Raising a stink: The waste bomb is ticking for India
Though a surreal spectacle, the garbage avalanche that killed two people in the capital on September 1 did not surprise many. The tragedy was long in the works.
Collecting a mountain of household trash, animal waste, plastic and construction rubble since 1984, the Ghazipur dump yard had filled up to capacity in 2002. It continued to take trash for another 15 years.
Delhi remained blind to the build-up till a massive chunk of this 15-storey-high mound fell into a canal running alongside, creating a mini-tsunami that washed away four vehicles on the adjoining road.
Ghazipur is not an exception. Two of Delhi’s three other landfills also ran out of space nearly a decade ago but are still in use. Delhi is not an exception either. Most Indian cities are sinking in their own trash.
Two of Mumbai’s three landfills — Deonar and Mulund — have waste piled up to the height of a four-storey building. Last year, triggered by combustible gases released from disintegrating refuse, the dumpsite at Deonar caught fire. The plumes of smoke were visible from space.
In Kolkata, the oldest landfill at Dhapa is permanently on fire. The fuming trash piles have scaled the 50-foot danger mark and municipality officials worry about an imminent collapse. Earlier this monsoon, one of the five 50-metre mounds at Ahmedabad’s Pirana dumpsite gave away, burying four vehicles.
Use & Throw
Not too long ago, recycling was a way of Indian life. Rapid urbanisation and rising incomes triggered wasteful consumption. Besides organic waste, our cities now generate huge amounts of plastic, paper, tin, metal and foam coming directly from homes. The construction boom is responsible for massive concrete debris. The Central Pollution Control Board says that plastic consumption has almost doubled in India in the last 20 years.
“The economy promotes production. The plastic trader still wants to produce more. To counter this, we need strong material recovery mechanisms,” says Ravi Aggarwal, director Toxic Links.
But there is little by way of segregation in the recovery process. Few Indian cities — Pune, Delhi, Thrissur and Coimbatore — have officially integrated the rag-pickers in the sanitation workforce. Last year, then Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar admitted that only about 75-80% of the total waste generated in India was collected by municipalities, and only 22-28% of this was processed and treated. The rest goes to landfills.
In 2009, the Department of Economic Affairs said that by 2047, urban India would generate 260 million tonnes of waste annually, requiring at least 1,400 sq km of dumping space. For perspective, that is 84 sq km short of the size of Delhi. No wonder landfills are fast running out of space; and cities, of land for more dumpsites.
Not In My Backyard
Landfills stink. They are also serious health and ecological hazards. The Waste Atlas 2014 quoted a study by NEERI stating that people living in neighbourhoods abutting the Deonar dump in Mumbai were exposed to formaldehyde, a carcinogenic compound.
Worse, landfills are seldom built with care. In Delhi, only one of the four has been built according to the established sanitary standards. In Mumbai, only one in three. Fumes and odour from the Deonar dump yard caused respiratory ailments among locals. In Bengaluru, groundwater contamination around Mandur landfill made residents ill and damaged crops.
The class divide also plays out in the selection of dump sites. Rural areas are the first choice to send urban waste out of sight. The next option is low-income areas on city outskirts. That is why local residents of Bengaluru, Alappuzha, Pune, Panaji and Gurgaon and, most recently, Rani Khera in Delhi have put up stiff fights against attempts to open landfills in their backyards.
“We are comfortable in choosing a slum or a village to dump the garbage a city generates. We forget that the poor today are aware of their rights,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager at the Centre for Science and Environment.
That is why Delhi has no option but to continue dumping waste at Ghazipur even after the accident.
As our increasingly frustrating search for new landfill sites continues, waste-to-energy plants are being touted as the only alternative. Unfortunately, neither is an effective solution to our garbage crisis.
For one, the composition of India’s urban waste is not appropriate for incineration-based technologies. “Untreated Indian mixed waste has so much moisture and debris (inert material) and hence so little calorific value that there is little, if any, the surplus energy produced after consuming most of it in-house for plant operations,” says Almitra Patel, member of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee for Solid Waste Management.
She says the National Green Tribunal has specifically ruled against the feeding of untreated wet waste or recyclables to incinerators, adding that foreign firms that have few takers abroad for their ‘burn technology’ are tempting Indians with offers of mass-burning mixed waste.
Probably that is why many such plants are turning out to be duds. In Pune, the municipality spent Rs 20 crore in installing 25 low-capacity (two-five tonnes) waste-to-energy processing plants. Five of these are defunct and the rest, run below capacity. “We would like to burn and forget. But that’s not happening,” warns CSE’s Sambyal.
It’s time we got real.
(With inputs from Tanushree Venkatraman in Mumbai, Prachi Bari in Pune and Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri in Kolkata)
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