Challenges of solid waste management: The case of Patna city

  • Blog Post Date 25 January, 2021
  • Notes from the Field
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Uma Sarmistha

University of Florida


Rapid urbanisation with insufficient planning has led to problems of solid waste management in several Indian cities. In this note, Uma Sarmistha discusses preliminary findings from a field study in the city of Patna in Bihar state, which examines the present state of waste management processes, as well as the perspectives of citizens and authorities on the issue.


“Parivartan toh bhahot aaya hai. Pehle log katchra road pe fekte the ab gaadi ka intazar karte hai koodha fekne ke liye. Isliye road par katchra thoda kam hua hai”. – Patna resident.

(“A lot of change has taken place. Previously, people used to throw garbage on the street. Now, people wait for the garbage pickup truck to throw their trash and hence, garbage on the streets has reduced”).

Solid waste management (SWM) is a major challenge for any urban space, and especially for a city in the global south that is urbanising exponentially with very little or no planning whatsoever. Patna, the capital of Bihar, is among the fastest-growing Indian cities in terms of population density and urbanisation. Patna is the largest city in Bihar, which continues to be one of the least urbanised states in the country. Patna’s growth has been largely unplanned despite a four-fold increase in the city’s population from 473,000 in 1971 to 1.68 million in 2011 (Alakshendra 2019). Rapidly expanding cities are leading to rapidly growing mountains of waste. According to Pandey (2014), the daily waste generation for the city of Patna – including both organic and inorganic waste – is around 1,200 tonnes and is expected to double by 2036. Forty per cent of the total waste generated by the city is household waste. Further, Patna is a unique case study for SMW because of its inherent contradictions. While the city is the largest urban centre of Bihar, most of Patna is still not sufficiently urban. The Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) is one of the oldest civic bodies (originally formed over 150 years ago) in the country, however, waste management initiatives were added to its guidelines just two years back.

In an ongoing study, we seek to explore the possibility of locating the citizen (waste generator) as the focal actor in the waste management system, with the agency to recycle their own waste and seek the support of other actors (including the State) as and when required (Bhaskar and Sarmistha 2019). We conducted a primary survey of 500 households1 in Patna in December 2019-February 2020, to measure citizens’ willingness to adopt and pay for waste recycling, assess their understanding of the waste management systems and practices and their implications, and their level of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with existing processes. The survey was supplemented with 20 focussed-group discussions and 25 in-depth interviews with stakeholders (including government officers, NGO personnel, University Professors), and several case studies of households recycling their organic- waste.

Solid waste management in Patna: Current process and issues

The PMC is the civic body responsible for SWM in the city, as per the Bihar Municipal Act, 2007 and Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. Until 2018, the standard practice of SWM in Patna was to dump household trash/garbage in the street’s open pit, or at community dumping2 points. There was no segregation of organic and inorganic waste. As of 2016, there were as many as 860 secondary and community dumping points in the city (Pandey 2014). Further, from these 860 dumping points, garbage was carried in open municipality trucks to the main landfill. Until recently, the landfill sites were constantly being changed to different locations around the city due to citizen protests and revolts.

On 2 October 2018, under the Swachh Bharat Mission (a Centre-led initiative for clean India), the PMC initiated an extensive door-to-door segregated (organic and inorganic) waste collection movement. This step is considered to be a game-changer and much-needed policy change for the country’s the most unclean state capital-.

According to our interview with the Additional Municipal Commissioner, Patna, a total of 375 waste collection vehicles were deployed across the city (including 182 e-carts and 120 small tractors, and a few tippers and hand pull carts for smaller lanes). While it is challenging to obtain official data detailing the financing of the initiative, interviews with state government officials reveal that the funding came from three channels: (i) Swachh Bharat Mission, (ii) Swachhta Anudaan (a grant from the state government) and, (iii) A user fee of Rs. 30 per household per month for waste collection services.

Figure 1. Waste management initiatives of Patna Municipal Corporation

The door-to-door waste collection occurs every day from 6 am until 2 pm. The waste collection vehicles go around the neighbourhood/locality with a catchy song “gadi wala aaya jara ghar ka katchara nikaal” (the garbage truck is here, get the garbage from your house out).

