Accumulated waste at Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa is being processed every day, but fresh garbage keeps piling up.
While heading towards Ghaziabad on the Delhi-Meerut expressway, one passes on the right what looks like a solitary mountain in the middle of the city. But on getting closer, the stench permeating through the air is enough to indicate that it is a mountain of garbage.
Up until late 2019, the Ghazipur dumpsite, which was 65 metres tall, had the infamous record of being just a few metres short of the Qutub Minar, which is 73 metres high.
In July last year, Bharatiya Janata Party MP for East Delhi Gautam Gambhir declared on Twitter that “Asia’s largest garbage mountain” in Ghazipur was “down by 40 feet” in one year. In December, he tweeted again, asking the people of Delhi if they wanted “drama or development” and promising that all 140 lakh tonnes of legacy waste would be processed by December 2024. The MP had also claimed to have invested “crores” of rupees from his MPLADS fund to clear the landfill site.
In January this year, Gambhir was “ecstatic” to inform Delhites in a tweet that the height of the Ghazipur dumpsite had been reduced by 12 metres from the top.
Will Gambhir meet his 2024 deadline? Does the purported reduction in the garbage mountain’s height solve anything?
Newslaundry went to the Ghazipur dumpsite to answer these questions. The short answer: no, and no.
Delhi generates 10,500 metric tonnes of garbage on a daily basis. This is predominantly dumped at Delhi’s three biggest dumpsites at Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla. The three sites have cumulatively accumulated a whopping 280 lakh metric tonnes of legacy waste since they were opened. Newslaundry also visited the dumpsites at Bhalswa and Okhla.
In 2019, the National Green Tribunal directed the Delhi government and municipal bodies to deposit Rs 250 crore in an escrow account for the removal and bioremediation of legacy waste from the three sites, warning that no officer would get a salary if they failed to abide by the directive.
The deadline set for the 100 percent remediation of the Ghazipur dumpsite was December 2024, while the deadlines for Okhla and Bhalswa are March 2023 and June 2022, respectively.
From Newslaundry’s visits to the sites and our conversations with parties involved, one thing is clear: all three sites are unlikely to meet their clearance deadlines.
Ghazipur’s litany of woes
It’s a cloudy Friday afternoon at the Ghazipur dumpsite. Countless scavenging birds hover over the grim mountain of garbage as green trucks from the East Delhi Municipal Corporation tip fresh waste at the overflowing site.
The Ghazipur dumpsite is spread over 70 acres and currently holds nearly 140 lakh metric tonnes of legacy waste. This waste has been piling up since 1984, when the site was commissioned. Newslaundry was not allowed by officials at the site to go further than the base of the site or click pictures from the front of it.
The dumpsite at Ghazipur. Photos: Diksha Munjal
An EDMC official involved in the site’s operations explained that garbage trucks make 300 trips to the site everyday, ferrying municipal solid waste from the whole of East Delhi.
The issue here, of course, is that fresh garbage should not be arriving in the first place. In 2017, 50 tonnes of garbage came crashing down from the top of the mountain onto the adjacent road. Two people were killed and Delhi’s lieutenant governor subsequently said that no fresh garbage must be dumped at Ghazipur. The order was later extended to Bhalswa too.
But the flow of garbage never stopped, even though the Ghazipur site crossed the danger mark in 2002, meaning its height had crossed 20 metres, after which it is not deemed safed to receive more garbage. Since then, it’s been overflowing. The EDMC’s defence is there’s no other place for the garbage to go.
But on paper, the municipal corporations of North, South and East Delhi have lofty plans.
The National Green Tribunal had directed the corporations to follow the Indore model, where mechanical sieving machines called “trommel machines” are used to separate and safely dispose of waste. It worked in Indore, where a 15 lakh metric tonne landfill was flattened in three years.
The trommels separate the waste into three components: plastic and combustible waste, construction and demolition material, and inert material. The first component is sent to a waste-to-energy plant near the dumpsite. The second is used to fill, lay or widen roads in the area. The third can be used to fill low-lying areas or to act as compost.
