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Kerala’s Dismal Ranking in Swachh Survekshan, 2017

Prathibha Ganesan ( is with the Public Policy Research Institute, Thiruvananthapuram.

Against the backdrop of Kerala’s dismal ranking in the Swachh Survekshan 2017, a survey conducted by the Ministry of Urban Development to study the progress of the Swachh Bharat Mission, this article expresses that the state government should objectively analyse the pitfalls of the implementation of the current system of solid waste management and act on it.

The Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), Government of India, initiated the Swachh Survekshan to study the progress of the Swachh Bharat Mission, which was launched on 2 October 2014 (MoUD 2017). About 434 cities participated in this survey in 2017, and the MoUD commissioned the Quality Council of India (QCI) to conduct the survey and revaluate performance. The Government of India set up the QCI in partnership with three industry associations—Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, Confederation of Indian Industries, and Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry—to establish and promote an accreditation structure and quality through the National Quality Campaign.

Nine cities of Kerala participated in the Swachh Survekshan 2017. All these cities come under Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) which was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 25 June 2015. As per this scheme, any state government can seek financial assistance to provide basic amenities to the poor households. The Kerala government is implementing this scheme with the help of the Local Self Government Department. Among these cities where AMRUT has been implemented, Kozhikode tops with a rank of 254 in the Swachh Survekshan. As per the result of the survey, the cities in Kerala have performed poorly in the ranking by their cleanliness and sanitation status.

While the media raised concerns about the dismal ranking of Kerala’s cities, the nodal agency for sanitation of the Suchitwa Mission in Kerala mentioned that the parameters used in the survey to evaluate performance did not reflect Kerala’s decentralised method of solid waste management.

Did the parameters in the survey contribute to Kerala’s dismal ranking? Should Kerala worry about the poor performance in the survey? What lessons should Kerala learn from the Swachh Survekshan? Solid waste management systems in India and Kerala are considered, and parameters used in the survey are examined to answer these questions. Lessons are drawn based on the analysis of the parameters in the survey as against the existing systems of solid waste management in Kerala.

Solid Waste Management

The dominant system of municipal solid waste management in India is a centralised system, wherein local governments collect waste from the city and transport it to a centralised waste processing plant before the final disposal through landfilling. Waste is collected from the households through a door-to-door service and from public places through street sweepings. The role of the households in the centralised waste management system is limited to segregation of waste at the source and giving it to the waste collectors.

The centralised system of solid waste management was under scrutiny in Kerala for more than three decades due to the uprisings from landfill sites across the state. The victims of the open dumping of waste demanded the closure of landfill sites, and experts from civil society suggested a sustainable decentralised system of solid waste management for Kerala. The Hindu (2012) reported that protests were held in at least 13 landfill sites across the urban centres in Kerala. Sites like Vilappilsala in Thiruvananthapuram received national media attention due to the intensity of the struggle. As a result, the state government decided to implement decentralised waste management in Kerala.

In 2014, the Government of Kerala’s Suchitwa Mission directed the local governments to implement decentralised waste management and provided technical and financial support. A decentralised model of solid waste management refers to the treatment of solid waste at its source. Households play a substantial role in waste segregation, treatment and final disposal. The government promotes smaller technologies, like pipe compost and biogas plants. In this method, there is no need to collect waste from each household and transport it for treatment every day. Therefore, the role of the local government in a decentralised solid waste management system is limited to creating awareness in society and supporting households with the use of available smaller technologies. At the community level, in a few towns, local government promotes aerobic bin clusters to collect and compost the segregated waste.

Currently, decentralised waste management is in its initial phases of implementation in towns in Kerala. If this is the case, then how many participant cities from Kerala in the Swachh Survekshan are following decentralised waste management and how do the parameters of the survey become problematic to evaluate the cleanliness of the state?

