Delhi’s Waste Woes: Is There a Way Out?

As in many Indian cities, Delhi’s landfills continue to be used as dumpsites for all kinds of waste. This happens despite the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 which explicitly restrict landfill use only for disposal of inert, non-recyclable, and non-biodegradable waste and also mandate waste generators to segregate waste before it is collected. It is widely acknowledged that waste segregation at the household level is the most efficient way to address this problem. In practice, however, inducing such behaviour at the household level is a challenge for public authorities responsible for waste management. This study has found low cost interventions such as information and norms to be effective in inducing favourable behavioural change. 

On 5 June 2017, Venkaiah Naidu, then Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, announced the “blue- green pledge campaign” for segregating household waste in two bins as a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission). However, this is not the first time that the Indian state has introduced policies or schemes for efficient management of waste. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 gave power to the central government to regulate all forms of waste and to tackle specific problems that may be present in any region of India.


The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules (MSW Rules), 2000 highlighted that it is the responsibility of the waste generator to ensure delivery of waste in accordance with the collection and segregation system notified by the municipal authority. In order to encourage this, the municipal authorities are supposed to undertake a phased programme to ensure community participation in waste segregation. The MSW Rules also specified that landfilling would be permitted only for non-usable, non-biodegradable, and non-recyclable inert waste.

The National Environment Policy, 2006 identified municipal waste as a major cause of soil pollution. It recognised the need for strengthening the capacity of local bodies for segregation, recycling, and reuse of municipal solid waste in order to efficiently deal with municipal waste. In 2010, Government of India’s National Mission on Sustainable Habitat (NMSH) again emphasised recycling of materials and urban waste management as a major component of ecologically sustainable development. The National Action Plan on Climate Change also identified insufficient segregation of municipal solid waste as one of the reasons for the failure of efforts to compost and generate energy from waste.


The MSW Rules, 2016 which replaced the MSW Rules, 2000, mandate the waste generator to segregate the waste into biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste before it is collected, thus shifting the onus of segregation onto the household. Further, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in its judgment on 22 December 2016 directed every state and union territory to implement and enforce the MSW Rules 2016 in all respects and without any further delay (Almitra H Patel & Ors v Union of India & Ors 2016). 

In spite of all these policies that have been introduced over the past three decades, the country and the national capital, Delhi, in particular continue to be plagued by waste management woes. 

Waste Generation and Disposal as a ‘Public Bad’

In 2015, Delhi, across five municipal authorities, generated approximately 9,620 tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) per day (DPCC 2015). On an average, organic waste in India comprises 50% of the waste generated at the dump (Annepu 2012). This implies that in the case of Delhi, almost 4,810 tonnes/day can be composted. As of 2015-16, Delhi had one compost plant processing 150 tonnes of waste per day and an integrated waste processing plant that processed 1,250 tonnes of waste per day (DPCC 2015). The rest of the organic waste ends up in landfills. Moreover, since the waste is unsegregated, segregation is required in both the plants before it can be processed. While on one hand, this involves more resources, on the other, unsegregated waste also leads to soiling of recyclable waste. 

Generation and disposal of waste can be thought of as a public bad. While disposal of waste at the household level includes only private cost in terms of the cost paid to the garbage collector, the social cost of waste disposed in landfills also includes the cost of methane emissions into the air and the contamination of groundwater. There are other environmental costs, such as odour and noise from heavy truck traffic (Repetto et al 1992). These environmental impacts are also exacerbated by the density of the population. 

In addition, land prices add to the non-market costs of the landfills, but few municipalities charge a rent reflecting these values (Repetto et al 1992). An approximation of landfill costs in Mumbai, including actual costs of MSW disposal, value of the land that could have been used for other development activities, pollution abatement costs, and value of recyclables, puts the cost for disposal of one tonne of waste at ₹ 4,055 (Yedla and Parikh 2001). However, the effects are not just direct. Studies have also found depressing effect of landfills on property values. A meta-analysis of the impact of landfills on nearby areas in Pennsylvania showed that landfills receiving 500 tonnes of waste per day decrease the value of adjacent residential property by 12.9% (Ready 2005).

Charging a flat fee for waste collection services means that the cost of every additional unit of waste generated by a household is zero, resulting in the generation of more waste. Moreover, due to lack of information on the social costs and benefits, each household chooses to either dispose or recycle according to their convenience and often on an ad hoc basis.  

Current Scenario of Waste Management in Delhi

Waste collection and disposal involves different actors at every stage. The waste generated at home is collected by the garbage collector (contracted out or appointed by the Residents’ Welfare Association [RWA] or the Urban Local Body [ULB], who then dumps it at the dhalao (community bin). The ULB then collects the waste from these dhalaos. The figure below depicts the various institutions involved in waste management (Figure 1). Before the waste is picked up, recyclables are salvaged by ragpickers from the dhalaos. 