Accordingly, the East Delhi civic body employed 20 trommel machines, operated by private companies, at Ghazipur. Each machine can separate 300 tonnes of waste per day, though they don’t usually work at full capacity.
The official estimated that the machines can separate around 2,200-2,500 metric tonnes of garbage a day. But Ghazipur receives between 2,600 and 3,000 metric tonnes of fresh municipal solid waste every single day.
Adding to these issues is the fact that trommelling work was suspended in July due to the rain.
Atin Biswas, the programme director (municipal solid waste) at the Centre for Science and Environment, told Newslaundry that clearing Delhi’s dumpsites is “easier said than done”.
“Even if you somehow manage to clear the legacy waste lying at the site for decades, you are again putting equal amounts of fresh waste right next to it,” he said. So, even if the municipal corporations successfully flattened three mountains of legacy waste – which would take time, effort and money – new mountains of fresh waste would have piled up in the meantime.
“This is a vicious cycle which will continue forever,” Biswas said, “until we look at the fundamental criterias for waste management.” This includes waste segregation at source, decentralised waste management where waste is treated at the closest possible plant, and eventually stopping the production of non-recyclable materials such as single-use plastic.
Also, in theory, the trommel is supposed to produce three perfect components that have specific uses. But it isn’t always the case.
For instance, the third component, or inert waste, can purportedly be used as compost. But compost is a bio-fertiliser which has microbes that are alive, Biswas said. “In the case of legacy waste, which has been lying there for decades, the microbes are already dead,” he pointed out. As a result, there’s no market for this so-called compost.
Ragpickers at the Ghazipur dumpsite. Photo: Diksha Munjal
Scavenging birds at the Ghazipur dumpsite. Photo: Anwiti Singh
In terms of weight, the inert waste comprises nearly 70 percent of what is separated by trommel machines. In terms of volume, it’s 40 percent. So, if 140 lakh metric tonnes of waste is trommelled, it generates a vast quantity of inert waste.
So, where does this inert waste go?
Apart from being used to fill low-lying areas, it accumulates at the dumpsite, the East Delhi official said, meaning there’s even less space to accommodate processed waste.
“And if this happens,” he said, “the garbage mountain sits there only.”
So far, 3.5 lakh of inert waste from Ghazipur has been sent to an ecological park under the National Thermal Power Corporation. But the park is no longer accepting any more of this waste. Some of it went to corporation parks and the Delhi Development Authority’s land in Tughlakabad. But the rest of it is piling up at Ghazipur, and the corporation is asking multiple government agencies to take some of it away.
The situation is so bad that the corporation has even asked the general public to help itself to the inert waste for free.
“We issued a public notice that we have soil and inert material,” said the official. “They can come from anywhere in and around Delhi and take it from us, free of cost. We can show them reports that it’s safe to use. But no one has come forward yet, probably because they think it’s garbage.”
The lack of space also means the municipal corporations cannot install more trommel machines to separate the waste at a faster pace.
The problems are piling up thick and fast. For instance, Ghazipur’s waste-to-energy plant, which processes combustible waste, functions irregularly. This is because IL&FS, the company that manages the plant, faced bankruptcy and the overhaul of its management is taking time.
Biswas added that the waste-to-energy approach is, at the end of the day, also a “stop gap” solution, which is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable. The cost of generating energy from waste is very high and it’s sold at Rs 8-12 per unit, which power distribution companies do not want to buy. And combustible waste from the dumpsites is contaminated, meaning it takes a lot more fuel to burn it and the emissions are harmful.
Newslaundry sent a detailed questionnaire to East Delhi MP Gautam Gambhir. Despite numerous communications with his media manager, we received no response.
Sister concerns at Okhla and Bhalswa
The Okhla dumpsite in South Delhi spreads across 40 acres. It might not have the height of its Ghazipur counterpart, but it’s still home to 60 lakh metric tonnes of legacy waste as of last year, according to officials overseeing its operation. And this is a conservative estimate, considering fresh waste comes in on a daily basis.
At Okhla, Newslaundry spotted cylindrical trommel machines separating the garbage. This reporter was not allowed access or to take photographs. The site receives around 1,600-2,000 metric tonnes of waste every day. About 3,000 to 4,000 metric tonnes is processed by 18 trommel machines “on a good day”, according to an official at the site, and around 1,000 metric tonnes on a slow day.
