Tall order for Delhi civic poll winners: Flattening landfills
On average, each of Delhi’s 20 million residents generates 550gm of garbage a day, among the highest in the country
On average, each of Delhi’s 20 million residents generates 550gm of garbage a day, among the highest in the country (the figure is 330gm for Mumbai and 500gm for Bengaluru).
This includes kitchen waste, food containers, packing material (a significant component in the era of e-commerce), and garden trimmings. Around 60-70% of it is kitchen and horticulture waste, and around 30%, consists of dry plastic and cardboard.
Of this, around 2-3% is hazardous.
From its entry into the household bin to its journey towards the three overburdened landfill sites or waste processing facilities, the treatment of trash by households as well as the municipality determines if the four million tonnes of annual production of garbage can be treated as a resource or a massive liability, a constant polluting source and a nuisance impacting public health.
With elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) less than two weeks away, 1,349 candidates are attempting to shape the narratives in 250 wards over various bitterly contested issues. However, more than in any previous civic elections, the spotlight is on the three infamous garbage mountains and the municipal waste collection mechanism, the primary and some would say, MCD’s most important responsibility. The two principal opponents have attempted to sell their own solution to Delhi’s garbage management woes.
Dubbed “the tallest mountain of waste” in the country, with its height often compared to Qutub Minar, the Ghazipur landfill — 65 metres tall, compared to the Qutub’s 73 metres in 2019 — that holds more than 14 million tonnes of legacy waste was the launchpad for AAP’s political campaign for the MCD elections.
To be sure, the maximum permissible height of a landfill according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is only 20 metres. The biomining project was initiated in 2019 on the directions of National Green Tribunal. MCD has since claimed that the height of various portions of the mound has come down by 12-18 metres.
With the Ghazipur mound in the backdrop, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on October 27 announced that the elections would be ”solely fought over the issue of garbage and cleaning Delhi”. Over the past month, the AAP has alleged that the BJP’s 15-year reign in MCD has “shamed Delhi with heaps of garbage lying everywhere.” The three landfill sites have seen multiple protests as well as visits by the CM and the deputy CM Manish Sisodia.
AAP has launched a combative campaign with the tagline “Koode ke Pahad hatana hai, Dilli ko Chamkana hai” (we need to remove the garbage mounds and make Delhi shine) while claiming that 16 more such landfill sites will come up across the city if the BJP returns to power, a claim that has been vehemently denied by the MCD. The party is also parading 35 vans mounted with replicas of landfills across the city. Sisodia, during a visit to Ghazipur, said that Kejriwal has ”studied the whole situation of solid waste management in the Capital and prepared a blueprint to eliminate the mountains of garbage from Delhi and make it garbage-free.”
However, party functionaries have not explained the finer details of this action plan.
Garbage is a big issue for the BJP as well. Its campaign began at the launch, by Union home minister Amit Shah, on October 20, of a waste-to-energy plant in Tehkhand that would take the city-state’s waste processing capacity from 56.5% to over 74%. Shah claimed that Delhi’s garbage problems would be solved over the next three years, presenting a plan for setting up 15 waste processing facilities. And BJP state chief Adesh Gupta argued that a lot of work has been carried out by operationalising four waste-to-energy plants and the closure of hundreds of dhalaos (open garbage collection centres) with mechanised garbage compactors coming up.
The sanitation crisis in the capital city is a publicly acknowledged reality that is reaffirmed annually, by Delhi’s performance in national sanitation rankings issued by the central government. In contrast to the New Delhi area, the city’s three erstwhile municipal corporations have consistently fared poorly in Swachh Survekshan, usually figuring in the bottom 10 spots in their categories. In Swacch Surveskshan 2022, the South corporation was ranked 28th, the East corporation 34th and the North corporation at 37th among 45 cities with a population of more than one million that participated in the exercise.
Until very recently, almost half of the roughly 11,000 tonnes of garbage produced by the city every day ended up on three landfills — in Okhla, Ghazipur and Bhalswa. Much of the 8,000 tonnes of waste that is processed is incinerated in four waste-to-energy plants (together producing 74-84MW of power a day--the Tehkhand plant is partially operational) while very little ends up in the preferred route of recycling, composting and bio-methanation.
Arun Kumar, a retired MCD official who worked with the sanitation department for around 34 years said that in the journey of garbage from a household to the waste-processing unit or landfill, the most effective intervention is at the household level.
“Waste segregation at the household level is the key. The further processing of garbage depends on whether it has been mixed or segregated. From the household, it ends up in the dhalaos and garbage compactor stations. At these sites, informal groups and ragpickers retrieve the recyclable items, undertaking the job that should have been carried out by people,” he explained.
Jai Prakash Chaudhary, secretary of Safai Sena, an organisation of waste collectors and ragpickers said that all political parties promise to clear landfills, but they continue to grow. “Burning waste also affects the lungs of people in the city. More than 80,000 waste pickers are reducing a large chunk of garbage by recycling and silently collecting waste from houses but governments continue to focus on large waste management companies,” he said.
From these primary garbage receptacles, the garbage is either compacted under high pressure and sent to waste-to-energy plants (a small component, around 2.5%, ends up in few material recovery facilities and another 5% in composting units). The gap, around 3,000 tonnes, ends up in landfills.
Some of the tallest garbage mounds in the country, Delhi’s three landfills store over 28 million tonnes of trash. The city’s inability to manage its waste has also translated into massive environmental costs in terms of air pollution and groundwater contamination. Toxic fumes that these landfills emit include extremely polluting and greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide and monoxide, hydrogen sulphide, dioxins and furans.
In many places, waste from the landfill sites has leached and contaminated ground water . In January 2021, a committee comprising members from National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Central Pollution Control Board and IIT, Delhi concluded that the three landfills have collectively caused nearly ₹450 crore in damage to the environment.
At the root of the sanitation crisis is the failure of the city to segregate waste at source, leakages in garbage collection as well as failure to implement the provisions of the Solid Waste Management SWM by-laws for the National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCT), which were notified in January 2018. Provisions regarding waste segregation at source, 100% door to door collection and user charges, end user collection mechanism for non-biodegradable packaging material also remain completely to partially non-operative.
Atul Goel, who heads United RWAs Joint Action (URJA), a federation of resident welfare associations (RWA) said the issue of garbage and landfills remains relevant because the on-ground situation remains problematic.
“The sanitation by-laws have remained on paper, but we must also understand that these are linked with MCD’s financial health. If the city has to be made world-class, the civic body cannot be left without funds. Allocation needs to increase in proportion with state revenue and both parties should lay down their blueprint on the solutions.”
Atin Biswas, programme director of the municipal solid waste sector at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said Delhi will have to return to the basics of waste management.
“Delhi seems to have resigned to its fate and is no longer attempting segregation at scale. The cities with best practices in our country like Indore are now moving to six-way segregation of different components of waste,” he said. His reference is to Indore’s directive that waste be segregated into six categories — wet waste: leftover kitchen waste, tea leaves, food leftover etc; plastic waste; non-plastic dry waste such as cardboard, used newspapers etc; domestic hazardous waste: thermometers, used paint boxes; electronic waste; and sanitary waste: sanitary napkins, expired medicines, used syringes.
Bharati Chaturvedi, an environmentalist and the founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group said that the key solution to deal with landfill problem is to focus on dealing with wet waste.
“We should do decentralised composting at bulk generators. This will involve giving space for composting by the municipality and to invest money in basic pit composting and taking care of three months running expenses. Waste pickers should be asked and trained to run them so that we get composting, which can reduce 50% waste going to landfills.”