Any idea where construction debris goes?
India needs a landfill the size of West Bengal to dump 21,630 million tonnes of construction and demolition (C&D) waste it will generate from repair and demolition of old buildings and from new ones between 2005 and 2030. And still more land if the waste from infrastructure projects, such as roads and dams, is taken into account, according to an assessment by a non-profit organisation in Delhi.
Its findings ring alarm bells at a time when urban areas across the country are witnessing a real estate boom, and the new government plans to create 100 smart cities as part of its development agenda.
Unfortunately, there is no up-to-date official data on the magnitude of the problem. On 6 February, replying to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha, the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) said there are no current estimates on the amount of C&D waste generated in the country.
Worse, the handful of government estimates available for C&D waste are at variance with each other and fail to capture the real picture. Consider this. In 2000, an estimate by MOUD showed that India generated 10-12 million tonnes of C&D waste a year. A decade later, a report by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) gave the same estimate. This is when, according to McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm, the area under real estate grew by 6-7 per cent a year between 2001 and 2010. At this rate, calculation shows, the country would have generated 531 million tonnes of C&D waste in 2013.
The Comptroller Auditor General of India recognises this discrepancy in its 2008 report. Government estimates on C&D waste are without a scientific base. No estimates or even guesstimates exist for construction and demolition waste, it notes.
One can think of only one reason for this incongruous government data: most of the C&D waste generated in the country is unaccounted for.
With landfills overflowing with garbage and in the absence of policy to regulate C&D waste disposal, developers, including government agencies, dump the waste in low-lying or watershed areas, roadsides and even on vacant plots and fields. In fact, disappearance of urban water bodies and wetlands in urban areas can be attributed to illegal dumping of C&D waste. In most cases, real estate developers deliberately do this to reclaim eco-sensitive areas for real estate. In Mumbai, builders dump C&D waste in the coastal mangroves and creeks. In Delhi, the Yamuna floodplain is the favourite dumping ground. Recently, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation faced the fury of the National Green Tribunal for choking the Yamuna floodplains with C&D waste.
The situation is equally worrisome in neighbouring Gurgaon which saw a private real estate boom in the 2000s that is continuing to this day. Developers regularly dump debris on vacant plots, water bodies (commonly known as johars) and low-lying areas of the eco-sensitive Aravalli hills. Frustrated by the inaction of the municipal authority, Malba Hatao Group, a Gurgaon-based, citizen-driven initiative fighting for a comprehensive policy on debris and recycling of C&D waste, approached the National Green Tribunal in October 2013. A rap from the tribunal has elicited action from Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG). 'The municipal authority has notified four villages for dumping C&D waste,' says Ruchika Sethi, member of the group. Sethi, who is steering the case in the tribunal and holding consultations with the corporation, says, 'The authorities were planning to issue notification to penalise builders who fail to transfer their C&D waste to the dumping areas. They delayed it because of the 2014 general elections.' But dumping urban waste in villages may lead to protests by the residents and result in a Thiruvananthapuram-like situation. The municipal body plans to set up a plant to recycle the waste in the Aravalli hills. This may do more harm than good to the environment.
INITIATIVES IN INDIA
In some cities, local authorities have tried to fix the problem. The Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh (MCC) is possibly the first urban local body in the country to have launched a scheme for C&D waste management. Under the decade-old scheme, residents can dial MCC’s helpline number for C&D waste removal and the debris gets collected within 48 hours. 'We have identified four to five sites across the city where the malba (C&D waste) is dumped. We also use the inert waste to cover up the garbage in our landfills,' says Vivek Pratap Singh, commissioner of MCC. However, he admits that most of the C&D waste does not reach the designated dumping sites. Developers use the waste to reclaim low-lying areas around Chandigarh.
The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) framed the Construction & Demolition and Desilting Waste (Management and Disposal) Rules in 2006 after realising that more than one-third of the waste it was collecting was the C&D waste generated by its ever expanding real estate and infrastructure sectors. Poor implementation of the rules means illegal dumping of C&D waste continues unabated. Builders have even started charging customers for disposing of debris. 'My contractor sends someone to collect malba,' says Kamini Baghchi of Andheri who is getting her house repaired. 'He charges extra for that.'
Proactive measures by these cities have failed because there is no policy at the national or state level to tackle the waste. C&D waste finds only a brief mention in Schedule III of the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. MoUD’s Manual on Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, offers a basic guideline on handling C&D waste. These guidelines are not binding on developers or government development agencies.
In 2009, MoEF constituted a Working Sub-Group on Construction & Demolition Waste to evolve a mechanism for management of solid waste. The sub-group made several recommendations, which include developing institutional mechanisms for waste collection, reusing and reprocessing the waste; segregation of C&D waste at source; imposing charges on waste generators; formulating standards for C&D waste and amending the Municipal Solid Waste Rules. MoEF’s proposed amendments in the rules in 2013 did not include the Working Sub-Group’s recommendations. Instead, it is now drafting separate rules for managing C&D waste, Construction and Demolition Waste (Management and
Handling) Rules 2014.
By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine