By Pooja Moitra
A few months ago, while I was still doing my post-graduation, I happened to visit Okhla for a field trip. Being a resident of Delhi, I am no stranger to the obnoxious levels of air pollution and health issues that plague the city every year. However, the sight that greeted me was no less than straight out of a dystopian environmental future. A gloomy sky, with an equally hazy vision filled with dust and emissions, was the situation that my friends and I found ourselves in. Unfortunately, for the residents of Okhla, especially the ones living near to the waste-to-energy (WTE) plant and the landfill, this dystopia has become their everyday reality.
Apart from being famous for harbouring a wide variety of bird species, Okhla is also known for being one of the sites where huge amounts of waste from the capital itself is dumped every day. The Okhla landfill, at its current state, has reached up to a height of 160 feet against the permissible height of 90 feet, while the other two landfills are also filled way beyond their capacity. This has sparked an urgent need for the creation of alternative solutions to tackle the ever-increasing problem of waste management. In lieu of this, the Supreme Court passed an important judgment last month sanctioning the creation of another landfill, in Tekhand Okhla in 47.3 acres of land within the morphological area of the Delhi Ridge, along with it also permitted installing another WTE plant in the vicinity of the new project.
The scientific method of dumping waste in the landfill has been a long-standing tradition which is followed by a lot of countries. Similarly, the concept of Waste to Energy creation is often hailed as one of the most environmentally friendly methods to get rid of the waste. However, in the long run, both the methods have their drawbacks, which when implemented in an already polluted environment of the capital can only lead to more problems rather than solving them. Focusing first on the disadvantages of a landfill, one of the most important things to remember that while the landfills take the bulk of the waste and dump them in one location, in reality, it also contributes huge amounts of Carbon dioxide and Methane into the air and thus, directly adds to climate change as well. On the top of that, since the system of segregation of waste into multiple categories hasn’t been implemented yet, all the unsegregated waste ends up in the landfill, which not only increases the amount of waste to be decomposed but also limits the other reducible and reusable methods of getting rid of waste. Moreover, a large area needs to be cleared to make way for the landfill and the adjoining WTE facility, adding to more deforestation cases in the already choking Delhi.
Coming to the idea of Waste to Energy plants, the basic concept behind this is to collect dry waste, burning it under high temperature and then converting the residual energy to be used by the people. Creation of a clean energy via waste, sounds swell right? Not really. WTE plants work on the principle that so much dry waste is collected and burnt so that there is no need for additional sources of fuel to burn them. However, in India, the majority of the waste generated is wet waste, i.e. food and vegetable leftover, flower waste etc., and the non-segregation of the waste leaves the dry waste less in quantity and not exactly suitable for putting in the WTE plant. In such a case, external fuel is used to create the amount of energy that can be easily burnt in the incinerator, leading to the whole process being useless, and therefore less environment-friendly. Furthermore, the fumes which come out of the plant are highly carcinogenic in nature, leaving a trail of health conditions and worsened air quality for the residents to breathe in.
Implementation of the abovementioned order in the capital has the capacity to also turn positive if only segregation system takes over and the emissions which come out of WTE plant is controlled and checked periodically. However, going by the past record of waste management in the city, this level of positive change is generally not expected by the people. Improper waste management would not only harm the humans living in the vicinity but would also have an impact on the non-human species present in the area, especially in the nearby bird and wildlife sanctuary. As it is in 2015, the residents living near WTE plant in Okhla complained about the toxic nature of the fumes coming out of that facility. While the NGT took notice of the situation, nevertheless it did little to make the condition better or for that matter safer for the people staying there.
As human beings, we as a species are bound to create waste wherever we decide to live. But being responsible citizens starts with us taking accountability for the amount of waste that we knowingly or unknowingly generate, and try lessening and segregating it, day by day. While the idea of another landfill and WTE plant are easy ways to manage waste, but one should also realize that they are far from being a sustainable solution. As long as we do not figure out different ways to tackle waste in the city, all of us will have to live in the fear of creating and living in a dystopian waste-filled society for the future generations, sooner than later.
Pooja is currently interning with Chintan. She has a Masters Degree in Environment and Development from Ambedkar University, Delhi.