Swachh Ambikapur: A Waste Management Innovation

2016 International Innovations Awards semi-finalist: Ambikapur Municipal Corporation, India

INTRODUCTION 

Ambikapur is the capital of Sarguja district in Chhatisgarh State in Central India with a population of 112,449 [Census 2011].  An innovative initiative of the Ambikapur Municipal Corporation, Swachh Ambikapur, translated as “Clean Ambikapur”, revolves around the Solid and Liquid Resource Management (SLRM) model.  The Swachh Ambikapur SLRM Centres are aesthetically designed and employ functionally convenient work-sheds for secondary segregation of organic/inorganic refuse of over 31,000 domestic and commercial units.  This model was designed as part of an alternate approach to scientific disposal of municipal solid waste.  The model is technically correct, environmentally and economically sustainable, and socially significant.  It draws upon traditional wisdom and common sense.  It rejects the profit-driven business models that require high-cost logistics and instead relies upon community-based structures to manage municipal solid waste.  It shifts the perspective from ‘waste’ to ‘resource’, and in doing so, the entire refuse in the 17 SLRM Centres is ‘consumed’.  Livestock are actively involved in the management of organic ‘resource’.  The need for trenching ground is eliminated, which in turn eliminates the environmental issues that trenching grounds pose.

Women self-help groups (SHGs) from poor, urban homes operate the SLRM Centres, and the model generates hundreds of green jobs without putting financial burden on the State treasury.  The SHGs are federated into a registered Society called Swachh Ambikapur Mission Sahakari Samiti Maryadit. Ambikapur Municipal Corporation has an agreement with this Society.  Each worker earns around 5,000 rupees/month and is provided with a uniform and gear, including cap, mask, shoes and gloves. All the SLRM Centres are equipped with CCTV cameras to enable central supervision. Data pertaining to the operations, starting with the inflow of refuse twice a day to the sale of the various recyclable products, are digitised.

Launched in June 2015, the sheer simplicity of the initiative’s approach, combined with the fringe benefits of urban livelihood promotion and women’s empowerment, prompted the State Government to replicate the model in nearly 150 additional towns.  The number of SLRM Centres is determined by the size of the town.  In the Ambikapur model, the SLRM Centres are located on public land reclaimed from illegal occupation. This greatly reduced the capital cost of the project.  The model adopts a ‘handshake’ approach to sale of ‘products’.  Compost manufactured from the residual organic waste, for instance, is sold to the Municipal Corporation for use in public gardens.  This creates a win-win situation for all involved.

PROJECT DETAILS

Civic cleanliness is an issue in India, especially in urban areas.  Solid Waste Management Rules, 2000, were framed more than fifteen years ago but compliance has been a huge challenge.  The Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal exerted pressure upon the State and Local Governments for positive action.  The problem, however, is not lack of interest or will at any level of government; it is primarily the lack of a standard approach and a satisfactory model for solid waste management.  In 2014, the Prime Minister called upon the nation to make India clean by 2019, to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian Nation.  A Swachh Bharat Mission was established at the national level and every state and city were required to follow suit.  Ambikapur is a growing town and growth has brought in its wake the challenge of keeping the city clean.  The municipal corporation strained at the seams yet the results were disappointing.

Given the above context, the Collector, Ambikapur, resolved to work toward a solution.  A meeting of stakeholders was called in early 2015.  Initiatives based on public-private partnerships (PPP) in larger cities had failed, a major reason being that the PPP model was more profit-centric than service-centric.  Ambikapur therefore set certain parameters for evolving an alternate model, including the following:
  • simple to implement and not require high technology
  • cost-efficient
  • driven by community-based structures, not contractors, and ideally dominated by women
  • supports the livelihood of the urban poor, ideally women
  • supports scientific disposal of waste 
  • adds dignity to the work of solid waste management
  • remains environmentally sustainable and financially self-sustainable
It looked like an impossible task and the challenge was daunting.  But it was not wild ambition, and the will to succeed was strong.  Compromising on one or more of the parameters, it was thought, was the reason the solid waste management experiments in various cities across the country were failing.  Thus the Swachh Ambikapur project began on a note of cautious enthusiasm.  The primary objective was to put in place a system for door-to-door collection of solid waste from homes and commercial establishments in Ambikapur, and to practice scientific disposal of the waste.  Secondary objectives included the following:
  • design an alternate, community-based approach to solid waste management
  • design a model principally owned and run by women
  • explore livelihood opportunities in solid waste management, especially for women
  • sensitize the general public to the importance of civic cleanliness
  • introduce the system of primary segregation of refuse from domestic and commercial establishments as organic and inorganic refuse
  • introduce the regime of beneficiary charges (colloquially called ‘user charges’) for municipal solid waste management, to eventually be 100% cost-recoverable
  • make the task of solid waste management a safe and honourable occupation for the workers
The scope of the work was generally seen as achieving a clean Ambikapur.  However, the scope was divided into the following parts and phases, so as to make a smooth transition from a corporation-driven system to a community-driven system:
  • Municipal solid waste management was divided into two parts: door-to-door collection (D2DC) of refuse from homes and commercial establishments; and city sanitation, referring to cleaning of roads and other public places.
  • D2DC was launched in only 17 out of 48 wards in the town. In the other wards, the contractor continued to serve as earlier by collecting un-segregated garbage from containers placed in strategic roadside points.  Gradually D2DC extended to other wards and from January 2016 onwards it has been extended to cover all 48 wards.
  • City sanitation continues to be managed directly by Ambikapur Municipal Corporation. Likewise, liquid waste (read ‘resource’) management under the SLRM model was kept for a later phase. 

