The clouds over Delhi are toxic waste overhang. Can citizens and MCDs come to its rescue?

- November 3, 2020

WtE plants were introduced in Delhi a decade ago to resolve the city’s waste problem. But it’s done more harm than good Looming above the DDA residential colony of Sukhdev Vihar is the Timarpur – Okhla Waste management Company Ltd’s  waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration plant that burns over 2,000 tonnes of unsegregated municipal solid waste (MSW) […]

WtE plants were introduced in Delhi a decade ago to resolve the city’s waste problem. But it’s done more harm than good

Looming above the DDA residential colony of Sukhdev Vihar is the Timarpur – Okhla Waste management Company Ltd’s  waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration plant that burns over 2,000 tonnes of unsegregated municipal solid waste (MSW) per day. The name is a misnomer because there’s nothing happening in Timarpur where, according to the originally approved plan, a refuse-derived fuel (RDF) plant was supposed to have come up but was abandoned at some point.

In fact, the whole idea of producing RDF, through a process of heating and drying MSW to raise its calorific value to 2600 k/cal per kg was abandoned somewhere down the line. The possible reason for that is Delhi’s failure to implement rules (MSW 2016) requiring all waste to be segregated at source. The result? The WtE plant at Okhla and two others at Narela-Bawana and Ghazipur burn low calorific value waste and spew out a range of toxic emissions, especially dioxins and furans.

In September 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) submitted a monitoring report at the National Green Tribunal showing dioxins and furans to be thrice the permissible limits. And there’s no indication that the plant, in the 10 years of its functioning, has been able to satisfactorily control emission of dioxins and furans or for that matter SoX, NoX, SPM, RSPM (PM2.5) or heavy metals.

The Okhla plant, managed by Jindal Urban infrastructure Ltd as a public private partnership (PPP), is deadlier than the two others because of its location barely 40 meters from Sukhdev Vihar to its immediate north. Surrounding it are the thickly populated colonies of Jasola Vihar, Haji Colony, Gaffar Manzil,  Noor Nagar, Masih Garh, Johri Farms, Sarita Vihar and Ishwar Nagar. Hospitals such as Holy Family, Fortis-Escorts, and Apollo Indraprastha fall within a two kilometre radius as also the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and Wildlife Park.

How the plant came to be located at its present sensitive site is a mystery. For one thing it is located on ‘Green Belt’ under the Master Plan of Delhi 2021. Secondly it is nowhere near a landfill as required by law — the nearest one being at Tughlaqabad some eight kilometres to the south. This means that the toxic ash emanating from the plant has to be transported to Tughlakabad and to the Tajpur Pahadi dump site through the busy Mathura Road endangering users of the highway and contaminating the soil and groundwater.

Perhaps most importantly the Okhla plant falls in the ‘Red Category’ of industries which have been banned from functioning within the city for the extreme pollution they generate — emissions, ash, leachate — in a residential area. As a waste-burning plant producing more than 20 MW of electricity the Okhla incinerator also falls in the ‘A’ category of industries that absolutely cannot exist within the city.

Interestingly, none of these plants publish data about the pollution that they are causing. Bharati Chaturvedi, founder Director of Chintan says, “These plants should regularly publish data on their website about the pollutant they emit but they don’t do that. They don’t have functioning labs to check pollution levels on a regular basis.”

WtE plants were introduced in Delhi 10 years ago to resolve the waste problem of the city. The city produces more than 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day and 78% of it  goes to landfill sites at Bhalswa, Tughlakabad-Okhla and Ghazipur.

These landfill sites have grown into mountains reaching over 60 metres in height, endangering the lives of residents living around them as the waste smoulders and sometimes catches fire. During the monsoon, landslides occur as the waste slips down.

Protests held against the Timarpur-Okhla plant  Credit- RWA Sukhdev Vihar

Following repeated complaints from the residents of Sukhdev Vihar and nearby colonies the  MoEFCC, last year,  appointed a sub-committee under the chairmanship of Navin Chandra to inspect the plant.

The team found the plant was not compliant with the terms and conditions of environment clearances granted on 21 March 2007. For one thing the plant was running three boilers instead of one as permitted and these were exceeding the pressure limits so that there was a possibility of serious explosion that could endanger the lives of people living nearby.

With the air quality over Delhi touching the severe category in AQI again this year, the dangers faced by the residents of Sukhdev Vihar have more than doubled. Residents here said that the plant has even forced people to shift from here.

U.K Bhardwaj, President of resident welfare association of DDA flats in Sukhdev Vihar pocket B, said, “We are fighting for clean air and this plant is working as a major irritant. Central and state governments aren’t listening to our plight even when the plant doesn’t comply with set norms.”