Preliminary analysis shows that even in the cases where study participants are doing their part by segregating most of their household waste at source, all the waste is thrown together at the secondary dumping point and is transported to the main landfill in one big truck. This happens mostly due to the lack of management, awareness, and guidelines at the secondary collection points, and defeats the whole purpose of this massive initiative.

When we asked a ward sanitation inspector why there was so much garbage on the street despite such an organised system, he said: “The waste collection vehicle comes to colonies once in the morning and once in the afternoon. However, for a few families, the pickup vehicles come too early, and for some families, the culture is not to touch waste after bathing. Thus, they throw the waste on the street as per their convenience”. He also blamed this outcome on domestic help that are ubiquitous in well-off households and primarily responsible for disposing of household trash. One domestic helper is usually employed part-time by 3-4 households and is thus, only able to manage the proper disposal of trash for one household.

When it comes to recycling organic waste, in the past, there have been efforts at the community level by various NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to encourage households to recycle organic waste.3 However, these efforts did not sustain for a variety of reasons. A fundamental cause was the government’s lack of cooperation and awareness of waste management procedures among the general public. According to an NGO personnel, “The importance of recycling and methods of waste management at the household level should be taught in schools and colleges, and that will make everyone understand the importance of generating less waste for landfills.” Many stakeholders from the government side (policymakers and high-ranking officers) complained about the citizens’ lack of civic sense. Even with the door-to-door garbage collection service being in place, the primary perception among policymakers was that the situation would not improve unless there is a behavioural change in how people perceive cleanliness. Citizens complained about a lack of awareness programmes before the initiation of segregated waste collection. Finally, preliminary findings from the household survey revealed that around 50% of households are willing to adopt changes in waste management techniques, and almost 30% are ready to contribute to community-wide waste management initiatives.

Under the current State-run SWM system, the garbage collection apparatus is complex and politicised. As per the PMC, the whole system is decentralised and duties have been assigned to ward offices that ultimately manage the whole operation. Each ward office comprises a ward councillor, a sanitation inspector, and five supervisors, all of whom are elected representatives. However, the ward officers complain that the system is too centralised and the PMC controls every aspect of the operation, from staffing to funding. A key reason for the rift between the PMC and the ward offices is that manual waste collectors are daily-wage workers hired by the PMC and the workers do not report to the local ward offices. Patna city is divided into 75 wards, under the control of six executive circles.4 Further, there is a significant lack of coordination among concerned government agencies. The lack of communication between the Department of Urban Development and Housing and the PMC often causes inefficiencies and ultimately low compliance.

The current landfill site is located at Ramachak Bairiya village (around 14 km from the city), According to a report published in Telegraph India, since 2008, approximately 1,200 metric tonnes of waste are dumped in Ramachak Bairiya village on a daily basis. The landfill brought many jobs but also many diseases to the village. While talking to a resident of Ramachak Bairya village, he said, “Gareeb ki zindagi makkhi ki tarah hai!” (The life of the poor is like that of a fly!). The PMC is looking for avenues to set up a ‘waste-to-energy’ industry at the landfill site (Government of Bihar, 2018).

Way forward: Opportunities and challenges

Even though Patna is among the oldest Indian cities, most of the residents have rural roots. This is not true for most of the state capital cities in the country. The population with rural ties in the city presents many opportunities but the Patna being one of the densely populated cities in the country throw enormous challenges when it comes to the SWM.

As mentioned above, one of the biggest SWM challenge is the lack of space. Urban-dwellers live in congested spaces with very little motivation and awareness to think and act responsibly regarding the household waste that they generate – where it is going and how it is processed. The general perception among citizens is that the government’s waste collection initiative is outstanding and is bringing a change in the city. On the other hand, one section of Patna’s population still lives with its rural cultural values and ties, with ample knowledge of waste management, especially organic waste recycling practices. According to a resident, “We still live like we used to live in our native rural areas and generate much less waste than the other urban-dwellers. Most of the organic waste in our household is recycled as cattle feed or compost for plants”. However, because of the lack of space, plants, and cattle around the city, it gets tricky.

