Identifying the Malba Problem
At a time when the whole world seems to be bothered about plastic in the oceans, global warming, and rising sea levels - this article draws attention to the most overlooked waste stream - the C&D waste stream, or Malba as we call it in Hindi. This is ironic, because Malba, is the most voluminous waste stream in the world, and can never be looked over. So how is it, that we have become so oblivious to the most ubiquitous element of our urban fabric today? And what is, the "Malba Problem"?
Malba is the Hindi word for debris – or waste that is generated from the construction, renovation, or demolition of our built environment. In most countries construction, renovation and demolition waste or CRD waste as they call it, would consist of wooden planks, concrete rubble, broken masonry, glass, PVC and aluminium frames, etc. But in India Malba often only talks of broken brick and concrete debris, which speaks volumes (pun intended) about our inherent culture of recycling. Wooden doors, windows, frames, glass, steel rebars all get recycled immediately in India because they have a resale value that workers at the bottom of the pyramid make a living out of. What’s left is concrete and brick, which holds no market value. It is often used in the filling of foundations, as it saves the cost of filling material and because it costs money to dispose of it. However, the most conservative of estimates claim there is about 150 million tonnes of Malba that is annually generated from CDR projects. Some estimate this to be 3 to 5 times higher .
The discourse around waste in India is often limited to municipal solid waste or the waste that comes out of our homes. Single-use plastics, food waste, or even electronic waste make up the bulk (again pun intended) of the waste management narrative. But no one talks about the bulkiest waste stream in India, and what must be done about it.
As a developing country, we are constantly in a state of construction. And this means we are constantly surrounded by Malba. It has become so ubiquitous to our urban environments, that we almost fail to notice it as anything out of the ordinary. We’ve all been bothered by the barricades along the ring road in Delhi slowing traffic down. We’ve had to walk on the road because the pedestrian pathway is covered with construction materials and other obstructions. We’ve faced flooding of streets in the monsoon because our storm water drains are clogged with Malba. And perhaps we haven’t noticed any of it because living with Malba has become a way of life.
“We’ve all been bothered by the barricades along the ring road in Delhi slowing traffic down. We’ve had to walk on the road because the pedestrian pathway is covered with construction materials and other obstructions. We’ve faced flooding of streets in the monsoon because our storm water drains are clogged with Malba. And perhaps we haven’t noticed any of it because living with Malba has become a way of life.”
Dust from demolition contributes to 30% of the air pollution in Delhi.  And considering that Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, that is a lot of dust. Moreover, improper disposal and C&D waste leaches into our groundwater and causes severe water pollution as well. Think of leftover paints after a fresh coat was applied, did you see anyone pouring the leftover paint down the drain? That is going to the same water body from which you get your drinking water because it is all connected. And that is why it is important to talk about how we dispose of waste, and how we can do it better.
The problem here is manifold. While the in-your-face problem is the bulk of the waste obstructing daily life, behind-the-scenes we have landfills filling up fast and being unable to accommodate more Malba. The problem is also that if the waste can’t be landfilled then it is often dumped in our frigid green belt, the Aravalli forest, or water bodies. The problem is the environmental problems that its poor disposal has, endangering entire ecosystems of lakes for example where they have been dumped. The problem is also that given the rate of development, the demand for materials cannot be met by virgin materials alone. Sand, for example, is one of the most scarce resources. In a project in Chennai, sand was imported from Malaysian riverbeds, now endangering ecosystems internationally.  Given that the construction industry contributes around 10% to the GDP and employs around 40 million people, this is a sector that is critical to growth yet vulnerable to breakdown.
The Construction & Demolition Waste Management Rules were notified in 2016 and stipulated that within a year of these rules, every Indian city with a population of over one million needs to install C&D waste processing plants. These plants would recycle Malba and create useful products out of it such as pavers, manufactured sand, aggregate for concrete, etc. that could then be used for the development of the city. However, since the 5 years that these rules have been notified, only 13 cities so far have implemented these rules.  Moreover, the plants in these 13 cities all seem to be running a loss as there isn’t a market for these products. It is attributed to a lack of trust on behalf of the people and apprehension on behalf of architects and builders. Despite the Bureau of Indian Standards declaring these materials fit for construction  , this distrust continues. Is it really true that Indian people have a problem using recycled materials? Are architects trying at all to incorporate these into their projects? We also observe several loopholes in the C&D Waste Management Rules, the most glaring of which is the exclusion of small projects, and the lack of penalties for defaulters.
We feel this issue requires conversations on multiple levels.
And this is what the Malba Project hopes to do. Stay tuned. 🙂
Roychowdhury, A., Somvanshi, A. and Verma, A. (2020) Another Brick off the Wall : Improving Construction and Demolition Waste Managment in Indian Cities, Centre for Science and Environment. Available at: https://www.cseindia.org/another-brick-off-the-wall-10325.
S. Rizwan, B. Nongkynrih, and S. K. Gupta, “‘Air pollution in Delhi: Its Magnitude and Effects on Health,’” Indian J. Community Med., vol. 38, no. 1, p. 4, Jan. 2013.
Kukreti, I. (2018) ‘India can rely on sand imports till the time it is viable’. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/environment/india-can-rely-on-sand-imports-till-the-time-it-is-viable-60892
Down To Earth (2020) ‘India recycles only 1% of its construction and demolition waste: CSE’. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/waste/india-recycles-only-1-of-its-construction-and-demolition-waste-cse-73027
BIS (2016) Indian Standard Coarse and Fine Aggregate for Concrete - Specification (Third Revision). Available at: https://www.bis.gov.in/