Residents at Sukhdev Vihar in South East Delhi are living in an environment contaminated with toxic fumes and foul smells that are the byproducts of the Okhla waste-to-energy (WTE) plant. At times, they spend sleepless nights due to the foul smell that makes its way through the windows and settles inside their homes, leaving residents helpless.
The DDA colonies of Sukhdev Vihar Pocket A and B are situated in close proximity to the Okhla WTE plant. Aggrieved residents have repeatedly been urging the authorities to call off the expansion and shift the Okhla plant to the landfill site at Tughlaqabad.
Currently, the plant is generating 23 megawatts (MW) of energy, but soon the proportion will change. The Delhi Lieutenant Governor VK Saxena recently gave his nod to the expansion of the Okhla WTE plant to generate 40 MW of power.
This runs contrary to the Union environment ministry’s specification that garbage consumption at the plant should be capped at 1,950 metric tonnes and the power generation at 23 MW and in fact, also issued an order against “any further expansion (beyond 23 MW power generation capacity) at the same site considering the proximity of Sukhdev Vihar residential colony”.
For Sukhdev Vihar and Haji Colony, especially for residents living in buildings closely overlooking the waste-to-energy plant, the day often breaks with a horrible smell and then comes the smoke with a grey sky. “Just this morning, I got a complaint from at least 10 people in my colony, who were visibly bothered about the foul smell and smoke coming inside their houses,” said Shukrullah Khan, the general secretary of the Residents’ Welfare Association (RWA) of pocket A. “You didn’t need an alarm here, just keep a window open and you will wake up hours before time because of the incinerator.”
Representatives of the RWAs of both the colonies recently held a public hearing where they reiterated their stand against the expansion of the Okhla waste-to-energy plant, emphasizing how toxic fumes emanating from the plant are leading to several health hazards among the people.
“It is a matter of concern for us residents and is also pending before the Supreme Court. These toxic gases are like slow poison to us. There are many who have been facing health hazards due to this,” Khan said.
“We have written to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) pointing out the factors because of which they have been opposing the plan for expansion of the WTE plant,” the former Airports Authority of India official said.
In the letter, the RWA mentioned that the DPCC had found the plant emitting excess dioxins, furans and Hydrochloric acid (HCL), for which it imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh. “This is not the first instance where the plant has been fined for causing pollution that is clearly injurious to the health of lakhs of people living nearby,” the RWA said.
“Proceeding with the expansion of the plant despite the case being pending in the apex court may also amount to contempt,” the letter said.
“Every two-three months, at least one death due to Cancer or respiratory trouble is reported from within our societies,” said UK Bharadwaj, the general secretary of Pocket B.
Just 150 metres from the colony
“Our residential area comes under green field region. You cannot construct even a 5-star hotel within 200 metres, but here we have a waste plant within 150 metres of the colony. When residents complained against the Badarpur boiler, they shut it. We are complaining for so many years, yet in vain. Our grievance is not being paid heed to and now we learn that the plant will be expanded,” Khan said.
Earlier, loud noises used to emanate from the boiler, causing a further nuisance, which was checked only after the RWAs wrote countless letters to DPCC.
A few residents in Pocket B have complained that they developed respiratory troubles as a result of living in the area for years. “You cannot just pack your bags and relocate. I really wish it was that easy. My mother-in-law and I have breathing issues and our doctor has asked us to avoid the toxic fumes coming out of that boiler,” said Shivani.
While relocating isn’t a privilege shared by all, those who could, vacated their apartments and moved to a “better” location in Delhi.
“Our property rate has also fallen. People are unable to find buyers for their houses at the current rate, but are hurriedly selling out their apartments at a loss just to move out”, Khan said.
On the other side, Bharadwaj mentioned the CPCB’s “unfair” report on the pollution levels in the area. “Their report was based on a survey in the spring months of March to June. Everybody knows that during the winter months of October to February, the pollution level is the highest,” he said.
The RWAs further stressed how families frequently rue about children gasping for air, when they play on the grounds inside the colonies soon after or while the waste boiler is turned on.
Kids most vulnerable
Satish Sinha, Associate Director at the non-profit Toxic Links, elucidated the impact of toxic fumes on the health of people in different age brackets. “Children have a high metabolic rate. They are breathing at a faster pace, hence take in more air. They are growing and some of these fumes get deposited in the blood streams of their body and chemicals of dangerous nature get deposited in their body and magnify. Many of these toxins also get absorbed in their fatty tissues. It can have a long-term impact on them because they are inhaling the same air regularly, day in and day out,” Sinha said.
For women, especially young adolescent girls and those of reproductive age, there is a risk of infertility, spontaneous abortions, adverse birth outcomes, and an increased incidence of breast cancer. “Thus, women handling plastic pollutants are at risk of exposure to chemicals and thus also at higher risk for health complications,” Sinha said. Any place where there is burning of waste, including landfills, is bound to give out toxins that are harmful in nature, he added.
“There are particulate matters that are emitted in the process and they get settled in residential areas. In these boilers, different types of matter are decomposing. There are unburnt particles which do come back over these areas and settle on rooftops. There are also issues of toxic emissions because of the burn or incineration technology. The boiler pollution check equipment must be constantly checked. There are multiple gases and emissions that directly impact human health,” Sinha elaborated while underlining the need to take up the issue by pollution boards and authorities when residents have been continuously raising the matter.
A study published in the journal Environment International found that of the 2.7 to 3.4 million global preterm births in 2010, 18% were associated with exposure to particulate matter air pollutants.
For residents in Sukhdev Vihar and nearby Haji Colony, there is no breathing space away from toxicity. “In a corporate age, we are stuck in a cycle of stress which more often than not becomes toxic. Then, we return home and breathe the toxic air,” said an anguished Alam, who lives in Haji Colony. “You cannot even have a cup of tea and a moment of peace with yourself after work,” he expressed.
Besides, the youth in the neighbourhood are also facing an issue of reduced productivity as their sleep has taken a hit.
“We wake up with a terrible headache because sometimes we go sleepless for days in a week. It’s natural to have a disturbed mind when you are not at ease frequently,” said Jyoti, a resident of Pocket A. “And when you sleep less, you work the entire day begrudgingly. Now imagine when that becomes a pattern!”
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