Two landfills in Delhi have caught fire for the second time in less than six months. Smoke tendrils have been issuing out of the Bhalswa landfill in the northwestern part of the city and the Ghazipur landfill in east Delhi since the first week of October. The two waste dumps had caught fire in mid-April. At that time, a Delhi government committee had recommended measures to check such fires. These included setting up waste-to-energy plants, preparing fire safety plans and stationing fire tenders at the sites. These recommendations have been ignored. But even if they had been implemented, they could have, at best, provided short-term solutions. The city generates 9,000 to 10,000 tonnes of waste everyday and its landfills are equipped to take less than two-thirds of it.
The fires in the two overstressed landfills are symptomatic of a persistent problem of Indian cities. According to a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report of 2014, Indian cities generated 30,000 tonnes of waste everyday in 1999-2000. By 2010-2011, India’s urban waste burden had risen to more than 50,000 tonnes. Most urban authorities in the country are at sea when it comes to dealing with so much garbage. Mumbai’s two landfills, for example, are way past saturation point. In January, fire raged in the city’s Deonar landfill for nearly a week.
The precarious state of the landfills is symptomatic of the neglect of urban solid waste disposal in India. The country got its first Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) rules in 2000. They stated that mixed waste should not be dumped in landfills. But 14 years after, the CPCB report rued the absence of a waste segregation system. Moreover, a lot of the wet waste decomposes in the landfills and the rotting matter catches fire, sending toxic smoke into the atmosphere. The rules were amended this year. The new rules recognise that more than 50 per cent of the biodegradable waste can be turned into compost at the local level, without burdening landfills. But these rules — like their precursor — are akin to advisories and do not establish mechanisms for decentralised waste management. Some Indian cities, however, are working out alternatives to the landfill-centred approach of waste management. Delhi and Mumbai — and most Indian cities — could do well to emulate Pune and Bengaluru where a system comprising residential welfare associations and informal waste collectors ensures that very little waste goes to landfills.