Back to Utopia


Going beyond the clichéd expression, “cleanliness is next to godliness”, is the need of the hour. Quite often than not, human reaction to a large city, especially in third world countries, triggers images of overflowing dustbins, clogged drains, frothy water, waste strewn all over the place and diseases! Sparing a thought about it, leads one to think of a place where things are picture perfect – Utopia, one might call it.


Proper segregation, management and disposal of waste are by itself a major headache for the administration. Cities, around the world, face similar problems and though there are solutions galore, only a handful of them have actually been able to put those in place and create a better living environment.


Given the long list of problems that cities in third world countries face, it is quite rare that a global accolade be bestowed upon one of such cities.


The city in question is a sleepy sea side city of Alappuzha in Kerala state, India, which has been given a distinction by the UNEP as one of the five cities in the world which are working towards a better way of solid waste management.


Given the recent revamp of the Indian law as regards Waste Management, it can be said that laws have become more stringent and effective than before. The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 was treated as an overarching law. This cast powers on the government to frame Rules and take actions.[1] Waste Management took a new turn in 2016 wherein the whole legal frame was revamped.[2] With the enactment of the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016,[3] the main change was the removal of the limit that it had earlier, wherein only Municipal areas were taken into consideration. This change created a source segregation of waste as well as integrated waste pickers into a formal system.


Alappuzha – Venice of the East


This small city in Kerala has seen a transformation from one where garbage was seen strewn everywhere to one where it is being properly managed. How exactly such a change was brought about is something that need be examined. Earlier, when the city was facing problems of solid waste management, the city officials tried to tackle the situation by setting up a treatment plant.[4] This was protested against by the locals who understood that such a step would only create more landfills.

Given the stiff opposition that the plan had, the government swung into action and came up with a plan to initiate a green drive. The whole idea was to enable each house to go green. The biodegradable waste that each household generates was to be treated in their own backyard. Convincing the community was a major hindering block and with a clear cut plan, the local government was able to garner much needed faith.


This campaign called the ‘Nirmala Bhavanam, Nirmala Nagaram’[5] has been able to divide the responsibility as far as waste management is concerned. By bringing about a concerted effort from not only the civic authorities, but also from each household, the plan gained widespread recognition. The city won the ‘cleanest city in the country’ tag by the Centre for Science and Environment.[6] The model was also presented as a Zero Waste Model in the Paris Negotiations of 2015. Right on the heels on this recognition, the city also received global recognition. It is not always that a city in India features in the ‘best list’ of a global organization. Alappuzha recently was accorded the distinction of being one of the five cities in the world which had a plan to successfully manage solid waste,[7] the others being Osaka[8], Ljubljana[9], Penang[10] and Cajica.[11]


A Method in Madness


Given the fact that only a few years ago the city was a garbage pile, this remarkable change has been brought about a few small steps and initiatives as discussed earlier. The first and foremost step taken by the government was to sensitize the community as regards the harmful effects of urban waste and the resultant damage that it would cause not only to the environment but also to human and other forms of life. Sensitizing people to come up and follow an all-inclusive approach, bringing within it better awareness as regards hygiene, sanitation and waste management were the preliminary goals. The local administration came up with a door to door campaign and the residents were made to realise the importance of segregation of waste. This first step, albeit small, would go a long way in proper management.


Soon, in educational institutions, clubs were formed to this effect which would hand over coupons in exchange of plastic. These coupons could be used to buy books and other stationary from select shops. This, coupled with street dramas, demonstrations and community marches encouraged more and more people to be part of the initiative.


Given that the population density was very high, the local government came to realise that door-to-door collection of waste might not be the most feasible option. This led them to set up decentralised waste management systems. This was done on a pilot basis first.


The whole idea behind this decentralised waste management system was to ensure that each household installed an aerobic pipe compost or if possible, a biogas unit, which was a bit more expensive. To facilitate the same, subsidies were provided for[12]. The whole objective behind this scheme was to ensure that all the domestic wet waste from households was converted into bio manure. The local government would also ensure that there were atleast 2-3 trained personnel in each ward to help people use the same. The plastic waste was to be collected periodically. This was then handed over to private contractors or state owned companies for recycling.


Safeguards were also provided for, in case a household was not able to process its organic waste. A responsibility was cast on the residents to bring the waste to the collection centres that are set up, by the municipal authorities, and ensure that they are treated. Once this waste has been collected, all of it would be composted. This was done in specifically designed bins created by the Kerala Agricultural University. These aerobic bins were installed in different parts of the city and each bin would process around two tonnes of waste and create good quality compost every three months. The municipal workers who segregated waste had the responsibility of managing these as well.


Though the idea was simple, proper implementation was a huge daunting task. There was quite a lot of hue and cry amongst the citizens who objected to the idea. They were dead against installation of the compost bins. The civic authorities, with no other way in hand, sought to set up the compost bins in areas where garbage had piled up. Surely, there would not be anything worse!


