Blog: Conversations in the shadow of Okhla’s waste to energy plant

Snippets of discussions with residents of Okhla's Haji Colony, who live right next to the Jindal group-owned waste to energy plant there.

In 2012, Delhi inaugurated its first waste-to-energy (WTE) plant, marking the commencement of electricity generation at the Jindal group-owned Timarpur-Okhla Waste Management Company. Despite several petitions being filed against it in courts, the plant, located in the midst of densely populated residential colonies in Okhla, continues to operate amidst much controversy. One of these colonies is South Delhi’s Haji Colony. In the latter’s backyard, the WTE plant is brazenly expanding at the expense of the well being of thousands of people, who have been living in that area for years. 

Robbed of the comforts of home

The plant is merely 4o metres away from the homes of a large number of local people. This is despite the mandate of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development that such plants must be at least 300 metres away from residential areas. 

60-year-old Rukhsana Begum was born in Haji colony. She lives with her daughter and grandchild in a small, one-room dwelling. A towering chimney looms over the house, standing right behind it. Outside her house, she runs a modest shop where she sits on a wooden bed selling items like cigarettes, candies and biscuits. 

Rukhsana claims to have seen the area change from a desolate land into a congested colony with people coming in large numbers and settling in its dingy, unlit alleys. However, everything changed with the commissioning of the Waste-to-Energy plant in 2012.

“There is a lot of pollution in the air now. The smell is really bad. I always try to keep my house and surroundings clean, but I have been living in this dirt and garbage. Majboori hai bas [I am compelled to],” she tells me. 

While pointing at a pile of garbage near her home, she says that it is never cleared.“Sometimes, the waste comes flying in the air. I believe there is at least a truck full of garbage right in front of my house at this point.” 

Rukhsana questions the purpose of the plant. “The plant is not for our waste, I think. No one even comes to clean this area. We have complained so many times, but nothing ever happened,” she says

With plans for a new plant adjacent to the old one, she is deeply worried about the future. “I have lived here for so many years, but it has never been this difficult before. But I cannot do anything about it. I am poor. I can not leave this place”

The Okhla waste to energy plant - a shot from a distance
Plant of the Jindal group-owned Timarpur-Okhla Waste Management Company, that stands right next to densely populated colonies: Pic: India Water Portal/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Sick people in Haji colony

A few metres away from Rukhsana Begum’s house, I met H, a man in his mid forties, sitting with his friend M, at a small mobile recharge shop. They were having their evening chai, when they saw me talking to people, and invited me to join them over tea. Both of them then narrated the ordeal of living under the shadow of a WTE plant. They spoke under condition of anonymity, fearing action from authorities. 

“Earlier, when the plant was not here, air pollution was less, water pollution was less, and there were not so many diseases. I think half the garbage of Delhi burns here, while we suffer,” he tells me.  

Like many other residents, H, too believes that since the commissioning of the plant, the garbage in the area has only increased. According to him, the local area and residents have not benefitted in the least from the plant. 

The plant is in proximity to a few big private hospitals, such as the high-end Escorts-Fortis Heart Cares Institute, Indraprastha Apollo, Holy Family and Al-Shifa hospitals. There are several smaller hospitals in the area as well. While the waste from the major hospitals is sent to the plant, they too, complained about their patients suffering due to toxic gases released from there. 

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

“Cancer, TB, and heart attacks have become so common. Breathing has become really difficult and children are especially affected. . I believe all people in the area are somehow affected. On the other side of the plant stands Sarita Vihar, where the rich have sold their houses and left this area altogether,” H told me. 

Two years ago,  H’s grandchild was born. However, within a few days of his birth, the baby started having difficulty in breathing. When they took the baby to the hospital, the doctor advised them to leave the area for a while, because the high pollution here was directly impacting the baby’s health. The family then had to move the mother and the child back to their hometown in Uttar Pradesh.

H himself wakes up often in the middle of the night, either because it is difficult to breathe, or because of an unbearable stench in the air. But, he seems to have lost hope, resigned to the situation, as he concludes, “I don’t know what the future holds for us.”

The residents have visited courts, filed complaints with every authority responsible, but were never heard. In fact, the Resident Welfare Association of nearby areas, too, have complained and protested, but the Jindal group, the operators of the plant, has continuously denied any pollution caused by the plant.

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This short piece was produced as part of her work under the Fellowship.

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