Swachh Survekshan’s Methodology

The methodology of the survey is trifurcated into: municipal documentation, independent observation, and direct citizen feedback. Cities are evaluated based on the marks given in each part. The distribution of marks is as follows: 900 for municipal documentation (45%), 500 for independent observation (25%), and 600 for direct citizen feedback (30%). Five parameters of evaluation used in the survey are municipal solid waste (MSW) collection and transportation; MSW processing and disposal; open defecation free toilets; capacity building; and information, education, and communication.

During the survey, 421 assessors covered all participant cities from 4 January to 28 February 2017. The methodology, especially to evaluate MSW management, was designed for a centralised waste management system, which was evident from the results of the cleanest cities. The evaluation in solid waste management was mainly based on the percentage of the door-to-door waste collection, its transportation with global positioning system (GPS)/radio frequency identification (RFID)-based tracking technologies for monitoring, and its treatment before final disposal. As decentralised waste management does not require door-to-door waste collection and transportation, the evaluation of a decentralised system with the current parameters would be difficult. But, did the difference in methodology contribute to Kerala’s dismal ranking? Here, the different parts of the survey methodology are examined with a focus on Kerala to answer this question.

Municipal Documentation

Solid waste management is a responsibility of the municipal health officer in urban local governments in India, with a few exceptions. Therefore, data on solid waste management is collected and documented by the health department of the local governments. The local governments provide data on the amount of waste produced in the city, its composition, the total amount of waste collected and transported, and the amount of waste treated and landfilled. When there is centralised waste management, documenting data is easier. However, the same method of documentation cannot be used for a decentralised system. In a decentralised system, the information on the number of households using waste management technologies, the success of the technologies, and the utility of the compost or slurry, etc, becomes important.

Among the nine cities that participated in the survey (Table 1), six of them (Kozhikode, Kochi, Guruvayur, Palakkad, Kannur and Kollam) continue to use a centralised waste management system. Therefore, assessment based on the given parameters should not be an issue. In some of these six towns, self-help group (SHG) women (Kudumbashree) are engaged in door-to-door waste collection, though with limited coverage. Waste from the municipal area is transported using trucks or tractor trailers. None of the six cities has transport systems with GPS/RFID-based tracking. Windrow composting is the most preferred waste processing method used in these towns. Almost all these urban local governments are preparing for a transition to a decentralised solid waste management system. The limited door-to-door waste collection and lack of a GPS/RFID-based transportation system are major reasons for falling short in the municipal documentation parameter of the survey.

The districts of Thrissur, Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha have transitioned to decentralised waste management due to the relentless struggles against centralised waste management. The protesters demanded the closure of landfill sites in Lalur in Thrissur, Vilappilsala in Thiruvananthapuram, and Sarvodayapuram in Alappuzha. All the three dump sites are closed. In the Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram municipal corporations and Alappuzha municipality, decentralised waste management is in its first phase of implementation. Bio-bins and biogas plants are distributed to the households for source treatment. In Thrissur, decentralised waste management is directly implemented by the municipal corporation. In Alappuzha, while the Integrated Rural Technology Centre helps in the implementation, four civil society organisations (Harithagramam, Haritha Nagaram, Pelican Foundation and V-Care) support Thiruvananthapuram.

Unlike other civil society organisations that are involved only in the distribution of kitchen bins and collection of non-degradable waste, V-Care engages in door-to-door waste collection, and buries biodegradable waste in the rubber estates with the permission of the farmers. Meanwhile pipe compost, kitchen bin, and biogas plants are used for waste treatment in the household, and aerobic bin clusters are used for community waste treatment. Therefore, documentation of waste collection and transportation is not possible in the case of these cities, which fall short on first two parameters of solid waste management in the survey.

Table 1 shows that urban local governments with centralised waste treatment facilities, like Kollam and Kannur, are positioned behind Thrissur Municipal Corporation. This means that either the waste management is poor in these cities or they lack proper documentation. Therefore, to argue that the reason behind the dismal ranking of cities in Kerala is due to the difference in parameters of evaluation, at least in the case of solid waste management, is not reasonable. In the other parameters, like open defecation-free status, Kerala’s performance is better.

