City Compost is a big issue for a developing nation like India. Today the Union Cabinet has given its approval to Policy on Promotion of City Compost. This policy will help in circulating compost produced from city waste for the purpose of farming and agriculture. Composting of city wastes is a legal requirement for all urban local bodies in India, but Central and State governments have recently perceived it as a social good requiring official nurturing.
Green Revolution rescued our nation from famines, but at a terrible cost. Low-productivity nutrient-depleted soils have been ruined by unbalanced and excessive use of synthetic fertilizers and lack of organic manures or micro-nutrients. Planning Commission estimated a shortfall of 6 million tons a year of organic manures. City Compost can fill this need and solve both problems, of man-made barrens and organic nutrient shortages. India’s 35 largest cities alone can provide 5.7 million tons a year of organic manures if their biodegradable waste is composted and returned to soil.
Adopting Integrated Plant Nutrient Management (IPNM) for use of valuable city compost along with synthetic fertilizers will generate enormous national savings for prosperity of India’s farmers as well as cleaning of urban India. There is scarcely any other national programme which can bring such huge benefits to both urban and rural sectors, and address desperate need to save India’s soils and sustain their productivity.
Known for decades but not acted upon, IPNM is a wise move that has yet to gather momentum and realize its full potential. City composts contain all 17 required micro-nutrients, derived from biodegradable food wastes they are produced from, and can counter galloping depletion of micro-nutrients in Indian soils since heavy chemical-fertilizer, began to be used for intensive cultivation.
Compost used with synthetic fertilizers makes crops more pest-resistant by strengthening their root-systems, reducing pollution by excessive and needless pesticide use. IPNM also helps control nutrient wastage and pollution of ground-water with nitrates, as in Punjab, because only 20-50% of the Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium in synthetic fertilizers is absorbed by plants. When compost is also used, its humus acts like a slow-release sponge, retains nitrates for plants and thus increases uptake and efficiency of chemical fertilizers it is used with, increasing crop productiveness compared to synthetic fertilizers alone.
MUNICIPAL WASTE MANAGEMENT LEGISLATION
Mainly because of our national need for returning nutrients to our soils, and to take advantage of our tropical climate, our Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2000 [MSW Rules] require that in all ULBs, biodegradable wastes shall be processed by composting, vermi-composting, anaerobic digestion or any other appropriate biological processing for stabilization of wastes.
Production and sale of city compost is not the primary function of city administrations. It needs to be privatized for optimum efficiency and care. Several entrepreneurs have already entered this field and many compost plants are in place, with more in the pipeline, almost all on public land made available at nominal cost. All of them are willing to wait for 5-7 year payback on their investment but are facing tremendous problems of marketing and distributing their product.
There is a total Government indifference to its use and has tremendous need for protecting India’s soil health and productivity, to problems of compost producers (severe working capital crunch because of highly seasonal demand and carrying of 10-11 months finished stocks a year), and to farmers’ needs (on-time near-site availability of affordable compost).
FARMERS’ STANCE ON CITY COMPOST
Farmers have used domestic waste on their fields for centuries. They clearly recognize value of organic manure, of which there is such a shortage that farm produce was brought in and city waste ferried out until 50 years ago. Today, urban waste-transport drivers are bribed to dump reasonably biodegradable raw garbage (esp. market waste) onto farmers’ fields. Uncovered and un-composted, this rotting waste helps breed rats and insects which carry diseases, and stray dogs which not only carry rabies and rickettsia but form hunting-packs that kill nearby livestock at night and cause dog-bites and traffic accidents by day.
If city wastes are instead composted before applying them to soil, cities would be cleaned up and fields around cities would be spared infertility induced by today’s accumulating plastic-film waste.
Health and hygiene in peri-urban areas would visibly improve. Unfortunately, farmers have no long-term experience of good city compost, which they expect almost free like raw garbage, so there is an unwillingness to pay for an upgraded product. Farmers will not pay for city compost what they pay for animal manures because it contains only 1% of NPK, though few would say the same of farmyard manures which have the same or lower levels of NPK.
DROUGHT-PROOFING AND RESTORING SALINE, ALKALINE AND DEGRADED SOILS
Apart from balancing nutrient supplies, organic manures play a vital role in maintaining favourable soil biology and optimum physical environment. Their tremendously useful soil microbes and humus help to aerate soil, improve water retention and resistance to both drought and water-logging, and can reduce irrigation requirements and conflicts over water. City compost can also restore saline and alkaline soils to fertility.
CONFRONTATION OVER USE OF CITY COMPOST
It is hard to imagine a more beneficial win-win solution than use of city compost in city’s hinterland.
What then comes in way of this solution?
- Apathy, inertia and resistance to new ideas: Little of voluminous research on benefits of IPNM / IPNS would have used properly composted city waste for trials, because it was simply not available regularly and in bulk all these years. Hence there is tremendous need for urgent agricultural research to include city compost of specified standards in IPNM trials, and to incorporate results in latest Package of Practices for all types of crops.
- There is mental block of city compost being bulky and hence too expensive to transport and spread: Massive subsidies to urea (0.5 to 1 % of GDP) have skewed NPK ratios and encouraged its labour-saving use despite its long-term soil destruction. The answer lies in creative solutions to its availability and distribution, such as decentralized stock-piles near point of use, perhaps in a leased agricultural field, where mechanized loading of un-bagged loose compost can be done for a small loading fee during peak demand. Fertilizer producers and distributors are best placed to understand needs of farmers and evolve solutions, once they have embraced need and benefits of IPNM.
FERTILIZER INDUSTRY’S OUTLOOK
Fertilizer Association of India (FAI), the leading lobby for synthetic fertilizers, is narrowly focused only on protecting its massive subsidies for chemical fertilizers, given to producers, not farmers, and increasingly being questioned in national debate. Just 12% of this annual subsidy would meet one-time capital cost of city compost plants in our 400 largest cities over 100,000 population and produce 5.7 million tons a year of organic soil conditioners. Balanced fertilization requires appropriate price parity among different fertilizers because one unintended fallout was pricing out of low-analysis nitrogenous fertilizers which did not receive any subsidy on their Nitrogen content although urea was still subsidized. Massive subsidy to urea has led to highly disproportionate use of NPK which has been so damaging to India’s agricultural policy and has yet to be successfully brought to optimum balanced levels. Compost returns P (phosphorus) and K (potash) to soil. IPNS will also reduce foreign exchange burden on Indian exchequer because bulk of P and all K is to be imported.
Emphasis on IPNM using City Compost, which can be produced all over country, can be a successful strategy if focused inter-Ministerial efforts are made. Although Ministry of Agriculture renamed its Department of Fertilizers as Department of Integrated Nutrient Management, years ago, there have been no policy changes what-so-ever.
BENEFITS TO FERTILIZER INDUSTRY OF SUPPORT TO CITY COMPOSTING
Real economic benefits of compost use, like improved soil quality, water retention, biological activity, micro-nutrient content and improved pest resistance of crops, are equally ignored by policy-makers and fertilizer producers alike. Producers do not yet realize that preventing soil depletion and reclaiming of degraded soils will in fact increase size of market and therefore their market share too, which is currently threatened by globalization and world prices lower than their own. Since most large fertilizer plants are Government owned. Another threat is Government’s intended policy of closing down loss-making public-sector enterprises and dis-investing from profitable ones.
Industry’s current response is diversification into shipping, insurance etc. Co-marketing of compost along with their synthetic fertilizer would be a much more synergistic diversification strategy. Each of our 35 million-plus cities could be adopted by one of 32 big fertilizer producers, as a way of avoiding direct competition with each other. Capital costs involved will be one ten-thousandth of existing investment in their fertilizer plants.
FINANCIAL SIDE OF PRODUCING AND CO-MARKETING CITY COMPOST
In-house ownership of compost plants by fertilizer companies is a better option for fertilizer industry than alternative of sharing the existing subsidy budget with low-nitrogen fertilizers like City Compost and Farmyard Manure. Such in-house ownership will also be administratively far easier for Government to manage than a reorienting of its current subsidy policy. On strictly financial terms too, there are huge benefits available to existing fertilizer plants that set up compost plants themselves and give them out on operating contract if need be. Such ancillary plants would be far more profitable than stand-alone entrepreneur compost plants because fertilizer factories have vast, possibly surplus, manpower resources and in-house technical expertise to rapidly set up such compost plants. They can also use these plants as tax shelters, by claiming 100% depreciation on plant cost for city pollution abatement, as well as 100% tax-free profits on compost.
Additionally, they can claim State subsidies now available for soil conditioners if they use their compost for reclamation of degraded and saline soils. Co-marketing of compost with urea will be a long-term investment in their own business, as it will increase acreage and customers for their products and benefits of IPNM will increase yields, prosperity and purchasing power of their existing buyers. This marketing can be done at negligible additional cost as all fertilizer companies already have an excellent sales and distribution network countrywide, with access to Government storage facilities that are denied to composting entrepreneurs. But co-marketing needs to be done with sincerity as a win-win strategy.
