Fourteen years ago, three of Delhi’s landfills — at Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa — ceased to be safe. Since then, at least 14 warnings, in the form of reports and studies, were issued. But little changed on the ground. Attempts to identify new sites yielded little result, as Delhi’s waste increased exponentially — to the point that a section of the Ghazipur landfill collapsed last week, killing two people. The Ghazipur landfill crossed 20-metre mark — following which it is deemed unsafe — in 2002. A year later, a report by TERI noted that Delhi’s landfills lacked systems for “either minimisation or recycling the waste” and underlined the “real problem” to be one of disposal.
In 2004, the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) warned authorities that there was a need for 28 sqkm of landfill space by 2021, and 100 sqkm by 2050. The existing landfills are spread over roughly 1.2 sqkm. Six years later, with no new landfill, the NCRPB reiterated that acquisition of landfill sites should be a “compulsory element” for city planning.
Failed attempts made by the Delhi government to negotiate with state governments of Haryana, UP and Rajasthan also took place in 2004. A former Delhi government official said, “Ultimately, no state wants another state’s refuse. It is as simple as that.”
But it wasn’t until 2005, when Delhi missed the Centre’s deadline to set up “waste processing and disposal facilities”, that the MCD actively started looking for a landfill site. The unified MCD planned closure of the site at Ghazipur in 2006 and at Bhalswa in 2008. It also identified three landfill sites — at Bhatti mines in Mehrauli, Najafgarh in west Delhi and Jaitpur in Tughlakabad.
Over the years, all three plans fell through. In 2008, the Bhatti mine proposal was rejected as the land was a protected forest reserve, and the Najafagarh plan met with objections from farmers. The proposed Jaitpur landfill was rejected in 2008 due to opposition from residents and former MLA Ramvir Singh Bidhuri, who had an eye on next year’s polls.
Several studies and reports also warned of the environmental damage by the landfills, including a study revealing groundwater contamination published in 2004 in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry; another in 2009 by the Delhi College of Engineering; and a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Sciences warning of methane and nitrox oxide emissions at Ghazipur. A 2009 Delhi government-sanctioned study by DU confirmed the link between the landfills and global warming.
Former CPCB member secretary B Sengupta said, “It’s a problem of land not being available and using redundant technology. Dumping waste isn’t waste management. In developed countries, waste is used to generate power. It is due to lack of political will.”
In 2007, the DDA released the Master Plan Delhi 2021 with three new landfill sites, while admitting: “Finding new sanitary landfill sites is becoming extremely difficult”. None of the proposed landfill sites materialised, while waste production almost doubled in the next decade, the MCD estimates.
By 2008, even the NDMC warned of “significant environmental concern in and around landfill sites”. The Ghazipur landfill began pushing for an ‘Integrated Municipal Waste Processing Complex’, converting waste to energy — a plan first floated in 2006. The plan was also endorsed by the Centre, and in 2013, the Urban Development Ministry said it was to become operational within a month.
But even though the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the project at Ghazipur, submitted to the Delhi government, claimed it would not lead to any “appreciable negative impacts”, the reality was different. The following years saw a series of protests against waste-to-energy plants at both Ghazipur and Okhla. It wasn’t until December 2016 that the plant came up at Ghazipur, while the waste-to-energy plant at Okhla, which started at 2011, faced a series of legal challenges culminating in an NGT nod in 2016.
With neither the waste-to-energy plants nor proposed landfill sites materialising, both landfills at Bhalswa and Ghazipur in 2009 began their attempts to ‘beautify’ the waste — a plan yet to take shape, admit officials.
But by then, it was too late — the DPCC records, at the time, estimated waste production to be upwards of 8,500 tonnes per day. It warned, “This is slated to increase due to economic and population growth.”
A Lok Sabha Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development report in 2014 called the landfills “monstrous trash mountains leaching out toxic liquids and emanating noxious fumes… as they grow larger every day”. The DDA told the panel that in Delhi, “where land is a scarce and highly priced commodity, finding a new site for development of another landfill is not an easy task”.