Big Ideas in Small Cities: Sustainable Solutions for Waste Management


States in the United States are occasionally called “laboratories of democracy" because they can try innovative policy solutions, especially when action is slow at the federal level. Beyond states, cities and towns also have the potential to evolve context-specific solutions to overcome challenges. The Indian Constitution was amended in 1994 to decentralize power and decision-making to the municipal level and empower local governments. Today, smaller municipal bodies in cities across India are responsible for important functions related to sustainable development, including waste management.

When it comes to waste management, a 2018 report shows that small cities outperform their larger counterparts. The 2019 Swacch Sarvekshan rankings of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs demonstrate that seven of the top ten cities have populations less than 10 lakhs. Big cities can learn from the initiatives of these smaller cities. Three small cities - Ambikapur, an agricultural and mineral-based city in Chattisgarh, the tourist town of Alappuzha in Kerala and Vengurla, a coastal town in Maharashtra - show us that size does not matter when it comes to innovation. 

Exchange Waste for a Meal in Ambikapur, Chhattisgarh

Image Credit: Nagar Nigam, Ambikapur

Image Credit: Nagar Nigam, Ambikapur

 In July, Ambikapur became home to India’s first garbage cafe where people receive meals in exchange for waste. One kilogram of plastic waste can get you a full meal whereas half a kilogram will fetch you breakfast. Additionally, the plastic collected by the Ambikapur Municipal Corporation (AMC) will be used to construct roads. While the garbage cafe is a novel idea to help clean the city, and plastic roads are a great way to use recycled plastic, this alone is not enough to help the city manage its waste. 

Amikapur’s waste management system is an important part of its cleanliness initiative. For instance, for solid waste management, the AMC integrated non-government organisations (NGOs) and self-help groups (SHGs) into door-to-door collection and waste segregation. The city also set up Solid and Liquid Resource Management Centres (SLRM) to segregate waste. While their centralised approach leads to employment opportunities for the community, experts contend that a decentralised approach to waste management with segregation at the source is more effective and environmentally-friendly. The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 reflect this in creating a framework for decentralised waste management and mandating segregation at source 

Alappuzha in Kerala Manages Waste through Decentralisation

In 2012 protests of residents living near a landfill in Alappuzha resulted in the shutting of the landfill  two years later. The town began a pilot project in 2014, providing anaerobic composting bins and biogas plants to every family to segregate and process garbage with a 90% and 75% subsidy. . The scheme expanded over time to cover most of the city. In areas where there are no household bins, residents may use community bins. This system operates at the ward level.  Recognising the town’s successful model, the Kerala State government developed a policy to install aerobic bins in 1000 gram panchayats. The decentralised system is not just finding appreciation in the state; the city of Shillong in Meghalaya also replicated it. Alappuzha’s waste management system was also recognised as a success story by the United Nations Environment Program. Alappuzha was one of three cities given the Clean City Award by the Centre for Science and Environment in 2016 and was the cleanest city in Kerala as per the state rankings in Swachh Survekshan 2019.

A Landfill-turned-Park Becomes a Tourist Attraction in Vengurla, Maharashtra

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

Vengurla converted a landfill into a waste management park which has conventional features like fruit trees and an organic farm, but the main attractions include a segregation yard, a biogas plant, a plastic crusher unit and a briquette-making plant. Vegurla separates waste into 23 categories and the park recycles almost every type of waste including plastic, cloth and paper.  In 2017, 7000 people visited the town to see its unique park. This also generates revenue for the municipality. The architect behind the scheme attributed part of its success to public participation. Several other towns in Maharashtra have made significant strides in waste management. 

Though all the three cities faced similar challenges, they used innovative solutions based on their context while also incorporating the common good practices such as enforcement of rules, imposing fines, creating awareness and building capacity of their human resources. Vengurla created a statement by converting its dump yard into a park to show the level of commitment towards cleaning the city. Allappuzha utilised a mix of technological innovation and community mobilisation and produced successful models of low cost household and community composting solutions. Ambikapur nurtured women-led SHGs and made them key to the waste management process. Through their waste management programs, small cities and towns across the country show us how collaboration, innovation, and addressing the context can create lasting change in our communities.