Steps were taken under the initiative of the local bodies and people’s representative and soon the garbage sites were cleared and overhead sheds were created. The bins were placed in those sheds. The compost so generated was used as manure for a garden set up nearby[13].


This soon gained popularity and the artists who took part in the Kochi Biennale joined hands and painted the walls and soon made the tents a must see. The said area was named Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) Park and gained much popularity. This concept soon spread to other cities in Kerala and people started vying for the best model. This resulted in the My City, Beautiful City project taken up in various other districts of Kerala.


Apart from these steps, the Alappuzha Municipality also started to engage the services of community workers to keep a check on garbage being dumped. They set up surveillance cameras and penalised those found littering. Owing to the huge popularity that this scheme received, the Municipality followed up this scheme with another to build public toilets as well.


The steps taken provided a much needed impetus to the development of the city and also lessened the financial burden on the municipal authorities. Since a door to door collection of waste was done away with, the Municipality was able to save around Rs. 50 lakhs. The added advantage was that the biogas and manure that were produced as a result of such disposal brought in additional revenue to the tune of Rs. 90 lakhs. Thus a win-win situation was created which augured well for both the administration as well as the citizens.


A Beacon Light


Given the steps and initiatives that have been taken by Alappuzha, it is no wonder that the same has been replicated elsewhere. Such a decentralised system has proved to work wonders and has been able to change set notions of third world cities being dirty. Such decentralised models of waste management and treatment should necessarily be promoted and be taken up by a growing number of cities in India and elsewhere, where garbage disposal is a major headache.


It is also necessary that an initial impetus be provided for, by the local administration so as to   ensure that the initiative gains popularity among the citizens and a grass-root level of participation emerges. This is one of the key components which would lead to the success of such an initiative.


That apart, it is also commendable that the said initiative ensures that waste disposal sites or dumping sites are done away with. Dumping sites are one of the major drawbacks as far as waste management is concerned. By proposing and more importantly successfully implementing a waste management scheme that begins at a grass-root level and is self-sustained is one of the key highlights that need be followed and implemented in other cities. It is on that score that the Alappuzha model scores over the rest.

The column has been written by- 
Dr. Manjeri Subin Sunder Raj
Assistant Professor of Law
National Law School of India University (NLSIU)
Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.
He can be reached at subin@nls.ac.in


  1. Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, S. 25.
  2. See, http://envfor.nic.in/sites/default/files/Waste%20Management%20Rules,%202016.pdf, last accessed on 21/01/2019.
  3. http://www.moef.nic.in/content/so-1357e-08-04-2016-solid-waste-management-rules-2016?theme=moef_blue, last accessed on 21/01/2019.
  4. Sarvodayapuram was chosen to be the place where this treatment plant was to be set up. See, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/waste-to-be-sent-to-sarvodayapuram/article 3641971.ece, last accessed on 01/02/2019. The District Collector decided that the waste be sent here for treatment. A monitoring committee was also formed so as to ensure that the process followed the mandate of law and cast duties on the lawful persons to supervise the waste dumping.
  5. This roughly translates into ‘Clean House, Clean City’.
  6. Along with Panaji and Mysore, Alappuzha won the cleanest city title, which showcased cities wherein solid waste management plans actually work. The awards were handed over by then Union Urban Development Minister, Shri. Venkaiah Naidu. See, http://www.cseindia.org/cses-clean-city-awards-conferred-on-three-indian-cities-6491, last accessed on 21/01/2019.
  7. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/solid-approach-waste-how-5-cities-are-beating-pollution, last accessed on 01/02/2019.
  8. The second largest city in Japan has been able to create a face change by transforming itself from a pollution ridden city to one of the forerunners as far as environment protection is concerned.
  9. The capital city of Slovenia is the first European capital which aimed at creating zero waste. This has helped the city to come out with better techniques as far as solid waste management is concerned.
  10. This Malaysian city has mandated segregation of waste at source and the fact that the majority of its waste is organic material; large scale composting has helped the city tackle its woes.
  11. This Colombian city has taken help of worms to make compost from waste and has been able to significantly reduce the organic waste and more importantly create compost from the same which is used by the residents as organic fertilizer.
  12. Both the initiatives were given heavy subsidies to ensure that more people joined the fray. Governmental agencies like the Agency for Non-conventional Energy and Rural Technology (ANERT) and Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC) were at the forefront. While the pipe compost cost Rs. 1000 in the market, it was subsidized and sold at around Rs. 100-120. The Biogas Unit, which cost Rs. 15,000 was sold at around Rs. 3750.
  13. S. R Praveen, Emulating Alappuzha Model in Waste Treatment, The Hindu, Nov. 4, 2014.

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