Segregation at source ensures that recyclables are not soiled and compost made from organic matter is of better quality. Further, it also leads to a reduction in transportation costs if there is decentralised composting of the organic matter. Thus, putting the onus on waste generators to segregate is the first step to handling waste efficiently.

The households at present give waste like old newspapers and unused glass bottles to the kabadiwala (scrap dealer). However, the waste generated every day is not segregated. The ragpickers at the dhalao level collect milk packets and packaging materials from everyday waste to be recycled. It is important to understand the role played by actors involved at each stage in order to reach an optimal solution. 

The discussion above highlights that segregation at source would increase the welfare of the society at large. The disposal of waste in an unsegregated manner by households leads to inefficiencies while processing and recycling waste at the municipality/city level. Thus, actions that maximise the utility of individual households yield outcomes that render the society worse off. Such situations are referred to as “social dilemmas.” Given the persistent nature of the social dilemma of waste management, we conducted a study in Delhi to identify the challenges to achieving segregation at source by households. The following section elaborates on the design of the study and its results.

Impact of Information, Norms, and Incentives

The study was conducted across 15 localities in Delhi falling under three municipal corporations: East Delhi, North Delhi, and South Delhi. The sample was divided into two groups: 11 in the treatment group and four in the control group. About 60 households from each colony were randomly chosen to be a part of the study in order to be able to compare the impact of interventions on the households. Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) property tax records were used to stratify the wards on the basis of income. 

All treatment households were given information on waste segregation and its advantages to society. Subsets of households received additional interventions: a comparison between the amount of waste generated by them and by other households, and an economic incentive to cooperate (segregate waste). The RWAs in the various localities covered by the research were co-opted as collaborating partners, in order to ensure that the findings of the study can be implemented. 

The primary survey was conducted during October 2016–January 2017. We conducted two rounds of monitoring—one week later and then five weeks after the interventions. The experimental interventions showed that there was some behavioural change in the households that started segregating their waste before giving it to the garbage collector. The results (based on authors' estimates after primary survey) show that among the treatment group households, the percentage of households segregating waste increased from 3.69% to 54% in a week after the interventions. However, five weeks after receiving the intervention the percentage of households segregating waste fell to 43%. 

Monetary incentives had more impact as compared to other interventions. Also, while the percentage of households that were segregating waste fell after five weeks, in comparison to the first monitoring, the drop in the percentage of households that were given monetary incentives was far lesser than those that received the other interventions. Another interesting result was that in both rounds of monitoring, the effect of “information + monetary incentive” on the probability to segregate was higher in the high-income category.

Policy Implications

The results confirm that even low-cost interventions (such as the provision of information) influence the waste disposal behaviour of households, though monetary incentives had the largest impact. Keeping this in mind, user fees should be formulated in a way that it incentivises segregation. Households that segregate should be charged lower than the households that do not segregate, instead of charging a fixed fee, which does not take into account waste disposal behaviour. North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) has recently proposed to charge households for garbage collection on the basis of property taxes. However, going by the findings of the study, having a differential rate based on whether the households segregate waste or not will result in a higher rate of compliance with the rules.

From the impact of information campaigns, it is clear that detailing the benefits of segregation for the environment and for ragpickers does have an impact on changing waste disposal behaviour of households. Field observations also highlighted that feedback provided to the residents, in terms of the amount of waste diverted from landfills—composted or recycled—would also influence their actions. 

Policies have emphasised on segregating at source as central to solving the problem of waste. However, actions taken at each stage not only affect the stages that come after, but also the stages that come before. For instance, if the waste segregated by the household is mixed during collection by the garbage collector, it will not only affect the stages that come after collection, but would also lead to the households not segregating the waste. Thus, it is not only necessary to spread awareness to the waste generators, but also to the waste collectors. The RWAs can also play a role in disseminating information and ensuring compliance. 

As the collection system stands presently (as observed during the study), there are high chances of segregated waste being mixed by the waste collector on collection. A possible solution to this could be a waste collection system like the one adopted by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP 2012) in Bengaluru, wherein wet waste is collected on daily basis, but dry waste is to be handed over only on specified days of the week or dropped off personally at a dry waste collection centre. 

To ensure that the waste generators are aware of the rules and the collection system is complied with, a monitoring system has to be put in place. This is where the RWAs can again play a pivotal role in monitoring the levels of compliance and reporting any deviation from the rules to the ULBs.  

Changes must be made to the present collection system to incorporate segregated waste. Carts/dhalaos need to be equipped to ensure that waste segregated by households stays segregated till it reaches the processing facility. Further, responses to the survey also revealed that households are unaware of the facilities set up to process waste such as compost plants. Making waste generators aware of this information as well as the reasons for failure of waste processing facilities can be a step towards altering waste disposal behaviour. 


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