The combustible waste from Okhla is sent to a waste-to-energy plant in Jasola while the inert waste is dispatched to low-lying areas. Plans are afoot to establish another waste-to-energy plant at Okhla itself but the plans have been stalled because some parts to be shipped from China are “stuck” and will only arrive next year.
The larger inert material is currently being sent to a patch of land in Tajpur pahari, the official said. Similar to Ghazipur, some of it was sent to the National Thermal Power Corporation’s ecopark until it stopped taking more. The South Delhi corporation is in touch with the National Highway Authority of India as well; the official claimed the authority has “tested and approved” inert material from the site and is ready to use 49 lakh metric tonnes of it for a road project. The official could not provide details on this project’s timeline or location.
MP Gupta, a civil engineer with the North Delhi municipal corporation, oversees operations at the dumpsite in Bhalswa. Gupta said the Bhalswa site has around 80 lakh metric tonnes of legacy waste, of which 20 lakh metric tonnes was separated using 24 trommel machines. Meanwhile, however, 15 lakh metric tonnes of fresh waste was dumped at the site.
North Delhi generates around 4,500 metric tonnes of garbage a day, Gupta said. Of this, between 2,200 and 2,500 metric tonnes is dumped at Bhalswa every day. The trommel machines separate an average of 4,000 metric tonnes a day but progress has slowed down due to the rain.
Fresh garbage being deposited at Ghazipur. Photo: Anwiti Singh
The Okhla dumpsite. Photo: Diksha Munjal
The main problem at Bhalswa, as with Okhla and Ghazipur, is the disposal of inert material, which forms a large portion of the garbage separated by the machines. Gupta said around 80 percent of six lakh metric tonnes of inert material has been sent to some patches of corporation land in North Delhi. Around 15 percent of it still lies at the dumpsite, with nowhere else to go.
The North Delhi corporation aims to operate 50 or 60 trommel machines in Bhalswa by October, Gupta said. This means more garbage will be separated but also more inert material will be produced.
“This is a big task,” Gupta said. “And if inert material is not taken away, it will be as if we’ve sieved one mountain and two other mountains have come up on the side.”
A problem at the source
Delhi’s mountains of garbage are not “landfills”, though the word is often interchangeably used to describe them.
As Biswas explained, landfills are scientifically engineered sites, where non-hazardous and non-reactive waste is used to fill or level the land. They’re designed so that waste dumped does not percolate into the groundwater.
This is not the case in Delhi. The national capital has dumpsites – where garbage is literally dumped.
“The problem begins when we mix dry waste with biodegradable waste and give it to whosoever is coming to collect it from our houses,” said Biswas. Mixed waste is “practically impossible” to separate and, as a result, the biodegradable waste can no longer be used as manure and the dry waste can’t be segregated further, sold or recycled.
So, this mixed waste is simply dumped somewhere.
Biswas said, “The reason why waste management is a huge challenge in our country is because the practice of segregating waste at source is not there, as a result of which, in the name of waste management, we are basically collecting and dumping. So, the dumpsites we see in Delhi are an offshoot of the mismanagement of waste.”
According to data from the Central Pollution Control Board for 2019, Delhi dumps around 19 lakh tonnes of waste annually. Biswas explained that collecting and dumping one tonne of unsegregated waste costs Rs 800 to Rs 1,000. The processing of this tonne is another Rs 800-1,000. That means the city spends twice the amount of money on waste management.
It’s not like segregation at source is a pipe dream. In India, cities like Indore, Thiruvananthapuram, and Mysuru have successfully enforced almost total segregation at source and decentralised waste management- which means treating waste at the closest possible waste management plant. The law also leans in favour of segregation: the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1993 allows urban local authorities or city bodies to adopt bylaws while the 2016 Solid Waste Management Rule allows cities to enforce segregation at source.
What it comes down to is how a city views the management of its waste. “And the approach to waste management in Delhi,” Biswas said, “has not been good, to say the least.”
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