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Above: There have been attempts to find an alternative dumping site on the bank of the Yamuna but environmentalists have opposed it/Photo: UNI

Municipal authorities in Delhi need to think out of the box and look for solutions beyond landfills and waste-to-energy plants to deal with this mounting problem

By Papia Samajdar

On May 26, 2019, The Times of India published a detailed story on the disastrous state of solid waste management in the national capital. A majority of the solid waste generated by Delhi’s 20 million inhabitants ends up in either of the three landfills—Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur. This has polluted the groundwater, which is too hazardous to consume for humans and animals. The groundwater accessed by illegal settlements around the dump sites through borewells is orange-yellow in colour. The pollution from the leachate is also reported to reach the aquifers and the already polluted Yamuna.

Taking suo motu cognisance of the groundwater contamination, an NGT order, dated May 30, 2019, demanded action taken reports from North, South and East Delhi Municipal Corporations to be filed within a month. The bench also directed the commissioners of the corporations to be present on July 11, 2019, the next date of hearing.

The Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur landfills were commissioned in 1994, 1996 and 1984, respectively, and are estimated to have accumulated five million tonnes of waste. None of them have concrete base linings which can prevent leaching of chemicals into groundwater. The toxic cocktails of various chemicals have been leaching into the groundwater heavily and polluting it irrever­sibly. There is no way of purifying this water containing heavy metals, toxins and chemicals, according to Priti Mahesh, Chief Programme Coordinator at Toxics Link, a Delhi-based NGO.

According to municipality officials, though the contamination can be minimised, creating a barrier between the landfills at these sites and groundwater is impossible. The Delhi High Court in Gauri Grover vs Government of NCT, Delhi on June 28, 2017, had constituted a committee to formulate an action plan regarding collection and disposal of wastes in Delhi. The committee had flagged the issues around the three landfills at Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur. In its report, it had pointed out that the capacity of all the landfills had been exhausted in 2008. The committee also noted that the use of these landfills should be minimised. The committee’s various recommendations were adopted, but little action is seen on the ground.

In 2018, a parliamentary standing committee on science and technology, environment and forests noted that the Ghazipur landfill has reached 65 metres in height, just a few metres shorter than the Qutub Minar which stands at 73 metres. In September 2017, garbage dumping was banned following an accident when a part of the dump collapsed, killing two people. However, the ban was lifted as there was no other dumping site according to the authorities.

Following the accident in Ghazipur, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EMCD) had been desperate to find a new dumping site. The land proposed was on the Yamuna riverbank but this was opposed by environmentalists. The Delhi Development Authority recently okayed 42.5 acres in Ghonda Gujran to EMCD for dumping. Barely 2.5 kilometres from the Yamuna river, the land falls within active floodplain areas or the “O Zone” according to Chintan, a Delhi-based NGO which has called for a rollback of the permission.

An online petition was started two years ago against the setting up of a landfill on the Yamuna floodplains and the petitioners claimed that the proposed site was an active floodplain. The site was violating the Municipal Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, which states that landfill sites should be at least 100 metres away from a river. However, EMCD insists that the landfill will be safe and will follow all the guidelines mentioned to maintain a sanitary dump site. According to Pradeep Khandelwal, EDMC chief engineer, the municipal body plans to set up an “Integrated Waste Management Facility” with a waste-to-energy plant, a C&D debris processing facility and bio-methanation plant.

However, Delhi’s experience with waste-to-energy plants has not been good either. Delhi has three waste-to-energy plants and two more are proposed to be set up. An expansion of the Okhla plant is being planned but the residents staying in the vicinity have been opposing the expansion and pushing for its relocation. They have been complaining about the emissions from the plant, adding to already poor air quality. Besides, questions are also being raised about the efficacy of the three plants.

According to a press note by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on May 5, 2016, 43 million tonnes of Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) is collected annually, 11.9 million Tonnes Per Annum (TPA) is treated and 31 million TPA is dumped in landfill sites, which means that only about 75 to 80 percent of MSW gets collected and only 22 to 28 percent of this waste is processed and treated. A study conducted by the Shriram Institute for Industrial Research in 2017 points out that 55-60 percent of Delhi’s MSW is bio-degradable with a calorific value less than 1,800 kcal/kg required to self sustain the combustion. According to an assessment conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an NGO working on environmental issues, only 13 percent of Delhi’s MSW is of high calorific value and can be used to generate electricity.

“The legacy waste in the dumps is of very low calorific value. If we look at how much waste is incinerable in Delhi, it constitutes only 10-13 percent of the total waste generated, which is 1,100 tonnes per day. Delhi already has three plants with a capacity to treat over 6,000 tonnes per day. The question we need to ask is what are we burning? Is it high calorific value non-recyclable waste (which should ideally be burnt) or everything (which is happening),” asks Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager, Environmental Governance (Waste Management) at CSE.

The municipal authorities need to look for solutions outside the landfill and waste-to-energy plants. “For one, they need to reduce the dependency on landfills and dumping. The officials need to make robust waste management systems on the ground with a focus on end-to-end segregation,” remarked Sambyal. There are over 2,300 dhalaos in Delhi which are used for temporary dumping and waste segregation. These can be converted into decentralised processing units. “There is enough land (dhalaos) but lack of will to re-do the system is the reason why we are losing the war,” said Sambyal.

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