Ecological damage, land lost: The cost of Delhi’s toxic landfills

Delhi’s landfills, mainly Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla, are now toxic, growing sites causing immense harm to citizens in and around.

It is a promise all three parties in the fray made – clearing Delhi’s landfills, the three main sites being Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla. Now it has fallen on the winner of Delhi’s municipal elections, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), to fulfil that promise. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has specifically promised to get the three landfill sites cleared over the next five years; the first one to be done by 2024.

Waste management overall, not just clearing the landfills, had figured prominently in the manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress too. The latter had described the Ghazipur landfill as “kude ke Qutb Minar” (the Qutb Minar of Waste).

Read more: Delhi’s Qutb Minar has competition … from tower of garbage!

According to a study by a team of experts submitted to the National Green Tribunal in January last year, these three landfill sites have cost more than Rs 450 crore in environmental degradation to the national capital so far.

The study conducted by experts from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and IIT-Delhi assessed the ecologicial damage due to Bhalswa landfill at Rs 155.9 crore, Okhla at Rs 151.1 crore and Ghazipur at Rs 142.5 crore.

The experts considered factors such as the leachate generated over time and the legacy waste accumulated at the landfills and the violations of solid waste management rules to calculate the damage to the environment.

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

In the Ghazipur landfill alone, over 140 lakh tonnes of waste have been dumped in since 1984, leading to hazardous living conditions for residents in its vicinity. Toxic air and contaminated water are two major health hazards for residents from nearby areas like Kaushambi, Khoda, Gharoli, Kalyanpuri, Ghazipur and Kondli.

Ghazipur landfill, Delhi
File pic of the Ghazipur dump site, covering 70 acres and described as the “Qutub Minar of waste” has caused ecological damage worth Rs 142.5 crore according to one expert study. Video grab from

Despite the BJP’s control over the three municipal corporations – now merged into one MCD – for close to 15 years and even getting the Prime Minister’s scientific adviser involved, no noticeable progress has been made to reduce the millions of tonnes of toxic waste at these dumping sites.

“The air pollution caused by gases emitted from the landfill affects the birth weight of children born to those residing in the vicinity of the landfill,” says Dr Ajay Nagpure, Head, Air Quality and Sustainable Urbanisation, World Resources Institute Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities.

“Even child mortality will be very high because of the polluted air they breathe in, as also other fallouts of the landfill which impacts the hygienic condition of the residential areas in the vicinity. Waste burning at the landfill is more hazardous,” he adds.

“This government has a half-hearted approach towards tackling such issues and nobody wants to shoulder responsibility,” says Dr T K Joshi, Director, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) at Maulana Azad Medical College.

The Bhalswa problem

The Bhalswa landfill site was commissioned in 1994 and has accumulated eight million tonnes of legacy waste, with the site exhausting its capacity in 2006. The Okhla site was commissioned in 1994 and holds six million tonnes of legacy waste, with the site exhausting its capacity in 2010.

The Ghazipur site is Delhi’s oldest and was commissioned in 1984, and has already accumulated 14 million tonnes of legacy waste. In 2019, following an order by the National Green Tribunal (NGT order), the three municipal corporations started carrying out bio-mining and bio-remediation. However, as fresh dumping still continues, the pace of clearing inert legacy waste has remained slow.

CM Arvind Kejriwal claimed that the MCD under the BJP-led central government had drawn up plans to create 16 new landfill sites and promised to fix the problem if AAP got an opportunity to run the civic body, an opportunity that this poll victory has given them. Though it is perhaps too early to expect definite plans and details on how they hope to fulfil their promise, fixing solid waste management practices was at the top of the party’s 10-point promise list.

Focussed campaign

AAP, in fact, had made waste and sanitation the centrepiece for its campaign. “We have done a lot of work in education, health, and other sectors but waste management continues to be abysmal in Delhi,” Kejriwal had said during his campaign rallies.

“The landfills are not only a cause of shame, but they are hell for people living near them,” says Kejriwal. “We should have fixed the landfill sites by implementing the solid waste management techniques from foreign countries, but it was not done…”

“While we are developing lakes and parks to make Delhi a city of lakes, a city of gardens, these people are making Delhi a capital city of garbage mountains,” Kejriwal had said of the BJP.

However, an MCD spokesperson denied claims that the corporation planned to set up new landfill sites at 16 locations. “In fact, the corporation is working tirelessly to flatten the three existing landfill sites at Bhalswa, Okhla, and Ghazipur,” they said.

But government data shows that less than a fifth of the existing waste at the three landfill sites has been processed since the project to flatten the garbage mountains began in October 2019.

 Emergency situation

On October 11, this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the Government of NCT Delhi to pay Rs 900 crore in environmental compensation for alleged violation of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016. The money must be used for restoration measures to recover the land, NGT added.

Around 80% of the legacy waste at the three landfill sites was not remedied, according to a bench chaired by Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel. The amount of legacy waste at the three dumpsites was 300 lakh metric tonnes.

The bench, which included experts like A Senthil Vel and Afroz Ahmad as well as Justice Sudhir Agarwal, stated that the scenario painted a bleak picture of an environmental emergency in the national capital. “Citizens cannot be faced with an emergency situation due to lack of governance,” the bench said.

The bench noted groundwater contamination, continuous methane and other harmful gas emissions. Even the most basic safety precautions against recurrent fires were not taken.

