Gurugram civic body held back information to get nod for Bandhwari waste-to-energy plant
The Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) withheld important information from the Union environment ministry while seeking environmental clearance (EC) for its proposed waste-to-energy (WTE) plant in Bandhwari, according to documents reviewed by Hindustan Times. HT was the first to report, on November 12, that the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) had granted EC to the proposed WTE plant.
A copy of the ministry’s EC letter, dated November 1, is with HT, as are copies of MCG’s application form and Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report. When asked in its application form: “Whether there is any Court Cases pending against the project and/or land in which the project is proposed to be set up?”, the MCG neglected to inform the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) about existing litigation pending in the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Filed by city-based activist Vivek Kamboj on September 16, 2015, the NGT petition (OA 415 of 2015) challenges violations of environmental law at the Bandhwari landfill, where the MCG has been dumping about 900 tonne of untreated municipal waste every day for the past six years. On November 2, 2013, a fire broke out at the site’s waste treatment facility, putting an end to segregation and recycling. Since then, over two million tonne of waste has accumulated into a pile higher than the Aravalli hills around it.
Kamboj’s petition was disposed of on July 10, 2018, with directions to MCG to take “immediate steps to manage the legacy waste”. The petition was renumbered (OA 514 of 2018) on August 21 the same year and the tribunal is currently monitoring compliance with its directions of the July 10, 2018, order.
“A petition can be renumbered for different reasons of technicality. For example, when a case is referred from a zonal bench to the principal bench, it is renumbered. In this case, the principal bench was already hearing the petition. After it was initially disposed, the NGT renumbered the application it so that it could proactively continue to monitor compliance with its directions. One cannot say that there is no litigation pending,” said Rahul Chaudhuri, a lawyer with Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE), who is representing Kamboj.
The NGT has been giving relevant orders from time to time in the case. In an order dated April 24, 2019, it said: “Present is classic instance of incapacity, incompetence and unwillingness of the Municipal Corporation, Gurgaon to perform its duty to handle solid waste in a scientific manner.”
On July 10, 2019, in light of unsatisfactory progress toward remediating the landfill, the NGT instated a committee headed by the Haryana chief secretary and directed the MCG to reclaim the landfill by following the “Indore model”, whereby the Indore Municipal Corporation recovered 80% of a 100-acre dump site through bio-mining, segregating and recycling the legacy waste.
Experts and activists agree that this model is far less harmful than burning waste for electricity, and negates any need for MCG’s proposed WTE plant. “The waste-to-energy model, on the other hand, incentivises the production of waste to create refuse derived fuel (RDF) and releases toxic emissions in the air,” said Kamboj.
By the year 2035, Gurugram and Faridabad (which also sends its garbage to Bandhwari) will together generate over a quarter of Haryana’s solid waste, according to projections by the state pollution control board. “We should be thinking about ways to reign in this number, instead of creating more demand for waste,” Kamboj added.
In its Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, submitted to MoEFCC in March this year, MCG once again did not mention the presence of existing litigation against the landfill. However, it pointed out that an older legal matter was settled. “One PIL was filed before National Green Tribunal vide M.A. NO: 1310 OF 2017 IN ORIGINAL APPLICATON NO.415 OF 2015 the same has been disposed off and the compliance report has been submitted,” the EIA report said.
This refers to Kamboj’s 2015 petition, disposed of by the NGT in 2018. The EIA report does not mention that the tribunal has continued to proactively monitor the status of the case under a renumbered petition (OA 514 of 2018). “This crucial piece of information has been left out,” Kamboj said.
Amit Khatri, deputy commissioner, Gurugram, and commissioner of the MCG, did not respond to a detailed questionnaire seeking comment. Saurabh Nain, sanitation inspector, MCG, however, claimed, “When we first moved the application, there was no pending case”. When asked why details of the existing litigation were excluded from the EIA report, Nain said, “The ministry is now a party to that petition and is aware of the matter, so there was no need for further disclosures.”
