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Delhi's Seismic Landfills

Overutilised, exploding at their seams and perennially producing deadly infection – Delhi’s landfills are a curse to the residents in its periphery and ultimately spell doom for the capital of our country.

Amid piles of utensils, clothes, stocked food grains and other household items, seven-year-old Sanjiv trembled on his mother's lap. Last night, as his fever crossed 102-degree, a local doctor prescribed a number of blood tests assuming the fever to be dengue – a most common disease in this area behind the Ghazipur landfill, one of the oldest dumps in the Capital and the largest in India. The claustrophobic rooms are nauseated further with the perennially shut windows, closed to avoid the stink of the landfill.

"Landfills are hotbeds of pollution and contamination, and are by no means an ideal waste management solution," noted activist Vimalendu Jha in an article. Delhi already has three landfills – Gazipur in the East, Bhalaswa in the North and Okhla in the South – all of which have been around for 20 to 30 years and are bursting at the seams, having long outlived their natural lifespan. The areas in the vicinity of these landfills are highly polluted, Jha further emphasised.

Failed Waste Management System

India revised its decade-old solid waste management rules in 2016 but several norms seem to have collapsed at Delhi's three unengineered and oversaturated landfills – Ghazipur in the east, Okhla in the south and Bhalaswa in the north. Only the one at Bawana in the northwest is an "engineered solid waste dumping and processing site".

A source of air pollution and accidents, nearly 1 per cent of the Ghazipur landfill collapsed in September 2017 claiming two lives. The Ghazipur landfill, spread over 70 acres of land, holds about 150 lakh tonnes of waste. It was expected to be shut in 2008 as it had been polluting the air, water, and soil since 1984.

Over the past year, Ghazipur has grown taller by 15 metre, from 50 metre in 2017 to about 65 metre at present, officials said. Besides, the landfill at Bhalaswa has grown by about two metre and that at Okhla has gained five metre in height and acquired 14 acres of additional area. "It is gaining height rather than losing as planned. At present, the Ghazipur landfill site must be around 60 to 65 metre. About 50 per cent is biodegradable while about 5 to 7 per cent is plastic," Pradeep Khandelwal, Chief Engineer, East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), said.

The Bhalaswa landfill is spread over 40 acres and has gained about two metre in height since 2017, officials said. "Our plan is to cap the height here... a tender for waste to energy is being awaited so that it does not grow any further," Jain added.

The Okhla landfill site under South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) has stopped growing after adding five metre in the past year. Waste is now being dumped at another recently-acquired 14-acre plot.

"We have stopped further dumping as the landfill grew to 55 metre spread over 32 acres. Additional 14 acres of area is partially operational for now," Teufel Ahmed, an SDMC official said.

He added that the plan is to reduce the height of the Okhla landfill to 30-35 metre, for which the process of cutting and sloping is underway. According to Ahmed, a new waste-to-energy plant at Okhla, for which the tendering process is being worked out, will help divert 2,000 to 2,200 tonnes of garbage being dumped there every day.

In 2016, while India produced 62 million tonnes of solid waste annually, of which only 12 million tonnes was treated, Delhi produced over 14,000 tonnes daily. There are no clear figures for 2018 but experts estimate that the current annual solid waste generation must be no less than 65 to 72 million tonnes. This figure is expected to rise to 436 million tonnes by 2050.

Where will the garbage go?

After an accident at the Ghazipur landfill, the authorities decided to stop dumping there. This led to a severe crisis in the city – garbage was left dumped on the roads and there was no place to take the huge deposited garbage for a week. Thereafter, the authorities again started to dump the garbage at the existing landfills with no parallel option in hand.

Meanwhile, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) located two spots for landfill sites beside the Yamuna.

Yamuna at Risk

A proposal by the EDMC to develop a 150 acre site on the floodplains of the Yamuna for a landfill and waste-to-energy plant is illegal, dangerous, and reeks of the city guardians' ignorance. Reports noted that the proposal, put forward in June, violates the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, which prohibits pollution or planning of any sort that will pollute any water body, as well as the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, which prohibits any landfill to be raised on a floodplain that is even 100-years-old (in this case, the floodplain is less than 10-years-old). It also violates a 2015 order of the National Green Tribunal that bans any construction on the Yamuna floodplains.

"Getting more sites for landfills beside the Yamuna will not help, because waste is generated every day and it will mix with the water. Plans need to be made around recycling our waste so that minimum waste goes to the Yamuna," said an expert, after EDMC filed an affidavit in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), pleading that DDA be immediately directed to hand over land at Sonia Vihar and Ghonda Gujran Khadar for the landfill sites.

"If the proposal is cleared, the project – which will manage over 3,000 metric tonnes of garbage daily – will cause irreparable and irreversible damage to the Yamuna river and the overall water landscape of Delhi," wrote Jha.

The Yamuna is already one of the most polluted rivers in the world due to decades of neglect by the government and citizens. Despite this, it continues to serve as the primary source of drinking water for millions residing in the national capital. Its floodplains are also one of the most ecologically sensitive zones in Delhi. Its aquifers support vast expanses of riverbank habitat and are the primary source of groundwater recharge in the area. Floodplains drain into the river and, therefore, play a critical role in recharging the river too. According to media reports, the proposed landfill is dangerous as it will sit over a source of drinking water in a high-seismic zone, near a densely-populated area with several archaeological sites. Not only that, in the event of flooding, the contents of the dump are also likely to contaminate the river further and flow to several sites downstream.

Delhi's perennial trash

Vimalendu Jha, in an article, noted that as per government data, Delhi generates over 10,000 metric tonnes of garbage each day, which is disposed of at its three existing landfills and at a few waste-to-energy plants across the city. "The existing landfills have been around for over 20 to 30 years, and are overflowing with over 330 lakh tonnes of garbage. However, they continue to be used as the state does not have land for new landfills," Jha wrote.

He further noted that all of them have caught fire repeatedly over the years, further degrading Delhi's already polluted air. Toxins from the mixed garbage in these dumps leach into the ground. The state government has admitted that there is no leachate treatment plant at any of these landfills, leading to contamination of the groundwater in their vicinity. This is alarming as according to various studies by several scientific institutions, leachate is the most toxic form of liquid available in non-lab circumstances and poses an extreme threat to public health and ecology.

"However, very little, or rather, nothing, has been done to turn around the situation. Most governments resort to faith and rhetoric to solve the problem of pollution in the Yamuna," Jha argued.

What is the alternative?

The alternative of the landfill is no landfill – but the Capital is stuck in a vicious circle of forming different landfills. According to recent media reports, as the problem of waste management spirals out of control, the three corporations have help at hand in experts from IIT-Delhi who will guide them on flattening slopes at the existing landfill sites and extracting methane gas from garbage.

"According to the agreement, a group of experts from IIT-Delhi will advise us on the stability analysis of the Ghazipur landfill waste slope parallel to the canal. A remedial agency will be hired to provide conceptual designs for developing the slopes," noted a report.

However, coming out of this system is not easy. There are thousands of families who make a living from these landfills. Nevertheless, alternatives are desperately needed for the benefit of the neighbouring community that is succumbing to perilous diseases and for the city whose health is deteriorating by the second.

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