Cities at Crossroads: Heaps of hazards

So-called landfills do not address the problems of solid waste management.

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Published:October 26, 2016 12:15 am
swachh bharat abhiyan, swachh bharat, clean india, clean india initiative, waste management, waste segregation, garbage dumps, garbage, waste (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

A city cannot be smart if it is not swacch, that is, clean. At the same time, a city cannot be clean if it does not manage its waste — garbage as well as sewage — well. My last two columns tried to spell out the chain of scientific management of municipal solid waste (MSW) from segregation at source to collection, transportation, treatment and scientific disposal. In this column I go behind some buzzwords — the broom and the landfills, for example — which have entered the discussion on municipal solid waste management in India and have distracted attention from the basics of what needs to be done if we want to clean up our cities. The issues connected with waste to energy plants will be taken up in the next column.

The image that is most associated with Swacch Bharat is of VIPs wielding brooms to sweep the dirt and/or garbage in the streets. Sweeping streets with brooms only touches the tip of the problem, especially if there is no mechanism to dispose of what is swept up. The way to keep a city clean is to ensure that segregated waste is collected from homes and/or commercial establishments, and after providing for recycling and resource recovery, what is left (which is much reduced in volume) is disposed of scientifically. While the Solid Waste Rules of 2016 and the MSW Rules of 2000 call for “primary” door-to-door collection of waste segregated at source, most municipal corporations and municipalities only make “secondary” collection of unsegregated waste from community bins. The focus of Swacch Bharat should, therefore, be on motivating and nudging people to reduce their waste and segregate it into wet, dry, recyclables, etc, and for the municipalities to collect this waste and put it through separate treatment streams for resource recovery and dispose of the residue scientifically.

Community bins are temporary dumpsites from where the waste is removed ever so often and is taken to permanent dumpsites either inside our cities or at their outskirts. Garbage is stacked at these sites for months, years and even decades. They are mistakenly called “landfills” but are better described as “garbage hills” and are huge public health hazards. If we focus only on clearing the community bins in different localities but not on what needs to be done with the waste from that point onwards, we will only make the garbage hills around us higher and will not create swacch cities.

News of fires at Deonar, one of the three landfill sites into which Mumbai’s municipal solid waste is dumped, and also at Bhalswa and Ghazipur, two of the three landfill sites for Delhi, hit the headlines in recent months. There are a number of settlements on the edge of the Deonar site, and a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai has documented the average life expectancy in this area at less than 50 years — much lower than the all-India average of 68 years — and every second child is underweight and there is very high incidence of maternal mortality. In Delhi, the landfill fires became the subject of a blame game between the state government and the Municipal Corporations of Delhi and an enquiry committee was set up to clear the political air. Actually, fires at these sites are nothing new and are only to be expected because inflammable material such as plastic, wires and cables, rubber, clothes, paper and garden waste are part of the unsegregated garbage that has been dumped there routinely over several decades. The methane produced is highly combustible and catches fire easily, particularly in the summer months. Only Ghazipur has a plant to capture methane and convert it into energy, although even there, its limited capacity can generate only 12 MW of energy. A mere cigarette stub or a half-lit match is enough to cause accidental fires. More often, youngsters are paid to set fire to waste heaps at these sites to recover metals and other materials of scrap value.

Ghazipur is Delhi’s oldest and largest “landfill” site which is spread across 71 acres and is filled beyond capacity. It was never engineered as a sanitary landfill. Since 1984, indiscriminate dumping has produced a hill of unsegregated garbage which is 45 metres high — about two-thirds the height of the Qutab Minar. Like Bhalswa, which was started 10 years later and covers an area of 51 acres, Ghazipur is also spewing toxic gases into Delhi’s environment and causing enormous damage to health. A colony of ragpickers has set up home next to Ghazipur slum, risking their health for the sake of their livelihood. If a recycling mechanism can be put in place by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation by working with informal rag-pickers, as has been done in Pune and Pammal, it would reduce their compulsion to live in toxic surroundings and also reduce the wastage of fuel in carting large volumes of waste to the dumpsite which is euphemistically called a landfill. Indeed, this is a good practice that should be followed by all three municipal corporations of Delhi.

In responding to a query from the Supreme Court, a public official is reported to have said, “We will come up with the instructions whether these landfill sites can be moved to some other place and what are the steps taken to remove the garbage.” If true, this betrays a lack of understanding of what is involved in managing the legacy of accumulated municipal waste and how to start working at the margin by managing the current flow of waste effectively and disposing of the residual waste in sanitary landfills. Sanitary landfills are sites where waste is isolated from the environment until it is safe, that is, until it has completely degraded biologically, chemically and physically. This is done by preparing large and deep underground pits into which the residual waste is deposited in layers and compacted with bulldozers in between scientific layering of geotextile material, and sealed with impermeable synthetic liners to ensure airtight closure and prevent leaching of harmful chemicals into groundwater. Provision is also made for collecting the methane gas that is generated to be used as a substitute fuel. After closing a landfill scientifically, a cover of topsoil is placed and the land is reclaimed for developing public parks or other green spaces. Given the scarcity of land, landfills must be only for the residual waste after the waste has been reduced, segregated, recycled, and resource recovery has been accomplished.
A lot of media attention on the alarming state of solid waste management in our cities is justified because this is playing with our health and that of our children and grandchildren. But it is important to separate the legacy issues from the current management of the waste in making assessments and finding solutions to this gigantic problem. As far as managing our current flow of waste is concerned, we must begin with making segregation at source mandatory and enforcing it ruthlessly. Together with campaigns on reduction and recycling of waste, it would then leave us with a number of options on converting waste to energy and prepare sanitary landfills only for what remains.


The writer is chairperson of ICRIER, Delhi, and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure and services.

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  1. C
    Oct 26, 2016 at 3:13 pm
    Really good article. Thanks for info. I would like to add i.e. Govt should priviatize garbage collection to pvt firms. Home collection, charge fees to home owners. GC firms process waste in scientific manner. CM, PM, celebs swee ping streets is a good poto op. That will not help situation. Go to any lane in any city, there will be grabage dump...cannot even walk. On top of all the above measures, there should be potion control measures across all religions. Indian rate of growth (pop) is main concern, it is ex ploo ding dangerously. At this rate, in next 50-75 yrs, people will be figh thing on streets for food, water and air. Indian govts (center and statte) should take strickt measures to control pop...stead of electoral politics. Any family having more than 2-kids not allowed for any benfits even vot ing. Need is for strong measures. If they start now, maybe, in next 50 yrs we will see some reduction in pop.
  2. D
    Dr M
    Oct 26, 2016 at 11:52 am
    Comments in the Express are directed to moderation which means rejection though the commentator is no wiser as to the standard/cause after days.So let me see;br/gt;The author has described the garbage misery in cities in the swachh bharat exercise but Bharat also consists of large number of humanity living(miserably) in villages and small towns where the word cleanliness is an;br/gt;The maximum activity seen to dispose garbage is to light several bonfires everywhere to burn plastic waste to the detriment of all living beings, the less we speak of excreta disposal the better.
  3. M
    Oct 26, 2016 at 1:12 am
    Landfills are now environmentally damaging. I thank Madam Ahluwalia and Ind. Express for this coverage. I had seen at least three Metro cities I am familiar with since the 1970s, suffer in quality of living, due to thoughtless disposal of kachda, both solid and liquid. Without some recycling by rag pickers, Indian cities would be far worse now. Successive government have IGNORED the issues Madam-Author has covered here. Recently, the Major of Chennai was very very frustrated that Chennaites do not bother to separate solid waste into separate bags. No policing of waste disposal at street level. Concerned citizens do form ociations to supervise this, example Ex Nora of Chennai. But they have no real police powers to fine and oblige residents to follow a system of disposal.
  4. M
    Oct 26, 2016 at 1:26 am
    Quite harmless but highly informative posts are deleted by the Ind. Express' automatic filters. Nothing controversial, just practical and comparative information in my posts on this subject.... but all three different versions have been deleted.
  5. R
    Rajesh Pradhan
    Oct 26, 2016 at 7:48 pm
    The technical issues involved in garbage disposal and sanitation are well known from experiences worldwide. The political problems in India are somewhat unique. Take the town of Ayodhya as an extreme example. Despite its status as a politically sensitive town that continues to ignite fire and benefits for the ruling and the opposition parties, Ayodhya remains a very very filthy town (as Benaras) with residents harboring immense anger against the status;br/gt;lt;br/gt;It is time to take a lesson or two from old direct democracy, where residents vote through a referendum on specific issues (such as garbage and sanitation) and make referendum outcomes legally binding on political leaders. If they or senior governments fail to deliver in a pre-determined time, punitive actions must be taken by residents as mentioned in the referendum itself. Used extensively worldwide, crowd-sourcing and other ICT props will help register and monitor complaints; and the entire direct democracy process can be introduced under the non-controversial guise of modernity and technology.
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