Highway or a Garbage Trail?

Kathmandu : “Do not spit. Do not throw away any water bottles and waste materials.” This is how the helpers of any passenger vehicles instruct passengers onboard before they arrive near the outposts of Nepal Army (NA) and Armed Police Force (APF) along the East-West Highway. This continues until they reach to Pathlaiya after their vehicles cross Koshi Barrage. The helpers ask passengers to wait until they arrive in quiet forest or farm area in case they ask to stop vehicles for urination and defecation. These instructions of the helpers of passenger vehicles ring in mind to those who travel in day or night bus services along the East-West Highway. These give an impression that people are free to dispose garbage in any other places except in the vicinity of NA and APF outposts.

Empty water bottles, which are spotted occasionally along the Highway in the Province 1, are seen littered almost everywhere on both sides of the 231-km stretch of the East-West Highway stretching from Koshi Barrage to Pathlaiya in Province 2. Although passengers travelling through this Highway may not notice many other things, the empty water bottles thrown almost everywhere catch their eye without fail. These bottles are seen piled up on the both side of the Highway as if they are indicating the path of the highway itself.

Empty water bottles are found disposed everywhere in major cities such as Lahan, Bardibas and Chandrapur. Not only the passenger buses that operate from Janakpur– the interim capital city of Province 2–, but also those operating along the East-West Highway stop in some quiet locations such as forest, stream, and other open space along the Highway for urination and defecation. Passengers are forced to urinate in these open spaces. Women passengers are often forced to wait until all male passengers board on the bus again after urination and defecation. And, the passengers often choose to dispose water bottles and other waste materials in these places. It is the open space, gorges or rivulets where empty bottles and plastic wrappers of noodles, biscuits and Bhujiya are normally disposed.

Except for the route permits and other legal documents, security personnel and traffic police officials deployed along the Highway do not seem to show any concerns about passengers in the course of their checking. A bus driver Paltan Mandal said security personnel never ask them why they did not have dustbin to collect empty bottles and other waste materials produced by passengers onboard the bus. Almost all night buses travelling to Kathmandu via East-West Highway provide water bottles to their passengers. But the bus helpers never instruct passengers where to dispose the empty bottles, according to Bardibas-based journalist Bikram Rauniya, who regularly travels in those buses.

Sarlahi

Waste Management Act 2068 BS has a provision allowing even local level government to formulate necessary laws for the proper management of waste materials. Some local level government of all districts except Parsa of Province 2 lie in the East-West Highway. The Waste Management Act states that Waste Management Council shall be formed under the chair of Local Development Minister in order to determine the policy to be adopted for the proper management of waste materials. Among other thing, this Act also makes a provision of fines and penalty that may be levied to the polluters at the local level.

The Act has allowed local level government to levy Rs 5,000 in penalty to those disposing wastes outside designated areas for the first time, Rs 5000 to 10,000 to those committing the same crime for the second time, and Rs 25,000 to those repeating the same act for three times or more and also recover the amount that may be spent to collect and dispose the waste in designated areas from the polluters. In addition to this, local level government has authority to levy Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 in fine to those keeping, disposing and discharging waste materials in road and other public spaces that may adversely affect public health, according to advocate Bikaru Yadav. Environment Conservation Act 2053 BS also has a provision to levy up to Rs 50,000 in fine to any individuals and organizations involved in activities that affect environment depending on the gravity and nature of such act. But none of the local level governments in this area have enforced these legal provisions.

However, some local governments have formulated Health and Sanitation Services Act in order to declare them Open Defecation Free (ODF) zone by the end of this year. But this Act is not easily accessible to ordinary public. Concerned municipalities and rural municipalities have chosen not to upload its copies in their official websites.

Bardibas Municipality Chief Bidur Karki said they have already formulated and implemented this Act. Asked if the Act mentions anything about the management of public toilets, Karki said that they are yet to conduct a proper survey on this. “There is a need of public toilets in the Highway areas. But there has not been any proper survey conducted yet on this issue,’ he said.

