In a recent report, a parliamentary committee has pulled up India's environment ministry and the Delhi government for their inaction. It exhorted them to take urgent steps to address the issue.
The committee recommended development of a green belt with a massive tree plantation exercise on Delhi's borders with neighbouring states like Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh so that it absorbs the pollution and acts as a natural barrier to shield the city.
Built in the 13th century, Delhi's Qutb Minar, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the tallest minarets in the country, is facing stiff competition − from the height of a garbage dump in the national capital.
In a recent report, a panel of India's Parliament noted their observations on landfill sites in Delhi, writing that the "laissez-faire of the civic bodies of Delhi also gets reflected in the fact that the height of Ghazipur landfill site has reached as high as 65 metres which is just eight metres less than the height of the national monument Qutub Minar". Ghazipur is one of the main garbage dumping sites of Delhi.
Untreated Municipal Waste
Every day India's capital ends up with thousands of tonnes of untreated municipal solid waste, a lot of it ending up in water streams. Adding to the problem is the toxic levels of pollution in the air, offering no respite to the residents of Delhi. What is worrying is that plans and rules to manage the waste and air pollution already exist, but it is their implementation that remains tardy.
The report warned that "if corrective and preventive measures are not put in place the situation will worsen which will also take a toll on our foreign exchange earning capacity in so far as tourism sector is concerned".
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forests has now asked authorities, mainly the Delhi government, to take urgent action to address the situation.
Highlighting the magnitude of the garbage, the panel's report "Air pollution in Delhi and the national capital region" noted that that they were informed by the Delhi government that against the total generation of 10,400 tonnes per day (TPD) of municipal solid waste (MSW), only 5,600 TPD of MSW is processed in Delhi leaving a gap of 4,800 TPD of MSW to be processed.
The report noted that the Delhi government has a proposal for adding a capacity to process waste upto 5,400 TPD in the next two years. At present, there are three landfill sites in Delhi, Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla landfills, which were commissioned in 1994, 1984 and in 1996 respectively.
Just like Ghazipur which is already filled beyond its capacity, the other two landfill sites in Delhi have also been declared exhausted but even then the untreated waste is still being dumped there.
The committee, which is led by a Congress party leader and member of parliament Anand Sharma, said that it "is unhappy to note the existing capacity of the Government of Delhi to treat the municipal solid waste scientifically is just about 54 percent of the total requirement leaving a gap of 46 percent to be bridged."
Adding that this "apathy of the civic bodies" tasked with management of MSW is "totally unwarranted", the panel observed that "there have been frequent incidents of landfill fires in Delhi during the last few years which spew toxic gases and have been adding to the rising pollution levels in Delhi."
The panel called the untreated municipal waste of 4800 TPD, "a threat to the environment, ecology and flora and fauna of Delhi" while stressing that there is an "urgent need for augmenting the capacity to treat the municipal solid waste scientifically to the desired level".
On Delhi government's plan of setting up new waste-to-energy plants and enhancing the processing capacity of the existing plants, the panel remarked that it hopes that the "timeline fixed to complete the proposed action plan would be realised".
It is not for the first time that authorities have been pulled up for not being able to address city's waste problem. There is a case on the issue in the Supreme Court as well. Recently, an angry apex court came down heavily on authorities for not managing the waste issue properly. The court said that "will there be any person alive in Delhi in such a situation?" and even remarked that the civic body should dump the waste at the official residence of Delhi's Lieutenant Governor. SC also noted that Delhi is facing an "emergency situation" and the authorities should quickly find a solution.
The court quoted a recent study by a hospital in Delhi which stated that 50 percent of Delhi's population has a chance of having lung cancer even if they do not smoke. It also emphasised on the importance of segregating waste at the household level.
In April 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) of the Indian government had revised the municipal solid waste rules making them stringent but their implementation has been far from satisfactory.
The parliamentary panel pulled up the Delhi government for not responding to CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (CSIR-NEERI) Nagpur which in May 2016 had offered their expertise to deal with the issue of frequent fires on landfill sites in Delhi.
"The existing landfill sites in Delhi are adding to the pollution level in Delhi and require the immediate attention of the Government," noted the panel in its report.
It even drew attention of authorities towards a method developed by the CSIR-Indian Institute Petroleum (IIP) Dehradun by which "polyolefinic waste plastics like polyethylene and polypropylene (like carry bags, household plastic utensils) can be converted exclusively into any one of the products – gasoline or diesel or aromatics along with simultaneous production of (LPG) like gases." The panel asked the government to take the institute's help if required.
Meanwhile, experts have called for the development of scientific landfill sites.
"The three landfill sites are full but there is no immediate alternative. What needs to be done is basically to treat that waste dumped at those sites. The space that will be created needs to be used for developing a scientific landfill site at those places. But it is an expensive proposition," said Suneel Pandey, a senior fellow and director of the environment and waste management division at TERI.
"As far as waste to energy plants are concerned, if you choose proper technology and if you have commitment to make it work right then they can work," he added.
A Green Belt Around Delhi
Over the past few years, air quality in Delhi, especially during winters and now sometimes in summer too, has regularly touched hazardous levels. The national capital has also earned the infamous tag of being the world's most polluted city.
On the issue of air pollution, the Anand Sharma led panel said that depletion of forests is one of the main causes of air pollution in the country and observed that Delhi and its surrounding areas are not as green now as they used to be earlier.
"There was a thick green belt around Delhi but the same has gradually receded. This green belt acted as a wall to protect Delhi from dust and pollution from neighbouring states … the absence of green belts permits such dust storms from neighbouring states to enter Delhi," said the panel.
It recommended that a massive tree plantation exercise be undertaken, in a time-bound manner, on "the borders of Delhi with Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh so that they not only absorb the pollution causing particulate matter but also act as a natural barrier and shield the city from frequent dusty winds from the neighbouring states".
The panel said that growing urbanisation, rapid industrialisation and increasing population during the last few years have also adversely impacted the air pollution scenario of Delhi and adjoining regions.
Pulling up the MoEFCC, the panel said that in such a scenario, the measures taken by the environment ministry for "prevention and control of air pollution have so far not been commensurate with the magnitude of the problem".
Development projects should not mean death of trees
The committee also discussed the recent controversy about cutting of over 16,500 trees for a project related to redevelopment of government colonies.
"While, on the one hand, Delhi is waging a war against air pollution, on the other, trees, which play a very vital role in reducing one of our biggest environmental problems, are being indiscriminately felled in the name of developmental projects. This felling of trees has also adversely affected the biodiversity of Delhi," observed the committee, while adding that the number of trees proposed to be cut in the above proposals involving development plans in Delhi is too large.
It recommended that the development projects "be revisited and the project proponents of these developmental projects should be requested to submit revised proposals with minimal requirement of tree felling" and in future also, "whenever any developmental/re-developmental project comes up, efforts should be made for minimum felling of trees at the planning stage itself".
"In view of the critical air pollution scenario in Delhi, all possible efforts should be made for preserving the trees at these sites," it added.
Spreading awareness and implementing plans to tackle pollution
The report has asked the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to "aggressively start an awareness campaign" to educate the people about the adverse health effects of air pollution and the ways and means to minimise its adverse impacts.
The committee also recommended that the MoEFCC must prepare both short and long-term plans, put forth futuristic projections and ensure that all the measures planned are holistically implemented in coordination with the concerned state governments.
However, experts often point out that there has been no lack of plans to tackle pollution but it's the implementation of the rules that is tardy. For instance, several plans have been firmed up in the last few years after high levels of pollution in Delhi became infamous worldwide. But the multiplicity of plans and poor implementation has been a huge issue.
Following a case in the SC over high air pollution in Delhi-NCR region, a Graded Response Action Plan was formulated in December 2016 which was followed by a 12-point draft plan by a task force led by Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, in December 2017.
Subsequently, in 2018, the MoEFCC came out with a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) – a first such plan to address the issue at the national level- but even that is not yet finalised. The latest to join the bandwagon was the central government's think tank, NITI Aayog, which suggested a 15-point action plan in July 2018.