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Deadly Stink: The Hidden Life of Garbage in Delhi

Representative Image. (Reuters)

Representative Image. (Reuters)

All contenders in the ring for Sunday’s municipal polls in Delhi have made much of rendering Delhi garbage and landfill free, but grand promises don’t hold much water in the offices of the capital’s imposing Civic Centre.

New Delhi: All contenders in the ring for Sunday’s municipal polls in Delhi have made much of rendering Delhi garbage and landfill free, but grand promises don’t hold much water in the offices of the capital’s imposing Civic Centre.

Amidst piles of paperwork, the employees of the three municipal corporations, harried by the elections scheduled for April 23, don’t know how any of claims of making Delhi landfill free, by the Congress, or of shutting them by 2019, by the Aam Aadmi Party, will see the light of day.

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“There is no technology to end landfills,” a senior engineer bluntly told News18, on condition of anonymity. “The best we can do is reduce it… and keep reusing and recycling.”

However, the best example of recycling, as of now, seems to be the manifesto of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, which has had charge of the MCD for 10 years, with promises to implement segregation of garbage reproduced from the 2012 polls.

Segregation is the key

The root cause of the issue, however, starts from the place where garbage is generated. Delhi residents still refuse to segregate waste at home. The Solid Waste Management Rules (SWM) of 2016 mandate segregation at source, the point where it’s generated, be it homes, hotels or restaurants, into three categories — biodegradables or wet; dry such as paper, plastics, metals; and hazardous such as diapers, sanitary napkins and chemicals.

“We are waiting for by-laws to be prepared to make individual responsibility enforceable,” said Yogender Singh Mann, public information officer of the North Corporation.

Segregation, the MCD has said in the past, can reduce 50% of the load on landfills, by weeding out waste that can be recycled and the one that can be composted.

Waste pickers key stakeholders

Segregation done by waste pickers in the city brings down the carbon footprint of Delhi by 20%, according to Jai Prakash Chaudhary of Safai Sena, the waste pickers’ association. Chaudhary, a waste picker in Delhi since 1994, and now the secretary of the association that was put together by the environment research non-profit Chintan, credited this informal sector for keeping Delhi clean. About 1.5 lakh ‘kabadiwalas’ operate in Delhi of which, he said, 50,000 specifically collect and segregate waste.

This fetches them about Rs 300 a day, depending on the quality of waste. “We can sell dry paper for Rs 10 per kilo,” Chaudhary gave an example, “but if it gets mixed with wet waste, it goes for Rs 2 per kilo. The wet waste too goes bad when it mixes with the chemicals in the ink.”

The SWM rules recognise waste pickers as an integral part of sanitation and state they be given identity cards and spots to segregate waste. Waste pickers are still waiting on these promises. According to Chaudhary, this had to be implemented in a year, but Mann told News18 that the first step to integrate this labour force into the formal sector is to get land from the Delhi Development Authority and the Delhi government to create the segregation spots.

The tension between the MCD’s vision for waste and that of the waste pickers persists. The latter insist that they need to pick as many reusable goods as possible from the garbage. The former, meanwhile, is putting out integrated tenders so that a sole contractor collects, transports and dumps the waste. This, according to engineers, will reduce the amount of material that gets picked, keeping the calorific content of waste intact for the waste to energy plants.

Science and garbage

Low calorific content, say officials, is a particularly Indian “problem” and hinders the running of plants. For the MCD, these waste to energy plants are the future of garbage disposal. Despite concerns by environmentalists on how feasible the plants are, the municipality has staked itself heavily in bringing them about in accordance with the SWM rules.

Planned before the Commonwealth Games of 2010, the plant at the Narela-Bawana landfill site, on the north-western outskirts of the city, has long been touted as Delhi’s first scientifically engineered site. It is set to use 2000 metric tonnes of waste to generate 24 megawatts of electricity, and within two years, bring down the amount of garbage collected at Narela-Bawana in anticipation for the plant’s launch.

“It is India’s largest waste to energy plant and is the future of garbage disposal,” said Mann.

Still, Delhi has not had good run-ins with waste to energy plants. The one in Okhla being an example. The plant, that irked the residents living around it, was shut down after several legal cases. Mann, however, said that the 100-acre Narela Bawana plant, run by the infrastructure company IL&FS, will have no problems; there is no leaching of toxins into the ground and no air pollution. The senior engineer said the focus shouldn’t be on how much electricity is produced, but how much garbage is reduced, and how usable the end products are.

A similar plant is planned for the Bhalaswa dumping ground that started in 1994, but has mutated into a mountain of trash and poison straight out of dystopia.

Bottom-line, however, remains the way people segregate and dispose garbage. Delhi may have come far from counting trucks, but its waste problems can’t be swept under any rug.