have no source segregation practice at all.

Similarly, sustainable waste processing was missing from most of the top-rated cities. Ujjain, ranked fourth, dumps the majority of its waste at the Gondiya trenching ground, where a major fire incident occurred recently. New Delhi, which bagged the fifth spot, has the majority of its waste going to the Okhla waste-to-energy plant; Ahmedabad, which secured the sixth spot, has a huge issue of waste dumping at the highly contested Pirana landfill site; Ghaziabad (ranked 13th) has only recently started composting and still dumps over 80% of its waste collected. Coimbatore, Ghaziabad, Chandigarh, Rajkot, Tirupati, Bhopal, Visakhapatnam, Greater Hyderabad, Jaipur and Greater Mumbai continue to dump the majority of their waste collected in dumping grounds.

In contrast, many cities in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Sikkim and Bihar are doing commendable work on sustainable waste management, but were relegated to the bottom of the ranking. Alappuzha, Thiruvananthapuram and Panaji, who have invested in decentralised waste-processing approaches, were ranked below 300. These cities are making money from recycling and reusing rather than spending crores in collecting and transporting waste.

The Swachh Survekshan 2019 has rewarded cities that implemented a cleanliness drive during the Survekshan. Many cities that work year-round towards household-level segregation and decentralised recycling were given poor rankings. But this cannot be the way to incentivise and recognise cities for waste management. We cannot sweep waste away and hope to manage ever-increasing waste in our cities. The bottom line is there are no quick fixes for sustainable waste management. Sustained effort is required by cities and citizens to segregate and process waste. This is what the Swachh Survekshan should assess and rank in the future.