How can good O&M regime make provision of Public Toilets in Small Cities Effective?


An increased focus on sanitation in urban development and its role in public health have thrown the lack of adequate public toilet facilities into the limelight. Public Toilets (PTs) are undergoing an evolution, where their role is being redefined to enable outcomes of dignity, empowerment, health and hygiene, business and tourism and good governance. Individual household toilets as well as community sanitary complexes (CSCs) were part of union government funding under previous schemes. Public toilets and Urinals which were not under the purview of such assistance earlier, are now included in the Central share under Swachh Bharat Mission’s (SBM) urban component.

Perceptions of public toilets from a user’s perspective, however have been poor. From a gendered perspective, poorly maintained public toilets engendered violence against women, as a study in Mumbai showed. A 2006 study carried out in the twin cities of Hyderabad-Secundarabad suggested that 47% of women who need to use the toilet would wait until they got home. 64.2 % of the women said they had a bad experience and 92.5% of the women gave unhygienic conditions as the reason for not wanting to use public toilets. Other reasons given included the lack of water (69.2%) and bad smell (62.8%). This points to the fact that poor Operations and Maintenance of facilities has led to underutilisation of these facilities despite them being available.

SBM has initiated construction of household, community and public toilets at a rapid pace across more than 4000 statutory cities. Since more than 90% of these cities have population less than 1 million,  SBM covers a significant proportion of urban population living in such cities. 63 Smart Cities with populations of less than one million also fall under the Swachh Bharat Urban Mission. As per PAS study based on Census 2011 results, almost 12% of urban household’s resort to open defecation (OD) and another 8% use public or shared toilet facilities. In cities with population below 100,000 OD rates are even higher around 22%. It has also been stated that 20-49% of rural households which have toilets within the house, at least one member defecates in the open. The reasons for OD are poorly operated and maintained toilets, lack of water supply and the non-availability of toilets themselves. Taking a cue from rural experience, the supply through construction in these cities will not convert to sustained uptake of these toilet seats, especially public toilets, unless it is coupled with good O&M practices.

As the Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) recognises, even the best designed restrooms which are used by users with a better civic sense, will get dirty and unusable without a robust operations and maintenance regime. Compounding this challenge in India is the assertion that “Most of the people who use public toilets lack civic sense” according to the erstwhile Ministry of Urban Development endorsed findings of an online survey. While political will (branding of Swachh Bharat), awareness in pop-culture (films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha) can go a long way in addressing behaviour and attitudes, ULBs and Sanitation Departments must invest in and develop best practices of O&M of Public Toilets.

The presence of a robust O&M regime can bring a positive change that is cyclical – as studies conducted in public toilets in Hong Kong and parts of Africa have shown. For example, people were found to be more likely to handle things with care if it was clean and well maintained. On the other hand, people are more likely to press a flush handle with a shoe if they found it to be dirty. ULBs and/or operators must be able to cater for a high footfall in terms of sustained O&M and keep the public toilets clean and functional to invoke and sustain positive change in behaviour.

O&M costs vary widely. A study in Austria stated that it would cost 3.26 million euros to maintain 327 public toilet blocks which in 2017 terms would work out to 12538 euros (9.93L) per toilet block. This is despite most of the toilet blocks not being manned. Moreland City Council, in Australia puts forward a cost between 2.6L and 5.2L per year as O&M costs for unmanned blocks. The Pune Municipal Corporation stipulates a cost of 4.20L per year to maintain a manned 2-4 seat toilet block for 16 hours a day. O&M costs of a manned Sulabh facility in Delhi are 4L, for a 20-seat toilet facility. In Andhra Pradesh, the projected costs as per the government guidance for a 7-seater toilet are 3.66L and the human resources cost projections are almost 50% of this cost. On the basis of these limited cases, it can be seen that Indian public toilets are budgeting almost the same amount for manned public toilets as those in the West with unmanned toilets. Ultimately, the O&M costs will vary according to the contextual factors – what must be recognised is the realistic need to budget for these costs when these toilets are constructed. SBM (urban) envisages public toilets to be constructed under PPP mode where O&M is part of the concession for at least five years. There are no projections provided for O&M costs and it is left on the concessionaire to propose the same. In order to get the bids for constructing, the potential operators should not cut corners on O&M budgets and ensure adequate O&M budgeting is provisioned. New Zealand and the UK have been experimenting with PPP arrangements in catering to public toilet needs. Many of the ‘public’ toilets in their city councils are privately owned and operated as part of existing businesses, sometimes charging users a fee. City Councils in these countries have thus successfully utilised pre-existing supply of toilets in establishments to cater to demand while effectively reducing the burden of O&M.