Although Lahan, Bardibas and Chandrapur have one public toilet each, they have remained far beyond the access to passengers travelling through this Highway. Normally, passenger vehicles plying on this road do not stop near these public toilets and even if they are stopped near them, traffic police make them drive right away or fine them for violating traffic discipline, according to a bus driver Bishnu Sah. None of the local governments have so far conducted any survey or introduced any policies as to how long distance interval in the highway requires public toilets. There is also lack of necessary legislations governing this.

Night view in Lahan

Human right activist Sanjit Sah said none of the local governments are found conducting awareness campaign about these legal provisions. In an agreement reached between Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration and Federation of Nepalese National Entrepreneurs Association (FNNTEA) on December 2, 2017, there was an agreement to keep a dustbin inside passenger bus. Similarly, the two sides reached an agreement to effectively enforce penalty against those haphazardly disposing waste materials from public buses. There was also an agreement to keep polythene bag above 30 microns in each public bus. The FNNTEA also made commitment not to pose any obstruction to take action against passengers and transport entrepreneurs if they were found violating these agreements. But these agreements seem to have already turned obsolete now. Helpers of passenger buses are found buying polythene bags of fewer microns and instructing passengers to use them in case of vomiting. However, passengers are not instructed where to dispose such polythene bags.

According to the FNNTEA, over 1200 of the total 3,000 vehicles that ply on the East-West Highway each day are passenger buses. The number of total passengers travelling through the Highway stands at 48,000 if the number of passengers is counted at least 40 each in these passenger buses. It is found that a passenger either buys at least one bottle of water or bus operators provide them one such bottle free of cost during their journey. And, if we consider that only 50 percent of them dispose water bottle in the Highway, around 24,000 water bottles are disposed each day in road, rivers and forest areas, leaving adverse impact in the environment, according to sanitation campaigner Manoj Kumar Sah. If we consider this statistics, the number of bottles disposed each year in this section of the East-West Highway stands at 8.76 million. This is more than one and half of the total population of the Province 2. According to the census conducted in 2011, the total population of this province stands at 5.44 million. Interestingly, scavengers or trash pickers also do not seem interested in collecting these bottles.

The issue empty water bottles grabbed media attention after activists of Nepali Congress-affiliated Tarun Dal last year disposed garbage in the office premise of Lahan Municipality, protesting against the failure of the municipal authority to clean up highway areas. Similarly, a group of women in Lahan also staged protests in front of the Municipality office along with brooms after life of ordinary people was badly affected due to the failure of the municipal authority to properly manage the garbage disposed in the collection centers. Although the municipality authority then promised to address the issue, the perennial problem of haphazard garbage disposal has failed to draw due attention.

At least 10 tractors of garbage are collected from Lahan area each day. Life of ordinary people is badly affected as authorities fail to properly process the waste collected in the waste collection center that spreads in 35 Bigha of land on the bank of local Khutti Khola. Lahan looks very dirty especially in the evening. People are seen throwing garbage on both the sides of the road, where street dogs and pigs seem enjoying.

The Garbage Collection Center was established in the fiscal year 2071/72 BS at the personal initiative of then Executive Officer of Lahan Municipality Mahendra Khamyang. Ministry of Local Development had provided Rs 10 million in grant for the construction of the Collection Center. According to human rights activist Mohan Paswan, locals have been time and again staging protests in the municipality office, alleging that the Collection Center was not utilized as per its original objectives.

Nathuni Paswan, who oversees garbage management in Lahan Municipality, said they are unable to clean highway areas, as the limited human and other resources they have make it difficult even to look after the garbage disposal issue within the municipality areas. Currently, there are only 35 sanitation workers with the municipality.

Similarly, the bank of Mainawati Khola near Golbazar along the East-West Highway has also become a center of garbage management. Plastic bags are seen littered not just in small streams and rivulets but also on the bank of major rivers such as Koshi, Kamala, Ratu and Bagmati.

Chief of Forest Division Officer, Sarlahi, Hemant Sah said there is a legal provision that restricts building any structures in national forest areas. Stating that Forest Office only looks after the issues related to forest, any decision on the matters of highway and other roads can only be taken by either Department of Road or concerned local level government.