PROJECT COMPONENTS

Preparatory:
Leading citizens, businessmen, women groups, civic administration officials and others attended a meeting of stakeholders.  The broad approach to the problem was supported by all with due caution.  It was generally agreed that the present system had failed and an alternate approach must be tried.

The next step was to identify and select a resource person to conceptualise the project, provide technical guidance and guide implementation.  Mr C. Srinivasan, Vellore of Indian Green Service, was engaged after appearing on the popular national TV show Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs) that spot-lighted significant initiatives and innovative ideas.  He had ‘moved forward to the past’ and found in traditional wisdom simple solutions to the problems of solid waste management.  The community structure designed to implement the solutions and deliver the service on the field was the brainchild of the Collector.

Community-based Structure and Training:
It was estimated that around 300 women workers would be required.  It was also anticipated that, given the nature of the calling and the constraints women face on the domestic front, there would be large-scale dropouts, and for this reason nearly 600 women were recruited for orientation and training.  Time vindicated this decision.  The orientation and training are the foundations of the project.  Municipal waste is not a job that commands a premium in society.  To find workers for this job, it was necessary to refine the traditional perception.  This was done in two ways: one, the job profile was presented as an honourable social service, dignified by none less than the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi; and two, it was emphasized that the job was not about handling ‘filthy waste’ over a foul-smelling dump-site but rather about recovering a cash-worthy ‘resource’ in an industrial work-shed.

Master Trainers were trained and hands-on training was completed over a week.  The training related to segregation (organic/inorganic) at source and secondary segregation in the work-shed (SLRM Centre).  The guiding principle was that segregation and washing result in added value, that in turn translates to cash returns for products in the market.  Over 40 categories and sub-categories of ‘resource’ were explained. Plastic, for instance, has over half a dozen sub-categories. The women were, for example, trained to distinguish PP (poly propylene plastic) from HDPE (High Density Poly Ethylene). A discarded water bottle would be broken down into three sub-categories: the lid and the neck-ring, the body of the bottle, and the label. The women were trained to pick, judge, classify and segregate the various items. Likewise, organic refuse has sub-categories; for example, fruit peels being one, and eggshells being another and so on. These are segregated, washed under a running tap, and sun-dried. 

To make the training holistic, the women were informed about the end use of the segregated items. To encourage diligent segregation, the indicative market price of each item was communicated and displayed on the wall of the SLRM Centre. After the marketable organic items are gathered, the residual material went for composting by mixing it with cow dung, piling the mixture, and covering it up with a gunny sack for drying in the sun. Nature works, and the pile is converted to good compost after 45 days. The entire inflow of refuse gathered from the homes is thus used. To enrich the process, two cows were tethered in the Centre. Cows can be excellent ‘processors’ – consuming fresh kitchen waste and converting it into milk, and the cow-dung required for the composting. Two cows can reduce the organic refuse collected from the homes by almost 80%, thus reducing the workload of the women! Likewise, poultry in the Centre can be useful partners in waste management.

The women were also trained in soft skills: the dynamics of working in a group as a team member; the importance of using the mask, gloves, gum-boots and other safety gear; the importance of punctuality; the manner of dealing with hostile homes; personal hygiene, etc.

Apart from the core tasks of waste management, the women collect the beneficiary charges (the local term is ‘user fee’) from the serviced homes and commercial establishments. This task involves generating and issuing an e-receipt from a handheld, battery-operated, computing device. The women were trained in the use of these devices.

The next step related to formation of community structure. The approximately 300 successfully trained women were divided into groups of ten. Women from a common locality were grouped together. Each group was assigned to a SLRM Centre closest to the residence of the group members. The natural leader in each Centre is designated as a Core Member and represents the group in the Society; she must be literate and able to do basic bookkeeping related to the Centre. There are ‘Supervisors’ in each Centre to lead the team on D2DC rounds. The Core Member and the Supervisors are also active workers in the refuse collection and segregation work.  This makes the group egalitarian. The groups were federated into a Society named Swachh Ambikapur Mission Sahakari Samiti Maryadit. This is the legal identity of the community structure. The Society has entered into an agreement with Ambikapur Municipal Corporation that provides the legal mandate to the Society to do its work of solid waste management.