Bhalsawa landfill fire
Fire is a constant hazard at the Bhalswa landfill adding to the woes of the people living in its vicinity. File pic of a fire in April 26. Pic: Gunraagh Singh Talwar

Read more:  Bhalswa and beyond: Why has Delhi failed to put an end to waste dump fires?

The green tribunal said that scarce and costly public land was occupied by the waste dumpsites. On the financial cost of the negligence, the bench stated, “The area is 152 acres and its price even at a conservative rate is worth more than ₹10,000 crore. Thus the urgency to retrieve the said public asset for beneficial public use.”

According to the NGT, relevant authorities failed to uphold the public trust doctrine in order to safeguard the environment and the general public’s health.

Much discussed, no action

Solid waste management (SWM) was the most discussed issue in MCD sessions in the last four years. As per a 94-page document by Praja Foundation, BJP councillors made 6,466 deliberations on SWM, while AAP and Congress made 1,685 and 1,006 deliberations resspectively.

But all the deliberations and discussions have led to no improvement on the ground.

Over 45% of the city’s daily municipal solid waste is still getting dumped at the three landfills, according to Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The city generates around 11,120 tonnes of municipal waste per day, of which 5,800 tonnes are used by waste-to-energy plants and a small portion goes for composting.

The rest of the unprocessed municipal solid waste, around 5,000 tonnes, lands up at the Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalswa landfills, admit civic officials.

To prevent fresh waste being dumped at the landfills in future, MCD is establishing two more waste-to-energy (WTE) plants by 2024-25, taking the total to five, with a total processing capacity of 11,800 tonnes of waste a day.

At present, the Ghazipur dump site receives almost 3,000 metric tonnes of waste every day, delivered by around 700 trucks. In terms of land area, the landfill dumpsite covers 70 acres.

The landfill at Bhalswa is posing serious health issues for citizens living nearby. Contaminated water and poor living conditions have left inhabitants with serious skin ailments and trauma. Most patients, usually aged 30-35 years, have allergies in their hands, feet, mouth, scalp and forehead.

“I struggle to sleep at night,” said Sushila, 44, who feels restless because of her itchy and scaly skin. Showing her bruised pale yellow hands with scars, “I am paying the price for living right opposite to Bhalswa landfill site,” she says.

Sushila, who is on medication for skin allergy, says her sleeping disorder has weakened her immune system too. Her scalp is dry and flaky, there are pus-filled blisters around her mouth and her forehead has dark flaky patches.

The height of the Bhalswa garbage mound has reached 54 metres. Since the site is filled with decomposing waste, residents in nearby areas have no other choice but to breathe the polluted air filled with toxic gases. Garbage dumped on the roads, open drains, poor housing and sanitation in the area act as breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies.

Dr C.S. Bhogal at Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Hospital said a large number of skin allergy cases are reported from the vicinity of the Bhalswa landfill. “We receive 8-10 cases of skin allergies in our OPD daily from the area,” he said, adding that “poor living standards add to the health problems of the residents”.

Dr Pavitra Arora, who runs a small clinic and has been treating the local residents for more than a decade, said people aged 30-35 years report most cases of skin allergies. Dr Arora, who treats three such cases daily on an average, said most patients have allergies in their hands, feet, mouth, scalp and forehead.

“I have consulted many doctors but I do not find any improvement; I do not feel much sensation in my hands,” said Bala Manoj, 50, showing her fingertips from where the skin was peeling off. Bala also has breathing problems and her eyes keep twitching because of her scaly eyelids.

“It has been 15 years since I have been suffering from skin infections,” adds Bala. “I don’t know when my skin will become normal again,” she says, adding that her poor economic situation makes her worry about the amount of money she has to spend on the anti-allergy tablets and insect repellents. Bala said she spends over Rs 500 on just mosquito coils every month.

Despite the site being declared as exhausted in 2010, the Okhla landfill which is spread over 40 acres, used to get 1,200 tonnes of the 3500 tonnes of waste daily. After reaching a height of 55 meters, thrice the permissible limit, the site was finally decommissioned in 2018.

The civic agency now aims to complete the remediation of the Okhla landfill within one-and-a-half years to convert it into a green cover.

Deploying drones in Delhi’s landfills

The newly created MCD plans to deploy drones to survey the height of the three landfills every three months, according to senior officials. “A report will be filed every three months on the height of landfills along with aerial photography and videos to ascertain the exact extent of steps that need to be taken to shorten it,” said a senior MCD official. The survey will also help the corporation monitor the utility of trommel machines placed at the sites.

A trommel machine is a screen curved  into a cylinder. The machine spins the cylindrical screen to sort through the material as you feed it through. During this process, the wet material tumbles around. Air gets added, and the soil, mulch, or sand becomes lighter and drier.

To dispose of mounds of legacy waste at Bhalswa, 44 trommel machines have been processing 9,000 to 10,000 tonnes of waste daily. Till date, they have processed 25 lakh tonnes and flattened a 11-metre-high mound; another of 12 metres will be flattened shortly, as per an MCD report.

Similarly, 26 trommel machines are working at Okhla landfill which processes 7,000 tonnes of waste every day and has processed 17 lakh tonnes of legacy waste till date. The MCD has managed to reduce the height of mounds by 15 to 30 metres at some locations.

Ten trommel machines are working at Ghazipur landfill which processes 4,000 tonnes of waste every day. Till date, MCD has processed 11 lakh tonnes of legacy waste and reduced the height of mounds at some locations by 12-18 metres at the site.

But all that is just the tip of the proverbial waste-berg, with a big mountain of waste still to be cleared.

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