Gangtok: Cleanest City, with a Long Way to Go

Gangtok

Altitude: 1650 metres above sea level
Location: Sikkim
Population: 100,286
Households: 23,773
Established: 1716
Area: 19.2 sq km
Temperature Range: 5.6 – 23.4 degree Celsius

In 1998, Sikkim became the first Indian state to ban the use of disposable plastic bags. It is also the world’s first organic state. Gangtok, the capital city, which sits at an elevation of about 1650 metres (slightly lower than Kodaikanal), has been noted for its performance in waste management practices, not only within the state but also in the country. It generates about 50 tons of solid waste per day. Even after imposing a strong ban on plastics, the city still struggles with a landfill that is ready to overflow. With 82.3% of the land under forest cover, Sikkim also has a lack of new disposal sites.

The hardest challenge most hill states like Sikkim face today is two-fold: the scattered nature of rural settlements with poor connectivity to urban centres, and the periodic influx of tourists. About 5.5 lakh tourists visited Sikkim in 2011; the number jumped to 16 lakhs in 2019.

The state has the steepest climb in the shortest distance. The terrain adds to the burden of costs on collection and transportation of solid waste, especially due to dispersed inhabitation in rural areas.  

Notable government initiatives for Gangtok include the imposition of a Garbage Collection Fee, with different fee structures for commercial establishments based on size, number of hotel rooms etc. The city has, in fact, received several awards, including placing among the top ten cleanest cities in India in 2015 and 2016, which the city owes to the ban on plastics and the push for clean public toilets.

Transporting waste in rural wards

In 2010, a model village, Yangang in southern Sikkim, was chosen to demonstrate a zero-waste project based on C Srinivasan’s model of Solid and Liquid Resource Management (SLRM), primarily addressing the problem of segregation. Pick-up vehicles with partitions were chosen to collect from households and shopkeepers. The collected waste would reach the local recovery resource centre, where it was further segregated. 

Pulling tricycles up and down these hills was arduous, and there was a lack of scrap dealers (with just one or two in Gangtok) in the landlocked state. This is a common problem across many hill stations, wherein collection and transportation become more expensive, as compared to the plains, with several scrap dealers in every area; rural areas have to collect and transport to the one scrap dealer in Gangtok, which does not make economic sense.

EPR

This is where one important solution of the ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ under the Plastic Waste Management Rules (2016) comes in. ‘When a company like Coca-Cola can make an effort to reach the remotest parts of the world in order to sell their product, they should also make efforts to make their distribution channels work upstream to collect their plastic waste,’ Priyadarshinee Shrestha, Team Leader, WWF-India Khangchendzonga Landscape, tells The Kodai Chronicle. Production systems have to be made responsible by disincentivising the use of single-use products, she adds. However, the current Uniform EPR framework, which does not have mountain-specific guidelines, disregards the economic challenges faced in the mountains.

Segregation happens at the last mile rather than at source which inevitably puts pressure at the dumpsite to handle single use plastics

Disposal in Landfills

Gangtok, with its population of more than a lakh, has one landfill site. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) stepped in to revamp Gangtok’s existing landfill site for several reasons. The landfill lies adjacent to the Ranikhola river on the banks. Any sort of leachate or heavy rainfall would get the wastes caught up in the flow of the river. However, due to the lack of new suitable sites, the reconstruction by ADB could also be done in the same area next to the old site while trying to maintain a 30 m distance from the river. This is yet another example of dumpsites lying in ecologically sensitive zones.



The only landfill site in Gangtok has been set up on the banks of the Ranikhola river as visible here (Photo: Rajendra P Gurung)

The challenge of segregation also became quite evident in this project, according to Shrestha. At least one or two private wards did a fantastic job of segregating their waste, but the experiment failed to move forward. This was because the segregated waste was also sent to the landfill instead of being diverted to the appropriate processing plants, as these facilities did not exist. Thus, the incentive to segregate, the first step in waste management—segregation, collection, transportation, disposal—became nullified. Now the reconstructed sanitary landfill is as good as a regular landfill, as it is already about to overflow, says Shrestha. 

Even though single-use plastics are banned along with a number of products, these independent bans have not been effective without having strong linkages with the rest of the waste management system.

Read more about the challenges to read the Common Lessons across all hill stations in our Overview, and the unique lessons from each of the towns by clicking on the links below:

Joel Kumar

Joel Kumar has worked in non-profit organisations, researching the environment, agriculture, and energy issues. His work has been published in Down to Earth and by the Centre for Science and Environment. He currently trades in organic produce from farmers around Kodaikanal. He is pursuing how to scale up the development of organic farming practices through experiments with new business models. He lives in Tuticorin and is looking for a house near Perumalmalai. He handles long-form for The Kodai Chronicle

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