Pollutants from the landfill have now allegedly leached into Bandhwari’s groundwater, which was deemed unfit for human consumption by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2017. Yet, in the absence of canal water supply from Gurugram, residents in Bandhwari continue to drink, wash and cook with it. MCG did not disclose to the EAC any information about groundwater contamination in the area, despite reports confirming it.
The 2017 CPCB inspection found that the water contained iron, manganese, boron, calcium, chlorides and nitrates in excess of India’s drinking water standards (IS 10500:2012). MCG sanitation inspector Nain said he was unaware of this report. An independent report from 2015, by Rekha Singh, an environment expert certified by the Quality Council of India (under the MoEFCC), found that the groundwater in Bandhwari contained calcium, cadmium, magnesium, fluoride, phenolic compounds and mercury in excess of India’s drinking water standards. Nain said he was not in a position to comment on independent findings.
There is no mention of these studies in the MCG’s EIA report. “The spirit of the EIA notification mandates that such disclosures be made to the ministry’s expert appraisal committee,” said Vaishali Rana Chandra, an environmentalist who has been tracking the matter for many years.
This August, another report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute suggested that contamination from the landfill has likely spread downstream via the underlying aquifer, to the neighbouring villages of Mangar, Baliawas and Gwal Pahari. Groundwater samples from 14 locations within a 5km radius of the landfill were found to be “highly contaminated” with pathogenic bacteria and heavy metals in excess of India’s drinking water quality standards. “This is a preliminary report and nowhere does it say that the contamination is due to the landfill,” said Nain.
The MCG’s own EIA report, based on data collected between December 2016 and February 2017, is in stark contrast to these findings. It states that “heavy metals were found to be absent in the ground water analysed at seven locations” around the landfill. It also stated that “parameters like chloride, calcium, magnesium, nitrate and fluoride were found within the desirable limit” of Indian drinking water standards. This report has never been made public by the MCG, despite rules mandating that it made available for public scrutiny for a period of 30 days before submission to EAC.
In an order dated March 1, 2019, the NGT observed, “It is clear that damage to the environment is taking place by contamination of ground water on account of leachate discharge.”
Lastly, when asked if there is any forest land involved in the project, MCG responded “No” in its application form, failing to disclose to EAC that the site is located on 30 acres of Aravalli land. Of this, 14.86 acres come under the Aravalli Plantation Project, which as per earlier Supreme Court orders, gives the land legal “forest status” with protection under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. The land is also recorded as “gair mumkin pahad” or uncultivable hilly land, in the revenue books, and is protected by MoEFCC’s Aravalli Notification of 1992.
Nain’s response to this was that, “Forest clearance had already been taken by the Haryana Shahri Vikas Pradhikaran in 2008 for a waste treatment facility on site. Therefore no fresh forest clearance is required.”A former senior forest department official contested this. “If there is a new project for which fresh EC is required, forest clearance also needs to be taken afresh. You cannot build a WTE plant on the basis of clearance for a waste management facility,” this person said on condition of anonymity.
Also not disclosed in the application form is the close proximity of site to Mangar Bani, Delhi-NCR’s last remaining patch of original forest, which is also, for locals of Mangar village, a sacred grove (which is already reeling under various biotic pressures). “The stretch of Aravalli forest between Bandhwari and Damdama acts as a wildlife corridor between Asola Bhatti in Delhi and Sariska in Rajasthan,” said the former senior forest department official.
Gaurav Khare, the Union ministry spokesperson, did not respond to a detailed questionnaire seeking comment for this story. Yashpal Yadav, former MCG commissioner, said, “I cannot comment as I am no longer connected with the project.”
Activists have maintained that these apparent violations make the EC liable to be cancelled, as per the provisions of Para 8 (vi) of the EIA Notification, 2006, which states: “Deliberate concealment and/or submission of false or misleading information or data which is material to screening or scoping or appraisal or decision on the application shall make the application liable for rejection, and cancellation of prior environmental clearance.”