Another SWM challenge is the lack of incentive among citizens to recycle. We conducted several case studies on how individual households are already practicing organic waste recycling at a small scale – making compost with kitchen waste and adding it to the kitchen gardens. This practice is more common than it appears. It is was surprising to see households making organic compost even in congested places. However, only households who use organic compost have incentive to recycle. To make recycling ubiquitous, it is paramount to bring more households in the fold. In North America, local governments install a curb side composting unit where households can dispose their organic waste. According to a note published on Smart Asset, the local governments provide two incentives – free compost and a marginally cheaper trash pickup service in neighbourhoods achieving predetermined levels of composting .Thus, this kind of incentive will eventually help PMC by saving money on pickup and disposing trash. The savings can be passed on to the households. It may be a good model to follow for the city too.

In our opinion, more households may adopt composting if they are educated on the topic. SWM initiatives can be successful if household participation is encouraged via effective awareness campaigns and civic body engagements and incentive-based approach like a tax credit, free distribution of segregating bins, free cleaning supplies, etc. The elected ward officers can play a vital role in the engagement and awareness drive. One can also not diminish the role of initial infrastructure such as a common composting unit for the entire colony/ward. Finally, the demonstration effect could prove to be vital. The PMC could choose one ward each from the six circles in Patna to initiate the awareness campaign and convert these into ‘model wards’. This could motivate other wards to adopt the SWM practices. Last but not the least, the final challenge for a successful SWM is the coordination and communication.

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  1. The households were randomly selected from five representative wards (identified on the basis of Census 2011 data and recommendations of PMC) in Patna.
  2. Community dumping points were mostly identified and created by the community/neighbourhoods. The secondary points were identified and created by the PMC, after PMC adopted the solid waste management practices in 2018. In many cases, the secondary points and community dumping sites are the same.
  3. The major NGOs involved with such initiatives in Patna were Nidaan and Sunai Consultancy.
  4. All the 75 wards under PMC are controlled under six executive circles and managed by a ‘City Manager’ who is deputed by the state government.

Further Reading

1 Comment:

By: Shyamadas Banerji

Excellent article. My memories of Patna go back to may last visit around 1970. Filth and congestion ubiquitous with trash heaps in every street corner. And red betel nut spittle in every office corner and stairwell. No place to walk except the zoo early in the morning. As the article points out, the problem is a cultural one. Patna remains a large village. People like to keep the inside of homes clean by pitching all their garbage on to the public street. It is a city with cows wandering all over the place. It appears that the PMC provides a well organized daily trash pick up service but in spite of this, garbage is dumped on the streets. Perhaps if street- side bins (separate for organic and inorganic trash) were provided for multiple designated homes ( say 5 -10 homes) covering a clearly designated section of the street , that could help. Incentives for use of these bins including fines would help. These bins could be emptied once a day by trash collectors. If garbage trucks were closed trucks and had hydraulic lifts to pick up the trash bins as is the practice in advanced countries, the whole process would be expedited and trash would not fall off the trucks as it happens . Actually , designs for closed trash compactor trucks with hydraulic bin lifters are probably available and Indian manufacturers can provide these trucks at a reasonable cost. If the PMS and state government approached the World Bank or ADB for a loan for improving SWM in Patna, this would be considered as SWM is a priority assistance area. I know that Chinese cities have modern trash compactor trucks. Their designs can guide Indian manufacturers. Obviously , the efficient functioning of SWM for Patna is complex requiring a systematic approach at many levels. I have not addressed issues of landfill management and green house gas generation. Inorganic material needs to be recycled. With climate change accelerating, each state should prepare its own national determined contributions to the reduction of GHG /carbon emissions. Chinese cities have been very proactive in preparing climate action plans and acting on them . Take a look at this website. https://sustain.org/program/climate-smart-low-carbon-cities-china/

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