The conversation around Delhi landfills is back. This time as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promises the eradication of the three landfills in the capital – Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla. The proposition isn’t a completely novel one. The Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) 2.0 directs the remediation of legacy dumpsites by 2024 in cities with over 10 lakh population.
Remediation is a process through which the toxic impact of the landfill is reduced by excavating or containing the contaminants present.
Bioremediation, which is a remediation technique, for instance, uses microorganisms like bacteria or fungi to breakdown the contaminants into non-toxic material and help extract economically viable legacy wastes (biomining). Another form of bioremediation involves growing plants on and around the landfill to refresh the soil, surface and groundwater.
Reducing the harmful effects of landfills – and indeed also its actual size – is possible, but it only becomes fruitful when fresh waste is diverted from it. Currently, Delhi is far from this.
According to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), in 2021-2022, 11,108 metric tons of municipal solid waste was generated per day, of which only 47.5% of the waste is processed or treated. The rest of the waste (which excludes the inert waste that is scientifically dumped in Bawana) was dumped in Delhi’s unsanitary dumpsites – the Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla landfills.
Why Can’t Delhi Manage Its Waste?
One answer is in what Indore seems to have done right. The Indore Municipal Corporation introduced an initiative to build Zero Waste Wards. Post segregation of waste at source, the wet waste is composted at a household or community level. In Delhi, over 50% of the waste generated is biodegradable. This would mean that at least 50% of the waste can be diverted simply through segregating and composting wet waste.
Key to its success, however, is the active involvement of citizen groups – like Resident Welfare Organisations (RWAs). One way to ensure compliance is to impose penalties for non-segregation at source coupled with increasing municipal capacity to collect segregated waste to a hundred percent. The other step is to hand-hold and provide the technical know-how to Delhi residents to segregate and compost waste. Both must complement one another.
As the custodians of waste management via the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, the urban local bodies (ULBs) must take the lead in supporting community composting through infrastructure and incentives.
In recognising the capacity constraints of ULBs, civil society organisations and waste management experts can fill the gap in training and raising informed awareness among people on segregation and composting.
Sort, Segregate, Recover
The second and connected answer lies in developing the physical and resource infrastructure for decentralised waste management – something that the Swachh Bharat Mission pushes for. Physically, this would mean that every ward has a material recovery facility (MRF) where dry waste is sorted, segregated, and recovered to be brought back to use.
Existing spaces such as dhalaos (three walled garbage centers) can be repurposed into MRFs. Such a process is already underway in Delhi but needs to become more systematised such that all areas are duly covered.
Critical to waste management are the people who are actually doing the work. Informal wastepickers, over 15 lakh in India, are key to diverting waste from the landfill. Yet, they work outside of the formal workforce, and are often subjected to harassment, income insecurity, lack of access to healthcare, social security etc. and an overall poor standard of living. They also remain vulnerable to disease and injury from the waste itself, and those working and living near the landfills are prone to landfill fires, collapses and contaminated air and water from the landfill.
In June 2022, Chintan conducted a study with 308 wastepickers working on the Bhalswa landfill. Almost 80% wastepickers reported facing occupational injuries during their work. The source of the injury ranged from disasters like landfill fires and collapses to animal bites.
And 73% wastepickers reported that they faced health risks such as breathing difficulties due to the polluted air around the landfill, disease from exposure to infectious material in the waste, and heat strokes from working in the heat on the landfills.
99% of the wastepickers surveyed expressed the desire to be integrated into the formal waste management process by the Municipal Corporation (occupational identification cards, space for work, uniform, e-shram cards etc.).
Chintan’s own experience shows that the combination of including wastepickers in the formal waste management process and training them to work in MRFs has been a successful combination to divert waste from landfills while generating green livelihoods. For instance, in the first semi-mechanised MRF run by Chintan in Zakhira in partnership with the MCD-North, informal wastepickers have been integrated and trained to implement the work. As a result, they divert 100+ tons of waste from the landfill on a monthly basis.
Why Does Delhi Generate So Much Waste?
A second question one might ask upon seeing the quantum of fresh and legacy waste in Delhi is more fundamental. Why is so much waste generated in the first place? Eliminating dependence on landfills is possible only when the current pattern of consumption is eliminated.
What we need is a circular revolution. A circular economy is a model of production and consumption where reuse, repair, and sharing are supported and incentivised instead of discarding products after single or short-term use or extracting new resources to meet consumption needs.
So, what can governments do to promote a circular economy? Quite a bit.
India has large informal repair sector. Think: the mochi (shoe repairer) in the neighborhood market. Formally recognising the informal repair sector, providing them visible space to carry out their work, facilitating their upgradation as micro-entrepreneurs, and promoting repair as a viable and economical option can be one such way moving forward.
Another way is to reduce dependence on single use items. For instance, even as single use plastic cutlery is banned in India, replacing it with other kinds of use and throw cutlery doesn’t exactly solve the waste. Setting up ward-level utensil banks wherein customers can borrow steel or glass cutlery for functions at a fee and return the same post washing can reduce dependence on use and throw items by building a system of sharing and leasing.
Importantly, the prerogative lies on governments and the manufacturing sector to come to an understanding – designing and marketing products that are long term, amenable to repair and can be disposed while causing minimal harm to the environment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the clarion call – India is to lead the way for a Lifestyle for Environment. Our policymakers are increasingly realizing the need for urgent action to fight environmental pollution and climate change.
While we continue to hold our governments accountable for concrete action plans and its execution, we need to tweak our own lifestyles for the environment. The first step – segregate your waste.
(Shruti Sinha leads policy and outreach and Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. She holds a dual degree in International Affairs and World History from Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. At Chintan she focuses on several key issues like inclusive clean air policies, just transition from plastics and securing dignified living for informal sector workers and more.)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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