To help with an intensive O&M requirement, operators can maximise the advertising potential. If these toilets can be kept clean and functional, it will attract more users, which will in turn bring in more advertising revenues / revenue from Value added services. It will have to be complemented with innovative strategies to deter and change user behaviour. A scheme where a user fee which can be returned partially in the form of a voucher (for the city bus service, for example) for responsible use too can be put in place. On the other hand, penal approaches that may encourage responsible toilet use could include a ‘Name and Shame’ wall for people who urinate publicly or vandalise the toilet in addition to a heavy fines. For example in Beed district, controversial means have been used to deter people from open defecation.

 As India heads towards increased urbanisation, the battle for sanitation in small cities gives ULBs and potential operators an opportunity to redefine the role of public toilets-enabling mobility of women, children and senior citizens, drawing tourists, providing value added services or emerging as key public spaces. The ‘hubs’ of activity in small cities may be still few and footfalls may be still manageable – unlike their metropolitan counterparts where most parts of the city are crowded. But the challenge is still enormous – innovative design, institutionalised improvisations that change public behaviour also need to be complemented by a thorough and O&M regime that strives to turn the perception of Public toilets on its head.


Nagrika is the knowledge partner of Gujarat State CSR Authority (GCSRA) in an innovative project that aims to create trendsetting public toilet blocks across multiple small cities. The knowledge component encompasses design guidelines, revenue models, O&M guidance,  enabling partnership between local actors among others. 

Are urban policies aligned with city hierarchies?


India presently uses multiple definitions to classify its urban centers. The first and most  prominent definition is the one by the Census of India. It classifies towns in two categories, one based on legal statute and other on a mix of population size and economic functions. All places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee are termed as statutory towns. All other places with a minimum population of 5,000, at least 75 per cent of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits and a density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km are termed as census towns.

Another definition is used by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to determine on financial liabilities of the Union government to its employees. Based on the recommendations of Pay Commission, the MoF puts forth its classification of cities/towns to grant House Rent Allowance (HRA) to central government employees. The cities are classified as X, Y and Z based on their population. 


Table 1: Pay Commission’s City Classification

Classification of cities



50 lakhs and above


5-50 lakhs


Below 5 lakhs


Finally, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) also classifies Indian cities on the basis of population and ranks cities as Tier-1 to Tier-6. They are also classified as Rural, Semi-urban, Urban and Metropolitan. RBI uses this classification for various decisions relating to allowing the opening of full branches, mobile branches, administrative offices, back offices and other activities related to the banking.


Table 2: RBI’s Classification and Census classification


Centre Classification

Tier Classification

1,00,000 and above

Urban (10 lakh and above classified as Metropolitan)

Tier 1

50,000 to 99,999


Tier 2



Tier 3



Tier 4



Tier 5

Less than 5,000


Tier 6


Urban Hierarchy and Urban Policy

These three classifications are also used for decisions related to various government schemes including those relating to urban development. For e.g. Ministry of Urban Development is implementing the urban component of Swachh Bharat Mission in all the statutory towns (based on the Census). The number of cities per state to be covered under Smart Cities mission also took into consideration the number of statutory towns in the state. 