In past, fertilizer companies were asked to give a lift to Single Super Phosphate (SSP), once a major but now declining fertilizer input, but there was only lip service, no action. At that time, great crop benefits of calcium and sulphur (now a limiting micronutrient) present in SSP were ignored. Care should be taken this time to highlight all non-NPK benefits of city compost listed earlier.
PROPOSED POLICY INITIATIVES
What is immediately required is a widespread program of field trials both by institutes like Indian Council of Agricultural Research and by all fertilizer companies to establish best practices and proportions for combined use of City Compost with chemical fertilizers for all crops and soils. Sufficient City Compost is now available at a dozen locations in India today having compost plants, for such IPNM trials over a wide geographic area. Fertilizer firms already have regular demonstration plots and trials and farmer meets, to replace farm extension work abandoned by Central and State governments after Green Revolution. NGOs and individual firms will never have resources for this. National Biofertilizer Development Centres are to be converted to National Institutes of Organic Agriculture.
Instead of this all-or-nothing approach to use of synthetic fertilizers, they should be used to promote IPNM and combined use of mineral and organic inputs instead. Today, there is no formal meeting-point or dialogue between Agriculture and Fertilizer ministries. This needs to be put in place urgently. There is also a great need to develop accepted standards for City Compost. Not just heavy-metal limits specified in MSW Rules, but those a farmer needs to know, such as absence of weed seeds and pathogens, germination success, water-holding capacity and like.
India’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) has begun such an exercise for agro-waste-based composts as a rural-employment activity, but has reach and credibility to be used for certification of city-waste composts as well. Such certification is also necessary to counter rumours by anti-compost lobby that city compost is toxic. In actual fact, because of India’s very high levels of recycling non-compostables, samples regularly meet specifications for compost quality laid down in MSW Rules.
In fact, heavy-metal levels will come down when city compost is used along with chemical fertilizers, since, for example, Single Super-Phosphate and Rock Phosphate, contain twice as much lead and 9 – 15 times more cadmium than standards now specified for city composts. Synthetic fertilizers are not currently required to comply with such strict standards for heavy-metal content. Both Central and State Governments must also have a pro-active purchase policy.
All cities whose waste is composted should be required by State policy to buy back at least 30% of compost produced, on a weekly or monthly basis, for use in their city parks and gardens or for landfill cover and land reclamation. All State and Central undertakings and Departments of Public Works, Railways, Forests, Mines should be required to give priority to city compost for land development, embankments, plantations and nurseries, revegetation of mining overburden, and to necessarily source this to extent available from any compost plant located within 50 km of point of use. Compost plants requiring working capital finance from banks because of highly seasonal demand pattern and high cost of holding stocks, are not given loans against stocks held. Instead, they are asked to mortgage their homes or other properties worth 10-20 times more than loans sought, as security.
This policy must change, and value of unsold stocks given full weightage as collateral instead. India has most cultivable land in world, but 89% of land holdings are small, below 1 hectare, with no capital available for farm inputs or land improvement. Hence only subsistence farming is practiced and our productivity has plateaued. In few cases, farm finance is facilitated by Tobacco Board, for example, by buying urea in bulk and issuing it to farmers at start of season, then deducting its cost when buying back their produce. This policy can and should be adopted for city compost as well, by all Technology Missions for various crops like cotton, pulses, sericulture, plantation crops and many more. There should be no charge for this activity provided compost is of approved standard KVIC quality for example.
At present, every private composter who seeks this facility is asked to pay an unaffordable testing fee to each and every such crop mission, with no guarantee that purchases will follow if quality is acceptable. Urea again enjoys official benefits denied to organic manures, such as guaranteed storage space in Government-owned warehouses in each taluk (county) for point-of-use distribution. There needs to be a level playing field if IPNM is to become viable. There also needs to be a level playing field for different waste-processing options. Today, Waste-To-Energy (WTE) is being aggressively promoted as an alternative to composting by Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), despite a long string of failed plants and promises and several scams engendered by its massive subsidies.
Investment in WTE for say 100 tons a day of city garbage costs upto 10 times more than a compost plant of same input capacity. Capital cost for WTE power generated is, per Megawatt, 2.5 to 3 times more than that per MW from hydel or thermal sources. Yet pressure, from both foreign firms and international aid agencies, for promoting WTE technologies that are being phased out abroad is tremendous and a serious impediment to rapid decision-making by cities in favour of statutory and far more viable composting option.
Finally, composting needs to be seen by all decision-makers as not just one of many options for processing and disposal of city waste, but an absolute imperative for nutrient recycling and soil improvement in a largely agricultural economy.