Independent Observation

The second part of data collection and evaluation involved independent observation with 25% weight of the total marks. The assessor visited the site to gather information and collected data by using independent validation and observation. A survey of the shopkeepers, customers, etc, was done for the independent validation, and direct observation data was collected using photographs. Kerala’s towns performed well in this category and were almost equal to that of some of the first 100 ranked cities.

Most households in Kerala are independent and built on few cents of land. Waste produced in these households can, therefore, be treated on their premises. Also, in the case of the centralised waste management system, sanitation staff cleans the cities, but the negative impact of the waste is borne by the villagers near the landfill site, which is often located on the outskirts of the city. These two factors may have reflected in the perceived cleanliness of the city in Kerala under independent observation.

Ideally, Alappuzha should top the cities under independent observation because of the perceived successful implementation of decentralised waste management. The evaluation here, however, suggests a lacuna in the implementation of decentralised waste management, which needs to be noticed.

Citizen Feedback

Citizen feedback in the survey reveals the satisfaction level of citizens on sanitation and waste management strategies existing in a place. Citizen feedback for the Swachh Survekshan is taken through phone calls, social media, and the Swachh app. Among the nine cities in Kerala, Palakkad municipality tops the list with 361 marks out of 600 in citizen feedback.

Since Kerala is an open defecation-free state, solid waste management would have been the focus of the participant citizens while giving feedback. The infrequent door-to-door waste collection or absence of it and non-removal of waste discarded in the streets may have resulted in the dissatisfaction of the citizens in places where centralised systems of waste management exist. In the places where the transition to decentralised waste management is underway, citizen dissatisfaction is mainly due to the lack of awareness, lack of technical knowledge to carry out source treatment, and the non-availability of technical services when required.

Lessons for Kerala

So, what do Swachh Survekshan results convey for Kerala? Is Kerala dirty? Should Kerala worry about the dismal ranking in hygiene and sanitation? Or, should the state relax arguing that the parameters do not fit the Kerala model of MSW management? It is true that the parameters in the survey are designed to study cities with the centralised waste management system. Six of the cities from Kerala that participated in the survey have a centralised system, and yet they exhibit dismal ranking. Poor organisation of door-to-door waste collection and lack of GPS/RFID-based transportation facilities are the major reasons for the dismal ranking of Kerala’s cities.

In the case of cities with a centralised system of waste management in Kerala, the general reluctance to try innovative methods of waste management, lack of human resource for waste collection, lack of finances, and existing uncertainty regarding the transition to decentralised waste management may have contributed to the poor performance. Kerala’s better performance in the independent observation needs to be cross-checked with the amount of resistance that these urban local bodies face from the landfill site to get a clear view of perceived cleanliness. Direct feedback gives the citizen a part in the evaluation of waste management services in Kerala. Whether the parameters in the survey are biased towards centralised waste treatment or not, citizen satisfaction determines the ultimate success of a policy prescription.

The data show that people are not satisfied with both the centralised and decentralised systems. In the case of the centralised system, the dissatisfaction may be due to inadequate waste collection services. In a transitioning solid waste management system, a certain level of confusion exists where the citizens are unaware of the service available, or they lack the required technical support to carry out the activities. Lack of awareness among the citizens on decentralised waste management, lack of willingness of the citizens to transition to a new model of waste management, and lack of the service provision for households when in need are some of the major reasons for citizen dissatisfaction with the decentralised solid waste management system in Kerala.

Therefore, far from taking a laid-back approach arguing that the survey parameters are biased, the state government should objectively analyse the pitfalls of the implementation of the current system of solid waste management and act on it. Similarly, if the government is planning to implement decentralised waste management across the state, the phases of implementation and monitoring mechanisms to observe the implementation status should be clearly charted out. Issues with service provision for households should also be understood with the help of adequate citizen feedback, and measures should be undertaken to address the issues.


Hindu (2012): “Sinking Litter by Litter: Kerala Struggles for Relief,” 13 January, viewed on 18 July 2017,!.

MoUD (2017): “Swachh Survekshan 2017,” Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, New Delhi, viewed on 16 May 2017,

Updated On : 1st Sep, 2017


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