Ambikapur, located in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district, is a small city that houses about 200,000 people. In the recent years, the city has become synonymous with ‘cleanliness’, as the decentralized waste management plan undertaken by the city’s municipal corporation, has won national and international recognition.
Maxima Minj, 45, who has been working at the city’s Nawa Para waste material handling centre since 2016, says that initially, her team of waste managers faced many challenges. “The response of the people (residents) was also negative. The job of waste management is still a taboo in India,” she says.
“But when our cleaning efforts made Ambikapur India’s cleanest small city in 2017, the mindset of the people changed,” she continues. “Everyone now calls us Swachhta didis. People appreciate our work in keeping the city garbage-free. It is a very nice feeling.”
In Swachh Survekshan (India’s annual cleanliness survey), Ambikapur first won India’s cleanest small city tag (with a population under 200,000) in 2017, followed by India’s Best Small City in ‘Innovation & Best Practices’ (with a population under 300,000) in 2018. Ambikapur bagged a bigger recognition in 2019 when it secured India’s overall second-cleanest city award. In 2022, while the city’s overall national ranking lowered to ten, it still won India’s best self-sustained small city.
Minj is among the 470 women who form the backbone of Ambikapur’s Solid Liquid Resource Management (SLRM)—a system that has created a permanent revenue source for the local municipal corporation. Importantly, the system has reduced the city’s daily waste generation since 2015, eliminating the need for a stinky waste landfill site or a heavy investment in waste processing plants or a waste-to-energy plant, which has not seen success in India, thus far.
The data shared by Ambikapur Municipal Corporation (MC) shows that 90% of the 50 tonnes of daily waste collected from the city’s 35,000 houses and commercial units are sorted the same day in over 100 subcategories and sold as recyclables to vendors. “The remaining 10%, unusable or non-recyclable waste is dispatched to cement factories as burning fuel, leaving the city with no waste,” claims an MC official while talking to Mongabay-India.
This is how Ambikapur became India’s first zero-waste landfill city, a year after the launch of this model in 2015, a feat it has sustained till now.
Municipal Commissioner Pratishtha Mamgain highlighted some other benefits of this improved waste management: reduced complaints of stray dogs and feral pig menace, and reduced malaria/dengue cases. “These observations are mostly anecdotal and based on the feedback of officials on the ground,” Mamgain clarifies.
From a dump site into a tourist site by minimizing waste
The overfilling of the landfill site was the primary reason why local authorities rejigged the city’s waste management. What used to be Ambikapur’s stinky area is now a garden and a tourist attraction. “Two factors played a vital role in this transformation—the city’s decentralized waste management infrastructure and the team of 470 women who have been running it for the past eight years,” says Ritesh Saini, Ambikapur Municipal Corporation (MC) ‘s nodal officer for waste management.
Ambikapur municipal area has 48 wards under the jurisdiction of 19 SLRM centres, according to the municipal corporation. For example, the Nawa Para SLRM, the city’s biggest waste-handling station, takes care of four wards (9, 10, 16, and 17). Shweta Sinha, the Nawa Para center’s lead supervisor, explains that three-member teams are formed in every centre to collect segregated waste from 200-250 houses. After the waste is collected, they bring the waste to waste handling station to process it and ensure that the saleable material is extracted the very same day.
“We have dedicated junk dealers who visit every evening and pick up our day’s waste in exchange for cash. Every centre has the same activity daily,” says Sinha while adding that electronic waste is hard to dismantle. All SLRMs send such items to a centralised tertiary material recovery facility for further treatment.
Earlier, every center had a composting pit for organic waste. However, that generated bad odor and inconvenienced the neighbors. “Now, all the composting is done at one central location. Four vehicles owned by the municipal corporation pick up wet waste from all 19 centres by afternoon and drop them at the compost making facility,” she adds. The compost generated is also sold from the central facility only.
The environment-friendly system has also become a money spinner. Ritesh Saini, MC nodal officer for waste management, reveals that before 2016, the corporation had to spend fifty to sixty lakh rupees a year to simply transport the city’s waste to a 6.48-hectare landfill. The landfill also required yearly soil and leachate treatment, especially before summer, to prevent it from catching fire.
Ambikapur had similar challenges related to the landfill, such as fires and emission of polluting gases. A 2020-21 report of the Central Pollution Control Board says almost 29,000 tons of 160,000 tonnes of municipal waste generated in the country per day ends in landfill sites.
Saini says that Ambikapur got rid of ecologically harmful landfill sites and made a steady income from its waste management system. MC charges each household Rs. 50 a month for waste collection; shops and larger establishments pay between Rs. 100 and Rs. 5,000 per month, depending on size. Then there is the revenue from the sale of waste too.
The MC data shows that in the 2022-23 fiscal year, user charges totalled Rs. 18.3 million. Rs 12.5 million was received from the sale of dry waste, and Rs. 4 million from compost prepared through wet waste. It all added up to an annual collection of almost Rs. 35 million. “Ambikapur MC uses these funds to pay the 470 women workers, thereby making the whole system self-sustained,” says Saini.
A daily exercise
It was the last week of April. Maxima Minj and her two colleagues return at about 9.30a.m., from the day’s waste collection in their cart with two compartments—one each for wet (organic) and dry (inorganic) waste.
Visibly tired, Minj says, there are several households that do not segregate the waste. “Sometimes it is frustrating, but we do not argue. We start sorting out wet and dry waste in front of them. This strategy has worked with many habitual offenders, who are embarrassed seeing us taking so much pain for the city,” Minj narrates her experience.
After resting for 30 minutes, she started sorting the waste with her team. First, they empty the wet waste in a pit to be picked up by MC’s vehicles. Then, they begin sorting out the dry waste. In the next two hours, they break down the waste into hard and soft plastics, empty bottles, wrappers, bags, coloured and non-coloured cardboards, papers, metals, food packets, aluminum sheets, wires and much more and get them ready for the vendors. Non-recyclable and unusable waste are kept in separate bags to be sent to a disposal facility, and from there, it is ready to be sent to cement factories.
There is a proper governing system for the whole city. The workers are split into 34 self-help groups and then into a city-level cooperative society—Swachh Ambikapur Mission Sahakari Samiti—the main supervising authority.
Shashikala Sinha, current president of the Samiti, says the monthly earning per member was at the most Rs. 2,000-2,500 in the beginning. “It was because user charge collection was meagre and waste recovery was also poor since most households were handing us mixed waste,” she shares.
However, the people had a major mindset change when they noticed the overflowing wastebins disappearing in their neighbourhoods. The door-to-door collection was daily and timely. Waste was no longer dumped indiscriminately. The work to reclaim the landfill site also began, Sinha shares, adding, “All these factors play a major role in increasing user collection and waste management sale.”
“Since March this year, each of our members earns Rs. 9,000 a month — Rs 6,000 paid from the user charges collection and Rs. 3,000 from the sale of waste material. Some part of sanitation tax collected by MC through property tax is also included in it,” claims Sinha.
When asked about the most challenging part of the operation, she underlines that convincing residents to hand over wet and dry waste separately is the toughest part. Even today, 5% to 10% of houses in the city give mixed waste out of habit. “But our staff segregates it there and then, thereby achieving 100% source segregation,” she claims.
There is a provision for a fine of Rs.100 for first-time offenders and Rs. 500 for repeat offenders who do not hand over segregated waste.
“We do issue challans now and then, but I think more than enforcement, it is a mindset change that works better,” she adds.
Women lead the way
Most of these 470 women waste handlers come from Ambikapur’s vicinity. Some of them have faced severe economic hardship in the past and view this waste management as an empowering opportunity.
Arpita (name changed), a waste handler at MC’s SLRM center in the Deviganj area, was living alone with her son after a divorce from her husband. Another woman Asha (name changed), a mother of two, had lost her husband to an accident before getting a job here. She works at Deviganj centre. “This job gave us a permanent income source to care for our families,” says Arpita.
After her husband left her, she tried to take up tailoring work, but the income was insufficient. Subsequently, she shifted to waste management. “Initially, the income from waste management jobs was not much. We worked hard to keep the city clean, which ultimately helped us increase our income,” Arpita adds.
The women waste managers were initially hired by contacting them through the National Urban Livelihood Mission, launched in 2013, to reduce poverty and vulnerability of the urban poor households by enabling them to access gainful self-employment. They were provided two weeks of training before engaging them to waste management, nodal officer Ritesh Saini informs.
Not a perfect model, but one that offers lessons
This waste management model that helped Ambikapur, solved its waste crisis, but there are challenges to solve.
First, the women handling the waste are not used to wearing gloves and masks. Many work without them. Shashikala Sinha shares that the workers feel their sorting speed reduces if they wear gloves. “It is a challenge. We are trying to find a solution for this,” she admits.
Swati Singh Sambyal, Delhi-based waste management expert, in conversation with Mongabay-India says that the health and safety is a very important aspect in waste management since workers deal with all kind of waste. “Therefore, the use of PPEs (such as gloves as well as masks) while managing waste is of utmost importance. However, Ambikapur is a great low-cost model, as it rightly addresses the gender gap in waste management and has empowered women in a leadership role. This is very much replicable in other cities,” Sambyal comments.
There are maintenance issues too. Earlier, the corporation monitored the entire operation through CCTV cameras installed in all SLRM centers. This system does not work today. The nodal officer Ritesh Saini assures that they would restore it soon.
Third, the anti-littering enforcement is weak. There are areas in the city, like the main bus stand and ring road, where garbage can still be spotted in the open, as observed by this correspondent. Commissioner Pratishtha Mamgain, comments, “Ambikapur has a large floating population, which makes the monitoring very difficult.” Also, when the sweepers clean the roads and leave accumulated waste/dust on the roadside, it takes hours to lift them. The commissioner explains that there is a shortage of vehicles.
Vinod Kumar, an auto driver in Ambikapur, opines that the MC usually comes into action close to the dates of the Swachh Survekshan (national cleanliness survey) held every year towards the end of the year.
However, experts feel that the Ambikapur model still offers lessons that can be replicated elsewhere. SLRM expert C Srinivasan, who initially trained the workers in Ambikapur, believes that it is possible to implement the model in any city, big or small. He pointed out that the model works on a decentralized mechanism. If the city is bigger, there will accordingly be an increase in the number of workers and infrastructure like SLRM centers. “Two things are very important for the success of waste management—one is the timely collection of waste at source and timely recovery from it before it gets decomposed.”
While Ambikapur has maintained the garbage system well, Srinivasan believes it could be improved if the workers collect waste twice daily—morning and evening. He adds that the quality of waste will be better, and it will be easier for waste handlers to process and extract recyclable materials.
Ritesh Saini also adds that waste is collected from commercial areas twice daily, including late-night collection in vendor-dominated areas. “Overall, we are on a continuous learning process and flexible enough to make constant changes,” he shares.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Mongabay on May 30, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Waste handlers outside the SLRM Centre in Devi Ganj, Ambikapur / Credit: Vivek Gupta for Mongabay India.