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Delhi's Waste Management Is A Mess And We Aren't Helping

30/09/2016 11:58 AM IST | Updated 01/10/2016 8:55 AM IST
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Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters
Insects and birds fly in a dump yard as a rag picker collects scraps in New Delhi.

"Mujhe hafte main 10-12 baar chot lagti hai, aur khoon bhi nikalta hai; par ab toh aadat ho gayi hai (I get injured 10-12 times a week, sometimes there's blood, but now I'm used to it)," says Chotu, a 10-year-old rag picker at the Ghazipur landfill site in East Delhi. Chotu is a frail boy with a reed thin frame and an uncanny glint in his eyes. His younger sister Rashmi has the look of delinquency yet an air of exuberance about her. Both of them go about their daily chore—searching for valuables amongst piles of waste, sometimes getting injured by sharp objects as they do so—with a disarming nonchalance.

On-the-ground research shows that the quantity of waste produced is actually around 12,000 tonnes per day, 80% of which is dumped indiscriminately at the various landfill sites...

As I stand on top of the Ghazipur landfill, I am witness to a repulsive sight of filth, stench and poverty amidst the humdrum of daily life. India is often called a pluralistic nation where different cultures, religions and customs meld into a fragile harmony that is strong at its core. But what is often not mentioned is how poverty and rapid urbanization co-exist, side-by-side. This duality is nowhere more apparent in the capital of India.

Delhi is a city crumbling under its own weight—both literal and that of expectations. On one hand is the Lutyens' zone with wide avenues, boulevards dotted with trees, clean roads and a general sense of space and time. On the other hand is the "rest of Delhi", marked by narrow roads, rapid concretization, unauthorized colonies, jhuggi-jhopri (JJ) clusters, clogged sewer lines and garbage strewn everywhere. It is a stygian manifestation of the perils of lopsided urbanization and an unsustainable increase in population.

What ails urban waste management in Delhi?

In a season where dengue and chikungunya are on the rise, all the roads and by-lanes of Delhi are overflowing with garbage. The municipal authorities—solely vested with the responsibility of managing waste in Delhi—have resolutely and obstinately been recalcitrant and cavalier in their approach towards fulfilling their duty. Any change in the status quo seems unlikely given the fact that the MCDs are dens of corruption, inefficiency and political opportunism.

The AAP-ruled Delhi Government has shown perspicacity in understanding the serious problem of urban waste and has several solutions in the pipeline, but cannot do anything on its own unless and until the BJP-ruled MCDs manifest an unflinching dedication to co-operative existence.

A shambolic waste management infrastructure

Delhi, with a population of 1.70 crores, generates approximately 8390 tonnes of waste per day—a highly conservative estimate. On-the-ground research shows that the quantity of waste produced is actually around 12,000 tonnes per day, 80% of which is dumped indiscriminately at the various landfill sites by the municipal authorities.

Delhi's network of 30 sewage treatment plants (STPs) caters to only 45% of the city's population.

Delhi, on paper, seems to have a robust and diversified infrastructure to manage urban waste—four landfill sites, two composting plants, two construction & demolition (C&D) waste processing plants, three waste-to-energy Plants and 30 sewage treatment plants (STPs).

However, scratch the surface and plenty of blisters are to be found.

The Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur landfill sites are filled to their capacity. The rules stipulate that the height of a landfill should not exceed 25 metres, but the ones in Delhi tower almost 50 metres above ground level. Even the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) has refused to authorize these landfills as "operable". Still, no serious efforts have been made to create alternative waste disposal methods over the past decades. The leachate runoff from the landfills percolates into the ground water table, contaminating the water and making it unfit for use.

Delhi, on an average, generates 4000 MT of construction & demolition (C&D) waste—comprising rubble, broken bricks, concrete pieces etc—per day. This waste is dumped along roads and eco-sensitive zones like the Yamuna. This has resulted in the all- important top soil of Delhi getting buried under C&D waste. The two C&D waste processing plants at Burari and Shastri Park are not sufficient to cure this burgeoning problem.

Each of us generates waste flagrantly, without thinking of the repercussions at the macro scale.

What about the waste dumped in the Yamuna River? Delhi is responsible for 85% of the pollution of the Yamuna. Most of the major and minor drains dump untreated sewage directly into the Yamuna, with the Najafgarh and Shahdara drains together contributing to about 80% of such waste. This untreated municipal waste leads to eutrophication, which causes a rise in hyacinth, algae and bacteria.

Delhi's network of 30 sewage treatment plants (STPs) caters to only 45% of the city's population. The city boundaries are expanding rapidly due to influx of people from other states and as such the JJ clusters and unauthorized colonies have never been connected to the STP network. Even the present STPs are not working at their full capacity as most of the pipelines in the network are decades old, corroded and remain clogged.

Does the concept of "invisible hand" work here?

In the realm of economics, there exists the concept of an invisible hand—the notion that an individual's efforts to maximize her own gains in a free market benefits society even when her ambitions have no benevolent intentions. This philosophy seems to underlie our day-to-day functioning.

Each of us generates waste flagrantly, without thinking of the repercussions at the macro scale. It is apt to say that all the stakeholders who despair over the problem of waste are engaged in a futile cycle of finding solutions without giving up their convenience. The debate between anthropocentrism (man at the core of all policies) and eco-centrism (nature at the core of all policies) reflects a false dichotomy. What is really required is a fine balance between the two.

Prevention is the best cure

Preventive actions rather than corrective ones should be at the core of policies on urban waste management.

In-house composting should be made mandatory for all housing societies, educational institutions, hotels and hospitals. The compost so produced can easily be used by the government's Horticulture Department.

All-in-one solid waste processing plants need to be installed in all the districts of Delhi, with facilities of sorting, composting, C&D waste processing and wastewater treatment. This will save time and transportation costs, make waste processing efficient and decrease the burden on the landfill sites in Delhi.

The debate between anthropocentrism (man at the core of all policies) and eco-centrism (nature at the core of all policies) reflects a false dichotomy.

Given the many industrial areas within its precincts, Delhi urgently requires a set of rules and regulations to promote eco-efficient methods with an aim to significantly reduce the amount of waste generated during manufacturing processes.

***

As I start to leave, Chotu and Rashmi's mother, a single parent, asks me: "Aap Sarkar ko jagruk karoge humari halat ke baare main? Main Chotu aur Rashmi ko padhana chahti hoon. (Will you inform the government about the state we are in? I want to send Chotu and Rashmi to school)."

I helplessly reply, "I do not know how much my article is going to influence the government or its policies."

Her reply, forceful and emphatic, cuts me to the bone: "Sahab, fir yeh sab toh time waste hai (In that case, sir, this has been a waste of time)."

I despondently return home with urban amenities and a keen sense of awareness as my companions.

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