Dust pollution and fly ash keep the air in this whole Okhla waste management area of zone F of the Master Plan of Delhi in a poor category creating a host of problems for people residing here. Just 35 metres away comes the residential area, shops — the pollution is visible in the area — if someone is standing in the 100 m radius of the plant holding a phone in hand for 5-10 minutes one can see the blackish dust on the screen.

Sandeep, a vendor near Haji colony said, dust accumulates in houses, our clothes get dirty everyday. No new person likes to come here because the constant stink. This has become part of our lives, and the air is creating multiple ailments.”

Pollutants like PM 2.5 particles, dioxins can lead to chronic pulmonary diseases, respiratory disorders, cardio-vascular Diseases and lung cancer. Heavy- metal laden fly ash and bottom ash contaminate groundwater and that enters our food chain.

Interestingly, as per the website, the Timarpur- Okhla plant has also been registered under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. This will help them earn carbon credits besides subsidies from the government of upto 40% of costs, apart from the electricity they generate being purchased at Rs 7 per unit.

Surprisingly, despite several protests  the government this year has allowed expansion of the plant. The plant can be expanded from 19 MW to 23 MW without increasing the waste intake and adding more equipment.

Waste Management in Delhi

Environmentalist Sunita Narain once said in an interview for an international publication that India has no culture of waste segregation at source.

Therefore, municipalities are often left with unsegregated waste that either gets burned or dumped in landfills. A recent report by the World Bank said 90% of waste in low income countries gets dumped in unregulated pits or openly burnt and that works as a breeding ground for chronic diseases.

In urban India, an estimated 55 million tonnes of solid waste is generated every year and only 25% of it is processed. Therefore, the best choice for policymakers is to produce electricity by burning it.

Dump at Tajpur Pahadi   Credit- RWA Sukhdev Vihar

Independent waste management expert Swati Singh Sambyal believes that incinerating the waste in plants should be the last resort. “If you look at the waste management hierarchy — starting from segregation, composting or biomethanisation, recycling, reprocessing, then comes incineration and disposal. So basically, sending the non-recyclable waste for incineration or inerts to landfills. So this is the second last choice and primarily it is for material that is non- recyclable in nature with high calorific value.”

Sambyal said that in Delhi 80% of processing is done through these plants. “Most of these plants are taking mixed waste so the question is: What are we burning?”

“The kind of waste these plants receive, which is majorly mixed waste, leads to inefficient burning or inefficient incineration and it generally happens when waste doesn’t have desired calorific value which leads to pollution. Disposal of  a toxic bottom ash is another challenge.” she added.

Plants segregate waste minimally because it is not economically viable for a plant to segregate waste just before burning. Therefore, experts believe, unless waste is segregated at source, all kinds of undesirable matter, including wet kitchen waste and silt from the drains is burnt at these plants or dumped in landfills.

Future of WtE plants

Waste to Energy technology is widely used in western countries as the capacity of these plants to burn tonnes of waste to generate power and profits has a lot of takers. But unlike India, in Scandinavian countries, the waste segregation rules and emission standards are strictly complied with.

The most important thing in this technology is the quality of waste. As experts say, mixed waste reaching these plants would fail to serve the purpose.

Successive Indian governments have been enamoured with WtE technology. India’s fascination goes back to the 1980s when this technology got prominence in the west. In 1987, India had opened its first such plant in Timarpur, Delhi, but it was decommissioned soon for failure to remain profitable and not generating enough power.

Timarpur-Okhla waste to energy plant   Credit- RWA Sukhdev Vihar

A second attempt by the JIndals to build an RDF plant on the same site in Timarpur never saw the light of day. As originally envisaged the RDF could have been moved to cement plants, brick kilns or even power units located outside the city.  But, then it was found easier and more profitable to dispense with RDF and burn the waste within the city – never mind the toxic emissions and the MSW 2016 rules.

Current Indian government also finds WtE plants attractive — if not for the residents then for the private companies — and is planning to build more WtE plants across various cities. Therefore, WtE industry is growing rapidly. It has already become more than 10,000 crore industry, it is attracting investment from countries like Spain, Germany.

Delhi is already building a fourth plant with a couple more in the pipeline. No one worries about what might happen to the environment if upwards of 8,000 tonnes of mixed waste gets fired in Delhi!

The question is either Delhi has landfills or it has landfills in the sky with toxic clouds hanging permanently over the capital city.

(Patriot has sent questions to Urban Infrastructure Ltd. This story will be updated  once the responses are received)


(Cover Image: Timarpur-Okhla waste to energy plant //Credit: Mayank Jain)


For more stories that cover the ongoings of Delhi NCR, follow us on: