Delhi's Air: Why Does No One Care About Unmanaged Waste?

Delhi’s air pollution is choking public health. While several factors like crop burning, firecrackers, automobiles, and thermal power plants are being held responsible for this toxic air pollution, the connection between Delhi’s unmanaged waste and air pollution remains inconspicuous.

Human and environmental rights violations in the capital have become mere periodic headlines in newspapers.[1] Despite Delhi’s growing reputation as a toxic air pollution hotspot, the government has done little to address this issue. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Ambient Air Pollution database (2014) marked Delhi as the most polluted city in the world with an annual particulate matter (PM) 2.5 level of 153 μg/Nm3. Alarmingly, at this time last year, air pollution had spiked well beyond acceptable limits with dangerous PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels hitting 999 μg/Nm3, while the safe limits for those pollutants are 60 and 100 respectively. Further, in 2016, the WHO ranking of pollution levels identified 30 more Indian cities on the list of the 100 most polluted cities in the world. Yet, none of these alarming statistics have motivated our government into action. Anil Madhav Dave, then Minister for Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, in a written reply to a question in Rajya Sabha last year had said, “Air Pollution could be one of the triggering factors for respiratory ailments and associated diseases. However, there are no conclusive data available in the country to establish direct correlation between diseases and air pollution. Health effects of air pollution are generally synergistic manifestation of the individual’s food habits, occupational habits, socio-economic status, medical history, immunity, heredity, etc” (GoI 2017).

 

Conversely, the Supreme Court bench[2] in the case of pet coke and furnace oil early this year (M C Mehta v Union of India & Ors 2017) pointed to a study conducted by the Boston-based Health Effects Institute (2010) which estimated that,

    

…about 3000 premature deaths occur in Delhi due to air pollution related diseases. This works out to about 8 deaths per day in Delhi alone relating to air pollution related diseases. This is quite staggering.

 

This year again, levels of PM 2.5 in Delhi reached 710 μg/Nm3, more than 11 times the safe limit prescribed by the WHO. Experts have started comparing the situation in Delhi with the infamous Great Smog of London in 1952 when 4000 people died due to the extremely high levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and nitrogen oxide (NO) in the air. Several factors are being held responsible for the air pollution cocktail in Delhi—crop burning, firecrackers, automobiles, and thermal power plants. However, the problem of Delhi’s growing heap of waste remains unaddressed. 

Air Pollution and Delhi's Waste

The situation in Delhi is a timely warning to transform our centralised waste disposal infrastructure to a sustainable decentralised system. Delhi generates a whopping 9,500 tonnes of waste per day, making it India’s second most wasteful city—directly related to increasing wealth and consumption. It is estimated that waste management through landfills and biomass burning is the second biggest anthropogenic source of climate damaging methane gas (CH4) after coal mining (Jardine et al 2009). Although CH4 is not included in the criteria list of air pollutants, it is the third largest contributor to global warming after water vapour and CO2. Sharma and Dikshit (2016) have estimated that emissions from biomass and open burning of waste contribute to almost 20–30% of the total air pollution in cities like Delhi. Yet, it appears that Delhi’s unsustainable solid waste management practices including open burning, landfill fires, and incineration have secured a safe place in our not-so-safe capital city.

 

A multi-stakeholder study, “Making Delhi Swachh,” conducted by the Department of Environment, Delhi, the NGO Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) (2015) showed that

 

While 94% of Delhi residents know that improper waste management causes pollution; the majority of residents of South Delhi Municipal Corporation and New Delhi Municipal Council believe that burning waste is safe as long as it is done outside the home. Besides, only 31% declared to be aware of the conditions of Delhi landfills—less than 13% in North and East Delhi municipal corporations.

 

The study was conducted across socio-economic categories and across municipal geographies. As per their press release, nearly hundred in-depth interviews with sector specialists were conducted, in addition to thematic round table discussions with a range of actors for each issue.

 

The findings from the study underscore a dark and disquieting fact: despite the deadly toxic pollution it causes, unregulated trash burning around the city is the new normal. In another study on air pollution and greenhouse gases in Delhi, Sharma and Dikshit (2016) cite Nagpure et al (2015) who have estimated that Delhi burned 190 to 246 tonnes/day of municipal solid waste (MSW) which is equivalent to 2−3% of MSW generated in 2015. Worse still, the impacts are ignored by the people to their own detriment and completely hidden by failed government regulation. This becomes significantly problematic because national inventories of air pollution fail to track (or choose to ignore) emissions from open-fire burning of trash and thus these remain unincorporated into any policy decisions.

 

Another study investigating global emissions of trace gases, particulate matter, and hazardous air pollutants from open burning of domestic waste revealed that the fires (open trash burning) produce emissions equivalent to as much as 29% of officially reported human-related global emissions of small particulates (PM 2.5), as well as 10% of mercury and 64% of a group of gases known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These pollutants have been linked to such significant health impacts as decreased lung function, neurological disorders, cancer, and heart attacks. (Wiedinmyer et al 2014)

 

Bane of Incineration

The emissions resulting from open burning of thousands of small heaps of trash across Delhi city are not solely to blame. The recurrent fires at the 50 metre-high Ghazipur and Bhalswa dumpsites compound the already deteriorating foul air. Centralised waste disposal systems involving the use of landfills is the most commonly adopted practice for disposal of waste all over the world. But as the Delhi air situation shows, this system is brimming with major problems not just with respect to inefficient waste management system but also environmental racism and injustice. Delhi’s 9,500 tonnes of unsegregated MSW finds its way to just three dumpsites, namely Bhalswa (commissioned in 1994), Ghazipur (commissioned in 1984) and Okhla (commissioned in 1996) (Government of NCT nd)—all of which have been stretched far beyond their limits at a breakneck pace. The dumpsites are riddled with instances of dangerous methane discharge, incessant fire outbreaks, landfill slides, and human rights violations of wastepickers as well as residents in the area.

 

Landfill emissions are the result of decomposition of organic materials such as food waste mixed with MSW. Because of the nature of the construction of landfills, this decomposition is anaerobic and results in the production of large quantities of methane (which is highly flammable) and carbon dioxide. Approximately 50% of gas emitted from landfills is methane; carbon dioxide accounts for about 45%, and the remainder is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and other gases. Both methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases that pose huge environmental problems. Methane, 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, has the potential to choke people living near landfills to death. These people (such as wastepickers and scrap dealers), who are already socio-economically marginalised, have to also bear the brunt of health consequences such as lung and heart diseases.

 

Despite such alarming conditions, the five municipal bodies continue to use the three sites for illegal disposal of waste in the absence of any alternatives. Incineration, which is being proposed as a stop-gap alternative, is in fact an even bigger systemic worry. Shortage of landfill capacity has consistently been touted as the reason to push for waste to energy incinerators in India. However, burning waste in incinerators only worsens the already polluted air. Waste-to-energy incinerators, like the one in Okhla, have proven to be notorious sources of air pollution and highly toxic ash residues. The most lethal incineration emissions are dioxins and furans which are highly carcinogenic and persist in the environment.

 

In 2004, 128 countries signed an international treaty called the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to reduce and where possible, eliminate all sources of these global pollutants. Studies have shown that for dioxins and furans, there are no “safe” levels of human exposure. Besides, the quantitative chemical analysis of dioxins requires sophisticated methods that are available only in a limited number of laboratories around the world. The analysis costs are very high and vary from over US$ 1,000 per biological sample to several thousand US dollars for the comprehensive assessment of release from a waste incinerator (WHO 2016). Resulting ash residues from incineration are equally toxic and considered hazardous waste in most countries as they are known to contain extremely high levels of toxic heavy metals and other chemicals. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2006), “waste to energy” incinerators contribute far higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycles than source reduction, reuse, and recycling of the same materials.

   

 

The Okhla Waste to Energy Incinerator located just 35 metres from Sukhdev Vihar, Jasola, Ishwar Nagar, and other neighbouring residential areas, has put the health and lives of more than half a million residents in danger. The resilient community of Sukhdev Vihar, after finding no justice for the last ten years from the Delhi High Court and National Green Tribunal, has now moved the plea to the Supreme Court. One of the primary contentions is the emission of dioxins and furans which, on several occasions, were found to be in excess of acceptable standards. Inspections carried out by Central Pollution Control Board on 28–31 March, 2013, had found them to be present in amounts 120 times above levels considered safe. In essence, what was touted to be a clean and renewable energy project to manage increasing volumes of the city’s waste, has become a disturbing legacy of toxic pollution, impacted communities, and bad governance. Regardless of such strong anomalies, the regulatory agencies continue to see incinerators as a panacea to solid waste challenges. This approach has resulted in two more incinerators being commissioned in Ghazipur and Narela–Bawana in Delhi and many more to be commissioned nationwide. 

 

Towards a Zero Waste Pathway

Such makeshift solutions that have time and again proven to be an economic, public health, and environmental disaster do not make sense, especially when there are proven systematic solid waste management solutions available that aim for waste reduction, separation at source, and increasing waste diversion, recycling and composting targets. The rising amount of waste means rising costs for governments and pressure on the environment. Rather than investing in inefficient centralised solutions, public money would be better spent on sustainable zero waste management systems. As the “Making Delhi Swachh” report highlights, in most cases, apathy and inaction is a function of a lack of awareness: 

 

38% Delhiites do not know where their waste ends up; 62% openly admit not knowing the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable; 58% report not source segregating due to lack of separate waste collection systems for wet and dry waste, which nullifies their efforts and only 44% of people currently pay doorstep collection fees.

 

But there is hope. The same report also suggests that: 

 

70% of Delhiites are willing to start composting; 76% believe that reusing is better than buying new things; 97% already segregate a number of items for sale to kabadiwalas through the traditional informal recycling sector; 81% declared that it would be practical for them to live without plastic bags.

 

As we face a national air pollution crisis, transitioning towards a zero-waste pathway seems to be one of the foremost steps in tackling the sources of air pollution. Waste reduction schemes such as “polluters pay” principle, recycling projects such as composting and biomethanation, and ultimately policies committing to zero waste and cutting consumption, are just some of the ways in which cities can become a lot less wasteful and a lot more pollution free. Incinerators and landfills will never solve our problems. Systemic change will, and it is in that that we must make the right investments.

 

Case Cited

M C Mehta v Union of India & Ors (2017): Writ Petition (Civil) No 13029 of 1985, Supreme Court order dated 6 February.

 

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