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Politics of garbage

The Ghazipur landfill is a monument of government’s failure to deal with civic issues and of an impending ecological disaster in the capital. The apex court wants the L-G to act and not ‘pass the buck’

This is not new. Multiplicity of agencies are blamed for inaction in Delhi, people in power shun responsibility when they are caught napping on critical issues of great importance. For that reason, the Supreme Court pulled up the Lieutenant-Governor (L-G) Anil Baijal for doing little to deal with the ‘grave’ mounting problem, literally so — the “mountains of garbage” at Ghazipur landfill site in East Delhi, which is just a few meters shorter than the Qutub Minar, that scales a height of 73 metres.

L-G, a seasoned bureaucrat, former home secretary, has been assertive in taming Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who calls the former an agent of the PMO. But he couldn’t bluff the division bench comprising of Justices MB Lokur and Deepak Gupta. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Pinki Anand, argued that municipal bodies have the primary responsibility in this regard, and L-G, at best, is the supervising authority who can direct them on waste management. L-G on his part was holding regular fortnightly meetings with municipal bodies to monitor the progress in effective disposal of solid waste. ASG informed that L-G, in the last three years, has convened 25 meetings on the issue.

The bench, however, was not convinced and said, “He has to act and not just convene meetings. Do not justify the inaction. Better we do not get into it. What happened in the meetings is anybody’s guess.” Further the bench observed that the L-G’s office has a “utopian” plan for solid waste management strategy and has done ‘nothing’. “He says he has the power, like Superman. He says that he has the authority, but he is not doing anything. Nobody from the L-G office even attended the last meeting on waste disposal. This is just passing the buck,” the bench didn’t mince words.

Why is the apex court unhappy?

Because the reality is scary. The 33-year-old landfill dumpsite at Ghazipur is visited by more than a hundred trucks and dumpers daily in three shifts. About 1.5 million tonne of unsegregated garbage is dumped there, more than 2,000 tonne of garbage is added every day. An estimate by the Centre for Science and Environment suggests that there is about 5 million tonne of garbage in the 27-acre site. As a result, the landfill has become a mountain, after having exceeded its capacity to hold any more garbage way back in 2004.

The hill has steep slopes and plays a critical balancing act , as more and more truckfulls of garbage are added on a daily basis. There’s always a danger of collapse. Steep roads criss-cross the garbage hill where hundreds of dumpers and trucks come and deposit more garbage, like an army of ants busily building an ant hill. Truck and dumper drivers wrap a pice of cloth tightly across their faces while they negotiate their vehicles on the hill. The stench is unbearable, especially just after the rain.

The Ghazipur slaughterhouse, which deals with 5,000 livestock daily, has been showing contempt for the municipal solid waste rules and slaughterhouse norms, and the authorities are blissfully unaware or look the other way. Daily, about 70 tonne of animal waste, blood, bones, even undigested food, is dumped there. It is no surprise that thousands of black kites hover over the area along with other birds of prey. But they too cannot get rid of tonnes of rotting carrion spread across the area.

Good civic management, whether for a city or a household, hinges on efficient waste management. Needless to say, the situation here is absolutely unsustainable and potently hazardous. As you approach the site, the stench hangs heavy in the air like a cloud. You can smell, ammonia and methane, as if you are near a huge chemical plant.

A disaster is waiting to happen. We got a small reminder last year, when a part of Ghazipur landfill site caved in, killing two. Even months later, toxic fumes are being emitted from the site. Fires are common, especially during summers because the trash decomposes at a faster rate and methane gas is released, which comes in contact with air, resulting in fire. Many cases of breathing problems were reported from the residents living in the adjoining areas.

Not just the air but water too. The liquid waste from the landfill is left untreated. It goes down the nallah that runs along the dumpsite, contaminating water sources and the groundwater. Monsoons are particularly, a critical time of the year, as heavy rains can easily kickstart a slide.
Some piecemeal measures have been taken but they are too little, too late. For instance, there’s a waste-to-energy plant of 12-megawatt capacity, which is operational for only 15 days in a month. The methane-capturing gas-to-electricity plant is not running since its inception in 2015, due to low levels of methane. The East Delhi Municipal Council (EDMC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Highway Authority of India for using Ghazipur waste in constructing the Delhi-Meerut Highway. But this was never implemented.

 

L-G feels he has done enough but things won’t change overnight

In any case the Ghazipur dumpsite should have been shut down 16 years ago, it’s a disaster in the making since then. The apex court wants a viable plan in place. Not only the ecological disaster has to be dealt with, but also no more garbage should be added to make matters worse.
The call of action by the Supreme Court, which in the past has been responsible for initiating many reforms in the capital — like use of helmet, introduction of CNG — did stir the L-G office. While the L-G didn’t agree that he did ‘nothing’, in an affidavit earlier this week, he assured the court that all steps were being taken to address the problem but it could not be resolved overnight. The steps that have been devised but are yet to be taken include — no untreated garbage would be dumped after August 2020—which is still two years from now; waste processing capacity would be augmented. Talking of what has been done, it was mentioned that the Union government had appointed scientific advisory committee comprising of high-level experts from IITs, CSIR and TERI.

 

No justifications please, a paradigm shift is required

“The problem of garbage mounds is a problem of six decades and multiple issues have made it a challenging task. As a result of intensive and continuous monitoring by the L-G through site visits and regular meetings, and the direction and guidelines given, work is already underway to address these problems in a timebound, comprehensive and sustainable way,” ASG told the bench on behalf of the LG. Also, “The process of extraction of landfill gas, in association with GAIL, has been executed and about 34 lakh cubic metres of gas has already been extracted and flared at the Ghazipur landfill site,” the affidavit stated.

A paradigm shift is needed in the way we deal with garbage. “There is no way forward without investing in decentralised waste management. Residents have to start composting and municipalities have to stop picking up wet waste from anywhere. Companies manufacturing packaging and toxic wastes like batteries, have to take responsibility for their products and safely handle them. We can’t depend on landfills or on waste-to-energy (kind of interventions),” says Bharati Chaturvedi, environmentalist, writer and the founder/director of Chintan Environmental Research.
This garbage mountain at Ghazipur reflects the government’s failure to deal with civic issues. Action on ground is required. SC’s message to the L-G is clear: it’s time to act and implement the solutions!