Ashish Jain oversees his fiefdom of worms from a leather swivel chair in a small office of a non-descript consumer’s market somewhere in the great urban expanse of Delhi. His NGO, Indian Pollution Control Association (IPCA), was established in 2001 with the mission of improving standards of living in India and a focus on solid waste management and rainwater harvesting. With as many as 100,000 homes sending garbage to IPCA for vermicomposting, and a daily growing roster of costumers, Mr. Jain’s creepy crawly subjects are always working over time.
IPCA’s waste management strategy is simple: Cut costs and increase efficiency in waste collection through local segregation and vermicomposting. I recently visited one of IPCA’s three plants, all of them based in or around Delhi. Used to the toe to toe traffic and chaos of the city streets, I was surprised when I crossed the entrance of the two acre facility in Greater Noida to find an air of serenity about the place. A collector entered the compound behind us, calmly perspiring over the handle bars of his tricycle as he pulled in the day’s garbage. According to IPCA’s philosophy, the largest cost in a municipal waste system is transportation. To eliminate this burden, IPCA carries out collection and processing in 3 kilometer clusters, a distance which makes it possible to handle much of the waste with manual carts.
In the far corner of the plant another man squatted before a fresh pile of garbage three feet tall. He went through the waste one handful at a time, removing little plastic packets of single serving chewing tobacco and other inorganic waste. IPCA employs rag pickers to serve, for salary, the same communities that they had previously covered informally. The employees are given a uniform, health care, and a stable, minimum wage, income which, IPCA argues, is a path to self respect and greater recognition in the mainstream. Although IPCA says that it provides all of its workers with gloves, this man was not wearing any. Mr. Jain explained that despite safety training the workers, who have been handling waste for most of their lives, prefer to got without the clumsy protection.
As any home composter loves to tell dubious friends, composting doesn’t smell. Well, this is mostly true. The air just around the segregation piles wasn’t what I would call pleasant. But, then again it was better than the thick stink rising from the banks of the Yamuna River around my neighborhood. The long parallel rows of brick pits, where the worms quietly carried out their work, smelled mostly of earth and were lined with trees for protection from the rain and sun. Every so often the compost was monitored and turned, while staff lounged on a small patch of green garden, and white egrets perched in the trees and on aerating piles of waste. After a few weeks the odor free compost is removed from the pits sifted by hand, and bagged for sale.
IPCA markets this product, Vermi Green, to a growing number of organic farmers in India. Any garbage which cannot be composted, or fed to animals on special farms, is sold for recycling or processed in house – IPCA currently operates two small paper and class recycling facilities. Finally a small amount, 5-7% of the waste, is sent nearby to the Gazipur landfill. Driving by the city dump on our way back to the office the first thing I noticed was a sudden cloud of hawks darkening the skies. Following their angle of flight, I finally saw the hills and valleys of a wasteland spread before me. Already over capacity, but with no other viable options available, this landfill is openly accepting Delhi’s garbage.
Mr. Jain’s is an impressive non-profit business model, with the money made from the garbage of wealthy families being reinvested to help serve poorer areas. Yet IPCA faces limitations. The NGO’s reliance on composting as its major processing mechanism is hardly a new idea. In fact, it has been the method of choice in India for centuries. Modern times have seen many large composting facilities fail due to lack of maintenance and product demand. That IPCA has found a stable and growing market for its organic compost, higher priced than standard fertilizers, is the hopeful exception and not the norm. The land required for vermicomposting units, about 2 acres per 3 kilometers of collection, poses another problem, and is the only area in which the NGO requires government investment. Finding such unused space in urban India, and avoiding “not in my backyard” sentiments, is an acute challenge and can turn a low cost process into a highly expensive venture.
Finally, Mr. Jain says, IPCA faces resistance from Delhi’s major waste corporations, municipalities, and unionized street sweepers. IPCA is not just fighting the companies for market share. Amongst the rubbish the staff is jockeying with informal, public and privately employed individuals for valuable resources and the right to stay in the game for the long-term. Despite these challenges Mr. Jain is highly optimistic for the growth of IPCA, confident that it will cover 1 million customers—households, neighborhoods, and companies–within a year. My parting gift from IPCA was a children’s book about Garbie Garbyhog, the very happy trash eating worm.