BANGALORE - Almitra Patel, a civil
engineer by qualification, says she was first
alerted to India's huge problem of inadequate
waste disposal when she noticed that the frogs in
the marshlands near her farmhouse, on the city's
outskirts, had stopped croaking. Seeing that the
frogs had died from sewage and garbage being
dumped in the wetlands, she petitioned the Supreme
Court in 1996 to intervene and get the city
fathers to take responsibility for safe waste
Investigations showed that less
than half of the sewage produced by this global
information technology hub was being managed in
modern treatment plants, with the rest ending up
as raw, untreated sewage in the city's lakes and
Patel won her suit to make the
safe disposal of waste a municipal responsibility,
but management of solid waste and sewage
remains a national
"The marshlands (around
Bangalore) have now turned into a deep, black
stinking river of sewage that flows in an open
channel through dense habitation to an expensive
power-guzzling treatment plant," Patel told IPS.
Impressed by her work, the court appointed
Patel, now 75, as member of a waste management
committee tasked to report on conditions
countrywide with a view to having a policy
In 2000, India finally framed
a solid waste policy based on the committee's
report, requiring all cities to devise
comprehensive waste-management programmes that
include household collection of segregated waste,
recycling and composting - but this was never
The Energy and Resources
Institute in New Delhi has estimated that by 2047,
waste generation in India's cities will increase
five-fold to touch 260 million tonnes per year.
Bangalore's municipality recently
collected funds to clean and conserve its
once-splendid wetlands, now shrunk from 262 in
1962 to just 17 in number. A study by the Indian
Institute of Science, located in this city, says
that the built-up area has simultaneously expanded
by 466% over the same period.
"Municipalities are garnering funds for
building these power-consumptive plants, but don't
have the money to pay their expensive electric
bills, or the infrastructure to bring the sewage
to them," Patel told IPS. "Most such plants are
A report by the
non-government organization, Centre for Science
and Environment (CSE), Delhi, based on surveys of
wastewater profiles of 71 Indian cities,
highlights lack of infrastructure and neglect of
sewage with less than 30% of the country's
officially recorded sewage being treated in proper
The CSE survey, released
earlier this year, shows that 70-80% of India's
wastewater was ending up in its rivers and lakes.
"We are drowning in our excreta," Sunita Narain,
director of CSE, told IPS. According to the
World Health Organization, more than 87% of people
in India's cities (compared with 33% in rural
areas) now have access to a toilet, but leaking
and incomplete sewage systems contaminate rivers
Currently, some 340 million
people live in Indian cities; by 2030 the number
is estimated to double, presenting a frightening
spectacle of imploding sewage in its cities,
several of which suffer water scarcity and
pollution problems caused by encroachments into
lakes and water bodies.
city of Ahmedabad has built over 65 of its
officially recorded 137 lakes, while the southern
city of Hyderabad has a new airport built into the
catchment area of Himayat Sagar, a major lake.
With recycling of wastewater still a pipe
dream in most cities, almost all water is let out
into drains that carry untreated sewage and end up
in the country's lakes and rivers.
pipeline infrastructure has not kept pace with
India's ever expanding cities, resulting in large
urban areas being devoid of planned water supply
and sewage treatment.
The cities of Delhi
and Mumbai account for 40% of the country's entire
sewage-treatment capacity, leaving other urban
settlements with woefully inadequate
Inequity of water and
sewage disposal infrastructure between rich and
poor areas is another phenomenon rife in Indian
cities, with high-income zones cornering most of
the available amenities.
Only 5% of piped
water reaches slum areas in 42 cities and towns,
including New Delhi, the country's capital city.
And, as freshwater sources dry up, water
is increasingly being pumped across great
distances, from lakes and rivers into the cities.
In Bangalore, the municipality has been
increasingly relying on the river Cauvery, 100
kilometers away from the city, and already this is
insufficient to meet the city's demand.
"Things are constantly getting worse,"
Gaurav Gupta, chairman of the Bangalore Water
Supply and Sewerage Board said. "This is because
the river Cauvery itself is drying up."
Groundwater, not surprisingly, is now
depleting rapidly in many areas as citizens sink
more bore wells and authorities are yet to map the
consumption of this resource.
A survey of
groundwater in 27 cities, completed in 2008 by the
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), had warned
that untreated sewage flowing in open drains was
causing serious deterioration of groundwater
The CPCB then called for proper
underground sewage systems to be laid in all
inhabited areas and recommended that a proper
system of collection and transportation of
domestic waste be developed.
water to cities across great distances has
resulted in leakages and theft en route as well as
conflict with rural communities that are left with
insufficient water for their own needs in the
rivers and lakes that have served them for
"The speed with which water
is shifting from rural to urban areas is faster
than the rate of industrialization happening in
India," said Narain. "The challenge is to manage
this through a water-prudent society."
Patel, there are easier and cheaper ways to treat
wastes locally. "Surat city's municipality has
been producing its own electricity from sewage gas
since 2004. There are solutions," she said.