Daan Utsav: Addressing The Plastic Waste Problem In Rural India
This #DaanUtsav, BloombergQuint brings you a series of NGO startup stories, on how organisations across India are bringing about significant transformation, and are looking to scale-up. These startups are participating in ‘Dolphin Tank’, a ‘Shark Tank’ format event with pitches made to #LivingMyPromise’s ‘dolphin’ signatories, for their support.
Starting a non-profit in the waste management space after 16 years of running my research and analytics startup was a major career shift for me. But somehow, I was confident of pulling it off because I had already spent a year not just understanding the waste problem for a city like Mumbai but also implementing a community-based decentralised solution in my housing society in the suburb of Goregaon.
But rural waste management posed a different level of complexity. I was only aware of the problem and had no inkling of the solution. Moreover, I hadn’t spent any significant time outside of the large cities. But I knew one thing, the rural waste problem was already very large, and not too many entities were trying to solve it. I had to do something about it.
My four-year stint at Nestle as a brand manager had also made me aware of the strong sales push that consumer goods companies were making in rural areas. Distribution expansion projects were heavily encouraged and funded. The results were evident. There is hardly a village today where you won’t find popular food or personal product brands jostling for space in tiny shops alongside some local brands as well as counterfeits. Today, rural FMCG is a Rs 3.5 lakh crore industry.
From an environmental perspective, however, the result is catastrophic. This is somewhat like the Abhimanyu story in the Mahabharata. He only knew how to enter the Chakravyuha, not to get out of it.
Most of the plastic packaging is either burnt at the house level or dumped in a nearby spot/ water body. In some cases, plastic is used to light the fireplace for cooking (gosh!). Imagine the health hazard for the household.
Neither the producers nor local gram panchayats have to date made significant attempts to create formal waste segregation, collection, and recycling initiatives. Hence over 90% of the rural inorganic waste which is easily over a million tons per year causes significant air, water, and soil pollution at the village level. Not just human beings, but animals on land as well as in water bodies are affected by plastic pollution.
I wanted to create a successful model for solving this problem. And for that, I needed a village cluster where I could run an experiment. I was also looking for a local NGO partner who would help me enter the village community or else I would have spent years just trying to build equity with the villagers. I started conversations with a few large NGOs working in rural Maharashtra, but nothing seemed to be clicking. A chance meeting with Mangesh Wange, chief executive officerof Swades Foundation, at an event in 2019 gave me some hope.
Swades Foundation has been working very closely with over 400 villages in the Raigad district of Maharashtra for over a decade in water, healthcare, sanitation, and other activities. They were keen to collaborate to implement waste management in their target villages.
We decided to implement a pilot in seven villages in Mangaon taluka, which is the headquarter town of Swades.
In urban areas, the local kabadiwalas find a large amount of high-quality waste in concentrated areas which makes their business viable. That’s the precise challenge in rural areas.
Geographically spread-out villages, smaller amount of waste per capita, and that too low-value waste like sachets, bags, and pouches make the entire project unviable for a kabadiwala.
Our first task was to implement segregation at source: at the house level in each of the villages. We gave each house a reusable bag and asked them to put their dry waste like plastic, paper, cardboard, etc. in it instead of burning it. We made a video that captured the hazards of improper waste management. Surprisingly, the villagers responded very positively and started segregating. I find convincing Mumbai residents harder 😊.
We then placed a couple of large bins in each village. Once the bags were full, the villagers were asked to empty them into the bins. We thus managed to aggregate the waste at the village level. The local kabadiwalas were still hesitant to pick up the waste but by giving them some gap funding, we managed to divert small batches of waste to recycling. The villages started looking cleaner, there were no more waste dumping spots.
As we were about to scale up the project, the lockdown happened. But we have now revived the project starting July 2021, in 24 more villages in Mangaon taluka. The task ahead is daunting, but we are now confident we can set up the processes and scale-up.
The way forward involves creating a multi-pronged strategy.
While several laws exist for enabling the same, the on-ground implementation is woefully lacking. The local gram panchayats need to be funded to set up systems and local infrastructure for waste management. Local kabadiwalas and other entrepreneurs can then expand their business to ensure all waste is collected and processed. The local employment generated as a result can be a bonus.
The residents need to be made aware of segregation at source, and the hazards of not doing so.
Our next target is 400 villages in Raigad to become fully waste compliant. Abhimanyu needs to come out of the Chakravyuha!
Kedar Sohoni is Founder - Director at Green Communities Foundation, and a technology entrepreneur who has built research and analytics companies.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.