Guwahati has been declared open-defecation-free by its municipal corporation after going through reports collected by GMC councillors, area sabha members and surveys conducted in schools, colleges and various institutions. The race among towns and cities across the country to gain ODF status is understandable, with the deadline looming in two years on 2 October, 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. District-wise, Kamrup (Metro) and lbari in Assam have achieved ODF status under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA). The entire State is likely to reach the total sanitation target of a toilet for every household by the end of next year itself. There are around 10 lakh such households (out of nearly 57 lakh households) in the State still to be covered, and the Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department is confident it will complete the task by December 2018. Let us remember that compared to beneficiaries building their own toilets with government money or the village panchayats, the preferred mode in Assam has been to get the task done by NGOs. This is all very well, but toilet building and ODF status are but the first rungs in achieving real cleanliness and maintaining it. In cleanliness rankings, apart from individual and community toilets, more weightage is given to door-to-door garbage collection and transportation, as well as processing and disposal of solid waste. This is where Guwahati, aspiring to be a smart city, has been slipping up badly. In the ‘Swachh Survekshan’ survey conducted in January this year, Guwahati’s cleanliness ranking came down sharply from 17 to 41. Clearly, the city administration’s cleanliness drive before the survey had failed to deliver on expected lines. Noting the filth near city marketplaces, Guwahati Mayor Mrigen Sarania had then announced that committees of shopkeepers will be formed so as to involve them in keeping market surroundings clean. He had also added that shopkeepers who have garbage near their shops will be fined by the GMC. Recently, the Mayor warned that the GMC will file police complaints against city residents found throwing garbage into drains and roadsides. That is surely going to be a tall order, as most Guwahati residents will point out.
When GMC employees are rarely to be seen for cleaning and other duties, can they be expected to keep tabs on erring citizens and go about filing FIRs? Then again, what will the GMC do against ‘enterprising’ citizens who skulk out in the dead of night or wee hours to deposit their garbage in front of others’ houses? It speaks volumes that GMC which taxes citizens for cleaning work — outsourced this task to NGOs several years back, who in turn also bill citizens for taking out their garbage. Presently, there are 31 such NGOs, one for each municipal ward in the city. The Guwahati Mayor has said that from next month, the number of NGOs will be raised to 56 with more of them engaged in bigger wards. Building bye-laws will also incorporate clauses for those owning buildings in the city to make their own arrangements for garbage disposal. These announcements sound reassuring, until we examine what strategy the city administration is presently employing to deal with the estimated 500 metric tonnes of solid waste generated daily. There is just one municipal dumping ground for all this garbage — the one at Paschim Boragaon presently — while earlier there were such grounds at Usha gar, Barsapara, Adabari and Chachal. In operation since 2006, the Paschim Boragaon municipal dump has seen the city extend past it with residential areas dotting its surroundings. This dump is also situated bang next to Deepor Beel, which was declared a Ramsar site in 2002. There is hardly any modern solid waste magement system worth its me which can deal effectively with the mountains of garbage in this dump. The result has been air and water pollution in the wider surrounding area, with fears that stagnt water in the dump during the rains can leach out heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, chromium and lead into groundwater. This in turn can pollute the waters of once pristine Deepor Beel which has now shrunk to one-fourth of its origil 40 sq km expanse. The compost processing plant in this dump is too small to make any significant difference, while plans to raise its capacity remain stuck. There are serious complaints of methane gas accumulation in the dump, suspected to lead to frequent fires. Irate residents nearby also allege that fires are lit deliberately to incinerate garbage, which is against rules. All these just go to show that Guwahati has far to go in effectively maging its waste. Unless the city planners think big and devise long term solutions, there can be no improvement on the cleanliness front in real terms.