Infrastructure: 
The SLRM Centre is the hub of the entire project. It is an industrial work-shed (approx. 1,500 sq. ft.) with an RCC structure and cement floor, built on an open area of land (approx. 3,000 – 5,000 sq. ft.), fenced on all sides, with a broad gate on the front side. Organising so much land within the city was a challenge and the cost of land was mind-boggling. To overcome this, unauthorised occupation of government land was mapped and the occupiers were either evicted or rehabilitated elsewhere. Altogether, 6,986.63 sq. meters of land valued at Rs.28.06 million (≈ USD 432,000) was freed by December 2015. The exercise is continuing.

The Centre is designed to ensure abundant light and ventilation. Each Centre has a storeroom and a change room.  The Centres have tap water connections, the required number of tubs, forks, tarpaulin spread sheet and other accessories.  The entrance gate is wide enough to allow easy entry to the vehicles that bring in the refuse.  Each Centre has two vehicles; one, a manual pedal-tricycle and the other, a battery-operated rickshaw.  The rickshaws are equipped with two containers, one for inorganic and another for organic refuse, and a bell with a distinct ring that signals people to come out with their refuse.  Each house and each commercial establishment has been provided with a red bin for inorganic refuse and a green bin for organic refuse, segregated at source.  Three women accompany each rickshaw while two women in the Centre spread the tarpaulin and set the tubs to prepare the floor for segregation and follow-up work.

Information, Education and Communication (IEC):
The project demands a behavioural change in citizens, hence the importance of IEC.  People from every household and commercial establishment were asked (in batches) to come to the designated spot at a designated hour to collect the red and green bins meant for segregation at source.  The plan was explained while they gathered for this purpose.  Recognizing that children can be opinion-leaders at home, over 12,500 school kids were sensitized regarding the project and enlisted as volunteers to promote the initiative.  Street plays highlighted the sensitisation efforts, mixing fun with the message.  The walls of the city were scripted with over 1,000 messages and colourful pictures to canvass support for the project.

Management Information System (MIS):
With so many SLRM Centres set up and many more to follow, a robust MIS was important.  Special software was designed in-house and a desk was set up at the District Data Centre.  The numbers of households and commercial establishments in each ward were recorded on a regular basis as well as information on daily route collection, attendance, segregated/mixed refuse, organic/inorganic refuse, quantity of items recovered at each Centre, quantity sold, and all financial matters (wages paid, viability gap funding by the Municipal Corporation, etc.).  An expert at the Data Centre analysed the information and fed pointers to the District Collector for action/instruction.

Monitoring:
The project is self-driven. However, monitoring, especially during the incubation stage, was felt to be necessary. The project is monitored at three levels as follows:
  • CCTV cameras have been installed in every SLRM Centre. All 17 Centres are visually monitored from a Central Data Centre.
  • The Society regularly meets to discuss and monitor the performance of the various groups in charge of the various Centres.
  • The Collector monitors the performance on a weekly basis.

RESULTS/OUTCOMES/IMPACT

The project provides the opportunity for a huge savings (52.51%) in solid waste management costs for the Municipal Corporation.  The bulk of the cost savings relates to logistics (transport-related costs alone account for 41.43% of the savings).  Another significant savings (8.28%) relates to the consumption of chemical disinfectants.  If the refuse gets ‘consumed’ before it putrefies, the need for disinfectant automatically goes down.  A very crucial point of savings not reflected in any analysis and difficult to quantify is the elimination of capital and operation and management expenses for trenching ground.  Changing the system from wage labour to a community structure significantly increases worker efficiency.  In real terms, the number of workers required for the job goes down by more than 50%. 

As significant as the cash savings are the savings with respect to the environment. Elimination of trenching ground and decreased use of chemical disinfectants have substantial implications for the environment. 

Socially, the city has woken up to the issue of solid waste management.  The citizens are sensitised to the issues involved and the perspective changed from ‘waste’ to ‘resource’.  This is reflected in reports of workers that some of the families have started recovering inorganic items at home for sale in due course, and stopped passing it out as waste.

LESSONS LEARNED / UNEXPECTED FINDINGS

The costs incurred by the Municipal Corporation have decreased and over 300 green jobs have been generated. Waste management jobs have ceased to be a socially despised occupation and have in fact contributed to women’s empowerment.  The aesthetically attractive SLRM Centres, dress code, and safety gear contribute to the work being regarded in a positive manner and not demeaning with respect to the social status of workers.  The worker attrition rate has dropped to just 8.4%. 

The SLRM Centres became functional in August 2015 and depended heavily on viability gap funding by the Municipal Corporation.  The need for funding has tapered off and it is expected that the project will become self-sustaining when it encompasses the entire city.  As citizen interest in and understanding of the project grew, segregation at source also improved.  By December 2015, over 75% of the refuse was received segregated at source.  A major unexpected finding relates to local scrap dealers who developed a new interest in fair trade practices.  This is the result of a qualitative and quantitative improvement in recoverable material being generated. 

CONCLUSION

The SLRM Model as initiated in Ambikapur presents a technically correct, environmentally and economically sustainable, and socially significant alternative that is easily replicable model for solid waste management.  The model creates hundreds of green jobs, employing women from urban poor families.  By balancing fixed wages and variable returns from sale of recovered goods, the model also provides for dual income that in turn ensures sustained interest of the workers in their jobs.