In order to understand the relevance of classifications with respect to the Smart Cities Mission, we examined how the original list of 98 Smart cities match up to some of the hierarchies being used in India and two urban programs.


Table 3: Overlap of Hierarchies with Smart Cities


Percent of smart cities that are also





Affordable Housing


Tier 1 cities (RBI)


Metropolitan Centers (RBI)


X +Y Cities (MoF)



There is a wide variation in the overlap of the original 98 cities under the Smart City Mission with other schemes and definitions.  While juxtaposing the various urban schemes and hierarchies, in the above table, one can see that the selection of cities is not consistent on any one set of definitions. Most programs do not rely on any one specific classification system, usually creating their own selection criteria.Smart City Mission used its own weighted selection method and hence was able to have a broad coverage of cities across the states.

In such a scenario, the hierarchies and its categories can serve two important purposes in India’s case. First, if updated periodically and correctly, it should capture the fast paced process of urbanisation. Second, its urban hierarchy should inform its urban policies.

Cities differ from each other on many accounts including social, economical and cultural.  To make meaningful policy decisions, it is important to classify cities in a way that can allow for such differences to be recognised in proposing policy based solutions. The decision on where a given urban centre lies within a hierarchy and whether it can be promoted to a higher level (or demoted to a lower level) of urban hierarchy has significant influence on the dynamics of growth in future periods.  It also has a bearing on the policies and schemes that it can attract.  

It is important that we think of rational, scientific and Indian context specific classifications of urban centres for consistent urban policy design and decisions.


Is comparing Shimla to Nagpur like comparing Apples to Oranges?


In terms of population, Nagpur is almost 14 times the size of Shimla. Nagpur is known for oranges and Shimla is known for apples. Shimla is a hill city and Nagpur has tropical climate. Yet both are municipal corporations and will classify as Tier-1 cities as per definitions classifying 1 lakh and above cities as tier-1. Why is that so?

Not all cities are equal. Cities have different structures, different demographic make-up, different competitive advantages, and different sizes. Yet, the salient features of these cities – a system of production, distribution and consumption, infrastructure for connecting people, resources and markets, and economies of scale they create, may be similar. All cities provide a reason for people to be in that city but the reasons are different. To make meaningful policy decisions, then, it is important to classify these cities in a way that can allow for such varying reasons to be recognized as well as the ability of the government to provide for these reasons and needs. Having a logical classification of cities then can also help better design or modify policy to best suit the purposes and needs of a group of cities.

Why is it important to categorize places? 

A system of classification provides a method for efficient communication, a set of definitions, and a system of relationships among these definitions (Atchley, 1967). Classification of urban centers through typologies meets multiple objectives under different contexts. Governments typically use such hierarchies or typologies to allocate resources, undertake planning and to strategize regional development. Classifying helps recall the most common characteristics of the group. In the case of a city, a detailed classification could potentially help predict characteristics of a cities belonging to that group. It would also provide a unique nomenclature making it easier to refer to a group of cities with common characteristics. 

Currently, in India, the classification used by the government mainly refers to a population-based classification, also known as a hierarchy classification. However, given the diversity in cities the some of the city’s characteristics such as age, location, morphological (spatial configuration), and function, get left out when classifying cities on the basis of their population. 

Classification and categories are used to signal to the world that a particular place exhibits particular characteristics – so one might know what to expect from that place. A category might illicit an image of what a city might be, for example, geographical categorization as a coastal town, hill station, land locked city, or functional characteristics such as tourist city or industrial center. Yet, in policy terms, we tend to categorize cities as Tier I, Tier II and Tier III or X, Y, and Z cities.

It is important to look at a range of factors when trying to work out policies for a city or a group of cities. Making policy decisions based only on population not likely to be efficient or effective. One potential way around this is to consider population as a super-category. Population helps get a sense of the magnitude of challenges, and the administrative and political boundaries. Then compare various cities by age, location, morphological configuration and function in each population bracket.  Using a mix of population and other characteristics could be an intermediate approach  between a cookie-cutter, one-size fits all policies and individualized city specific solutions.