Kerala Technology
Untapped goldmine under Indian waste heaps

Experts in waste management at a discussion during the One Lab, One Week programme. (Handout photo)

Untapped goldmine under Indian waste heaps

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on March 20, 2023
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on March 20, 2023

India has been called a Global Digital Talent Nation with one out of three employees being digitally skilled. Tech workforce in India numbers more than 5 million. The startup ecosystem in India is the third largest in the world. As many as 138K tech patents were issued in India during 2015-21.

The country can roll out an impressive list of achievements in the digital world, yet the role the sector has played in solving the fundamental problems dogging our country and people remains patchy. Nothing illustrates this than our efforts to put in place a fool proof waste management system. That too in a country that produces a whopping 1.5 lakh tonnes of urban solid waste every day.

Indian IT firms figure prominently in global rankings but not when it comes to the environmental performance index survey, where the country was ranked 177 out of the 180 countries which participated. While unicorns and soonicorns look to capture the global markets, only a small section of these tech firms seems to recognise the big opportunity right in our backyard as India is the eighth largest market for environmental services.

Indian companies hold just 1.8 percent of the global market and this leaves the door open for companies based in the US and EU to dominate the local market, according to the executive director of the International Institute of Waste Management, Dr Bineesha P.

Speaking at the recently held One Week, One Lab event at the  Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (CSIR-Niist), the environmental expert also issued a stark warning.

“Disasters like the fire at the Brahmapuram waste dump in Cochin are bound to happen again as there is no proper system in place to monitor such sites and the 5,000-odd such landfills across the country are like ticking time bombs,” she said.

And there was more bad news from experts who attended the event. Not just the solid waste management, Kerala’s water is also bad as there is widespread E  Coli contamination – meaning our drinking water sources are getting polluted by other wastewater like drainage. These sobering facts were revealed by none other than the PCB chairman Pradeep Kumar.

At a time when everyone from the highest court in Kerala to the ever-present talking heads on local television channels are throwing their two cents worth into the toxic cauldron of information and misinformation, an illuminating session attended by top experts in the field painted a fairly accurate but depressing picture of the waste management efforts in the state.

Bineesha traced the roots of our sloppy waste management efforts to India’s focus on roti, kapda, and makan as the country aimed to provide the people with food, cloth, and shelter. What we forgot was all these three generated waste and that too has to be tackled and it was only in 2014 that India started moving in the right direction with the Swachh Bharath Mission, she said.

Instead of blame games and having so many television debates, what the local people and their representatives have to do is plan for the future, Bineesha said. “Don't blame the pollution control board, don't blame the government. It is you and me who have to take it up, especially the youngsters,” she said. 

But the expert, who is also a member of the Technology Development Board under the Kerala government's  Department of Science and Technology, was laying the blame at the door of IT sector alone. Technologies to solve environmental problems are already available, as research centers like Niist and CSIR have already developed them. But even now only one lab can do dioxin analysis, and none exists in the private sector, she pointed out.

The half-hearted implementation of policies is being hampered further by a lack of proper data about these waste mountains accumulating in our cities.

“I have been following reports about the Kannur site. One agency said it has 40,000 tonnes and the next agency came and assessed the same site and said it has 1,40,000 tonnes,” Bineesha recalled. There should be a unified method to obtain such data from all landfills across the country. “Such methods are available and easy to do,” she said.

NIIST has developed a geospatial modelling method and that can be used to locate and monitor such waste landfills, she said. She also goaded agencies like Niist and CSIR to take a leaf out of the book from premier scientific institutions like ISRO and DRDO which sells their products to clients in other countries as the global market is expanding rapidly for environmental services.

The challenges faced by companies in the environmental sector in India are further compounded by the difficulty in securing funding, as some firms have found. Developing indigenous methods in the deep tech sector requires deep pockets, as the gestation periods are longer, making it unattractive for venture capitalists. In other countries, governmental agencies and philanthropists have set aside multi-million dollar funds to aid such research, but this is a rare phenomenon in India.

Furthermore, the lack of political will to address issues like environmental damage and the effects of climate change only exacerbates the challenges. Speaking at the Niist event, the head of Kerala’s Pollution Control Board – which has become the favourite punching bag of everyone after the Brahmapuram disaster – said the work before his organisation has grown into a mountain while the resources they have keep dwindling. 

“All 84 assistant engineer positions are lying vacant, while senior personnel positions are also not filled up. So, we rely on temporary people provided by the employment agency to get our work done,” he said.

 Recalling his early days at PCB, Kumar said the organisation had managed to bring down the industrial pollution of our water sources. But the water quality has deteriorated again. "This is not due to big industries, but mostly due to the expanding construction sector," he said.

At a time when skyscrapers and apartment towers are the visible symbols of economic prosperity, little consideration is being given to the environmental impact of these expanding constructions. On the contrary, as Kumar said, pollution control measures are often tagged as hurdles hindering development.

If the board goes by the letter of the law as stipulated by the central pollution control authority, very few industries will survive in Kerala given its fragile ecological system and dense population, he said.

Other experts who were at the event also pointed out that ordinary people are cogs in the same wheel and unless there is a grassroots participation, environmental issues would be difficult to tackle.

Kerala is a state which takes pride in its greenery and its people are known for their cleanliness and hygiene. But none of this is reflected in the waste disposal ways. Plastic bags containing waste litter on many of our roads while hurling household waste over the wall is the often practiced waste disposal method. This out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking needs to change if Kerala has to avoid more environmental disasters like the Brahmapuram fire.



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