There are some examples of local level governments conducting activities of highway cleanup. Highway-centric sanitation program was launched from Saptari to Bara in Province 2 from December 26 to 29, 2015 as a part of national sanitation campaign. Gadhimai, Nijgadh, Kolhabi, Chandrapur, Hariwan, Lalbandi, Ishwarpur, Bardibas, Mithila, Kshireshwarnath, Dhanushadham, Ganeshman-Charnath, Mirchaiya, Golbazar, Dhangadhimai, Lahan, Shambhunath and Kanchanpur were among the cities conducting the highway-centric cleaning campaign. Although it was named as Highway cleanup program, a separate campaign to make people aware about constitutional provisions was also carried out simultaneously.

In the high-way centric cleanup campaign, comedians Sita Ram Kattel (Dhurmus) and Kunjana Ghimire (Suntali) along with the employees at Environment Management Section of the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration and employees of Bardibas Municipality had participated with brooms. The Highway cleanup program largely limited in mere formality was the first and the last of its kind.

Janakpurdham, the interim provincial headquarter of Province 2, had already earned bad reputation for haphazard disposal of garbage five years ago. After local youths started a campaign to clean up local ponds, a media person Ram Aashish Yadav began giving leadership to the cleaning campaign calling it “Save Historical Janakpur”. This cleanup campaign made it easy to launch Mahaganga Aarati in Ganga Sagar pond. Campaigner Yadav is currently a provincial assembly member of Federal Socialist Party.

Yadav said it is the central government that has to first take initiative to clean up the East-West Highway to avoid it earning an identity of garbage trail. “This is the first responsibility of the state. And, it is the responsibility of local people to give that a continuity,” he said, adding that there is a need of both exerting pressure on the concerned government authorities and launching a massive campaign for the continuity of the cleanup campaign.

It can be clearly seen that plastic bottles disposed haphazardly along the Highway has affected natural growth of grass and herbs as well. Botanist Hem Kumar Mahato said these bottles have also obstructed trees from growing. No policy level decisions at the level of Province are heard to have made except for planting a few saplings and cleaning a section of road as a formality each year on the World Environment Day that falls on June 5. Equally, Provincial Government has failed to do anything to conserve rivers and rivulets. “The government that is involved in destroying rivers, hills and forest is making a drama of observing the World Environment Day,” said senior journalist Chandra Kishore.

Last year, Ilam Muncipality had announced a plan to buy plastic bottles and other plastic-related waste materials at Rs15 per kilogram. But there were hardly any people who actually wanted to collect and sell those materials to the municipality. Various municipalities that lie along the East-West Highway have also been carrying out awareness campaign for cleanliness and sanitation. Advocate Bikaru Yadav said local government had failed to collect water bottles disposed along the Highway and strictly enforce laws. He also maintained that Health and Sanitation Act was formulated on ad hoc basis.

Lahan Municipality Mayor Munni Lal Sah last year announced to properly manage the local waste collection center and increase the number of sanitation workers following protests of locals over the failure of the municipal authority to properly manage the waste materials. He, however, did not speak anything about building toilets.

While the empty plastic bottles have made the Highway worse, there has not been any concern about impact that plastic bottle water may have on health. Ordinary people have complained that local government had only conducted awareness and sanitation campaign in the name of environment conservation. The fact that they are not concerned about public toilet and drinking water is acutely demonstrated by the relevant policies as well as the Act and various programs unveiled by local level governments.

Worse still, the quality of drinking water marketed by mushrooming number of drinking water factories has not been monitored much. When monitoring was finally conducted amid public pressure last year, it was revealed that Ambar Dhara, Mahamaya Dhara, Global Ekata, Stylist Aqua and Ganga Jal manufactured in Janakpur itself were found substandard in their quality and their factories were subsequently sealed.

While there is an allegation that these industries sell plastic products but do not ensure their proper management, there is also a debate at the international level that the budget required to control such practice could be used to build roads.

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