Northeast India is part of the eastern Himalayas, one of the country’s two biodiversity hotspots. The region is rich in resources, but is lacking in a critical area — waste management.
The region is made up of the seven sisters — Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur — and the ‘brother’ state Sikkim. It is abundant with resources like oil, natural gas, minerals and, most importantly, valuable forests, rivers, waterfalls, flora and fauna.
One of the most environmentally friendly regions in the country, it receives a large amount of rainfall and has lush forest cover. However, over the last three decades, the waste management in Northeast India has received insufficient attention.
Waste accumulates in rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands, causing irreversible harm to the ecosystem’s health. The situation has an impact on almost all towns and cities in the region.
Current state of solid waste management
The cities in this region continue to use a linear waste management model based on collection, transportation and disposal at dumpsites. In three states — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya — up to 90 per cent of waste is indiscriminately discarded in dumping grounds.
In Mizoram and Manipur, nearly 25 to 35 per cent of the generated waste remains uncollected by city officials, according to the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) Annual Reports 2020-2021. The states claiming to dispose of less than 20 to 40 per cent of the total waste generated do not have enough capacity to treat the recyclables, rendering their claims ambiguous.
However, it is critical to note that Mizoram has improved its processing capabilities and is now treating approximately 78 per cent of total generated waste. It reported six operational wet waste processing units, but no facilities to treat dry waste.
While most northeastern states had optimal collection rates, ranging from 80 to 100 per cent, segregation practices in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura were handled inequitably in order to divert the collected fraction.
Percentage of treated vs untreated waste
Graph showing the percentage of waste treated in a scientific manner vs. percentage of waste not treated (sum of waste which remains uncollected + waste untreated/unidentified + waste ending up into the unscientific landfills). Source: CPCB Annual Report 2020-2021
A significant portion of the waste generated in Northeast India is haphazardly dumped without processing or treatment in dumpsites that are not scientifically designed, constructed or operated.
Uncollected waste finds its way into critical waterbodies such as the Barak, Gomti, Myntdu and Brahmaputra rivers. Waste burning has also been reported in a number of areas.
The eight states have nearly 172 operational dumpsites, according to CPCB reports. Assam has the highest number of dumpsites, followed by Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.
Number of dumpsites in northeastern states
Source: CPCB annual report on implementation of SWM Rules 2016, 2020-2021 and SBM Urban dashboard
Need for remediation of dumpsites
The Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 mandates that cities reclaim their dumpsites by 2026. As a result, dumpsite remediation has become a top priority for all cities in the country, including those in the Northeast.
However, biomining old dumpsites in hilly areas is difficult due to the complexities of the ecosystem, topography and climatic conditions. From quantification to disposal, legacy waste needs to be handled with great caution and expertise.
The cost of treating and disposing of legacy waste fractions in hilly areas is expected to be high due to a number of operational and technical challenges. Because the transportation cost of the mined fractions — primarily scrap combustible fraction (SCF) — is high due to the unavailability and inaccessibility of cement co-processing facilities, transportation of machinery, deployment of skilled manpower and so on are critical requirements.
It is key to understand that any development activity or project in the northeast that involves heavy equipment and machinery requires proper supervision and expertise. In addition, the mined fraction must be directed to the proper location.
What should the states do?
The cities in the Northeast should prepare an alternate plan for the management of fresh municipal solid waste (MSW), ensuring that no recyclable and compostable waste is disposed of in the dumpsites.
The cities should develop a mechanism for proper waste collection and treatment. The construction of landfills on hills must be avoided, according to the Solid Waste Management Rules (2016).
This is possible only if the waste is segregated at the source itself, collected by the waste collectors and channelled to the recycling facilities preferably in a decentralised manner. A scientifically constructed and operated regional landfill can be used to dispose of residual solid waste or rejects from waste processing industries (about 10-15 per cent of total quantity).
For this, suitable land shall be identified in the plain areas down the hill within 25 kilometres and a regional landfill facility should be constructed based on the prescribed legal norms.
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There is an urgent need for specialised policies for mountainous regions. Standardised national-level policies often lack the nuance to deal with specific challenges in these regions. Urban local bodies in hilly regions need to be given the policy space to tailor costs, treatment technologies and timelines as per local requirements.
Surabhi Pal is pursuing BTech in environmental engineering from Delhi Technological University (DTU) and was an intern with Centre for Science and Environment’s Municipal Solid Waste team
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