Hope anew for Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill as PMO steps in

Following national and international outcry over East Delhi's towering Ghazipur dump, the Prime Minister's Office has issued a Global Request for Proposal (RFP) inviting solutions from experts to the problems posed by the landfill.

It literally took an international outcry to force the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to step in and try to find a solution to the rising mountain of waste that is East Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill. At a time when Swachh Bharat is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus and debates rage over climate change, the PMO has stepped in to seek help from experts to grapple with the challenge posed by the country’s tallest mountain of waste. On July 10th, it issued a 12-page Global Request for Proposal (RFP) for tackling this problem.

An IIT Kanpur alumnus and  Principal Scientific Advisor to the government, Professor K. Vijay Raghavan, who  advises the Prime Minister through a Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (PM – STIAC) has been entrusted, according to the RFP, with the responsibility for resolving the “two challenges” of the Ghazipur dump site: removal and valorisation (recycling or composting wastes) at the open landfill site, and management and treatment of the continuous flow of 2,200 tonnes of fresh waste per day. 

“The most ambitious expected outcome is zero landfill,” says the document, setting an 18-month time frame for a pilot project in land adjoining the Ghazipur landfill and allocation of funds, the amount yet to be spelt out. The land and funds will be allotted by the government to the selected parties for testing their technological solutions before they are considered for further scale-up. “The progress will be monitored at the highest level,” said an official. 

The landfill is causing serious environmental problems, polluting soil and water, forcing land use restrictions, and creating “global impact” through greenhouse emissions, particularly methane, according to  the RFP. The urgency in tackling the challenge is also evident in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order in which it asked Delhi’s civic bodies to clear the three landfills in the city at a cost of Rs 250 crore through biomining starting October 1st. The NGT said that it would review the progress after one year. 

Biomining is a process that uses microorganisms (microbes) to extract metals of economic value from rock ores or mine waste. Biomining techniques may also be used to clean up sites that have been polluted with metals. 

The Centre’s aim, as spelt out in the RFP document, in seeking expert help from private companies, academia and civil society from India and outside is directed towards “meeting the global sustainable development goals and (conducting) an environment and health impact assessment”. 

 The Office of Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India under the aegis of PM – STIAC has identified “Waste to Wealth” as one of the nine priority missions with the aim to identify, develop and deploy technologies to treat waste. According to the RFP, the applicant may be a single specified entity, or a group of entities joined together as a consortium. In case of a consortium, the lead partner must be clearly identified and shall be liable for fulfilling all and any obligations towards the proposal goals.

The RFP says that none of the entities should have been blacklisted or debarred from participating in tenders by any Central or State Government agencies or autonomous bodies or universities and institutions. In case of non-Indian entities, they should not have been named in any sanction from any nation, nor should have been held guilty under any of the various anti-corruption and anti-malpractice laws in force worldwide. An undertaking to the effect must be furnished.

The proposals shall be evaluated on the basis of four things: the work plan; the outcomes of the proof of concept technology validation; the contribution of the industry partners in the implementation of the pilot project end to end; and the commitment to transform the Ghazipur waste site to a clean and green location. A committee, under the aegis of Ministry of Science and Technology and the office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA), shall review the applications.

A gamut of possible solutions

Clearly, the landfill issue has been taken up at the highest level and experts believe solutions are available. “The landfill could be a source of resources,” said Vinay Kumar Tyagi of IIT, Roorkee. “Landfill mining and reclamation is an environmentally sustainable option, where material and energy can be recovered. The recyclable materials (dense plastic, metals, glass) can be separated from combustible (paper, textiles, rubber, wood, leather) and non-combustible or inert material (soil, construction waste). Combustible material can be used as a fuel for heat and electricity generation by incineration, while inert material can be used for filling low lying areas and in embankments. Land reclamation is also an added benefit of landfill mining”.

However, the key challenge is the mining cost, which involves the cost of excavation, separation of materials and re-landfilling of residual waste. Tyagi said some of the places where  waste material dumped in landfills are recycled for other uses include Saaremaa landfill in Estonia; Katrineholm, and Högbytorp landfill in Sweden; Sardinia and Cagliari landfill in Italy; Burghof, Dresden, Basslitz landfill in Germany; Edinburg, Hague, Chester, Sandtown landfill in New York (USA).

In  India, there is the Deonar dumpsite near Mumbai which was mined in 1989 as part of a pilot project in order to recover the  compost. However, nothing seems to have moved as far as Deonar is concerned and it continues to be used for dumping waste.

In 2017, Professor Manoj Datta of IIT, Delhi, which has been roped in to suggest ways to stabilise the rising landfill, had suggested measures for improvement of stability of the garbage mounds such as flattening the slope and removing leachate (liquid that drains or ‘leaches’ from a landfill) and gas. Case studies from Gorai (Maharashtra), Vapi (Gujarat) and Hyderabad (Telangana) have shown this as a possibility. 

Among other suggestions made then was a 5-layer impervious cover/cap over the landfill, besides removal of leachate and gas through drains and wells. Fires can be eliminated by collecting and flaring inflammable methane, say experts. Regarding the aesthetics of the landfill sites, it was suggested that the garbage slopes could be re-graded and green vegetative growth engineered. But no action was initiated and the recommendations remained on paper.

 Waste for roads

Meanwhile, a 2016 proposal to use at least 65% of the then 13 million metric tonnes of garbage from Ghazipur for road embankments along the Delhi-Meerut Expressway, is likely to be delayed further as the implementing authority — the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) —  is engaging a third party for “financial reassessment” of the project, according to senior government officials. According to a top official, the issue is also still pending in the National Green Tribunal. 

Even as a decision is pending, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari appears keen on using material from the landfill for road construction. “The test reports are encouraging,” said Gadkari. “Two Municipal Commissioners recently submitted the report to my ministry. We are going through the details and are keen that the waste should be utilized efficiently. Delhi will get rid of these mounds and we will get the material for laying base with little expense. We have to take steps to ensure nothing goes to waste.”

After the NHAI signed an agreement with the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) in November 2016, it had estimated that by 2018, the cumulative cost to use the entire garbage volume at Ghazipur— then 13 million tonnes, which today is 14 million tonnes — would be Rs 349 crore (inflation costs added). A sample analysis of the garbage was then done by the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), which said the garbage was “usable” for building road embankments. Currently, the NHAI uses fresh earth excavated from areas around under-construction roads and highways for the embankment, which leads to loss of fertile agricultural soil, and causes soil erosion.

“However, the lowest quote received in the first tender we floated was a whopping Rs 873 per tonne and the quote received for the second tender (for 1.3 million metric tonnes) had shot up to Rs1,067 per tonne. So, we decided to go back to the drawing board with consultants Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Limited (DIMTS)”, said an NHAI official. 

Swati Singh Sambyal, Programme Manager at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said the cost quoted was high as some of the garbage is 35 years old. “This landfill was set up in 1984, so one can imagine what kind of waste it might include—biomedical, hazardous and even industrial,” said Swati Sambyal. “This project is not like deploying men and earth-moving machines at any other site. It is a highly odorous landfill”.

But EDMC commissioner Dilraj Kaur is pinning her hopes on this NHAI project to clear the landfill. “The landfill area can be cleared in just five years if the NHAI can work out the modalities of this project,” said Dilraj Kaur. “It would help us redeem at least 70 acres of precious urban land in the heart of the city. We certainly don’t want to hand over the legacy of a landfill like Ghazipur to our children.”

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