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Laying our cities to waste

Laying our cities to waste
Highlights

It was an interactive session with some practising senior doctors of the capital at a seminar that provoked me to revisit the country-'s garbage...

Six years ago, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority planned a regional landfill to be useful for municipal corporations at Taloja in Navi Mumbai. Where is this and what is its status? Apart from Mumbai, Bhivandi-Nizampur, Thane, Kalyan, Dombivili, Ulhasnagar, Ambarnath and Kulgaon-Badlapur local bodies were to share this. No trace of it. If the country's richest municipal corporation like Mumbai could not establish a credible and scientific waste management system, who else would have done it?

It was an interactive session with some practising senior doctors of the capital at a seminar that provoked me to revisit the country's garbage story. After all, I have already written a couple of pieces at least. There is so much of muck already, why again on garbage, one could always say.

This week also it is going to be garbage that steals my attention as what some of the doctors told me was alarming enough. Some of these doctors are always on flying visits to other cities and countries. They do interact with their counterparts in other metros on a regular basis. "You should understand that we are sitting ducks for a global phenomenon like Ebola, Zika virus etc.

We don't even need the new strains. The regular ones like Dengue, Swine Flu and Encephalitis have assumed serious proportions. Pollution, garbage and untreated sewage could turn your infections into a more virulent form and kill you. A clear pattern is emerging post-monsoon period in the country. More people are falling ill and taking longer time for recuperating. People are spending a lion's share of their earnings in battling these
diseases," is the general perception.

Alas, all this could be tackled and even prevented by people with real civic sense and with civic authority's assistance. And here I am talking only about our big cities! Prime Minister, Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat call has literally gone down the drain and the cities are as filthy as ever. No one is talking about it.

Let me start with Delhi itself (I am looking at the problem of landfills and the hazardous nature of these for the societies). Spread over 70 acres and containing 12 million tonnes of waste and of a height of 50 feet, the Ghazipur landfill in East Delhi is a nightmare of the national capital. It was started in 1984 and should have been closed when its height was 15 feet in 2002.

It did not get closed and gets shooting across vertically and filling across horizontally. This landfill gets about 3,500 metric tonnes of waste daily. This landfill site also is home to daily sewage waste and construction rubble. Depending on it is a colony of 2,000 ragpickers. Nights are a sight, with a minimum of 20-25 flares dancing over the landfill – all automatic fires that occur due to the decomposition process that emits methane gas.

The government spends thousands of crores on Yamuna cleansing – at least claims so - but forgets that this landfill site is one of the major causes of its pollution as it allows leachate run-off gets generated here every day, more so during the monsoon period. Estimates prove that around 1.4 million litres of toxic leachate flows out to Yamuna and contaminates ground water.

There is no leachate processing and treatment plant facility at this land fill. Now there are three corporations in Delhi and all three are being run by the BJP for the past 10 years. Before trifurcation of the NDMC, the BJP had planned to reclaim at least one-third of the Ghazipur landfill site within 10 years.

It has not materialised so far as the land earmarked for reclaim had gone to one of the three corporations and hence, none of them did anything about them. That much for our environmental concern! Again in the last decade 15 landfill sites in Delhi had started filling up and had been closed.

Waste management is this simple: organic waste (which is usually about 50 per cent of the total waste) should be segregated and composted. Construction waste of about 30 per cent needs be removed and recycled in separate plants. Plastics and electrical waste should be dealt with by separate disposal mechanisms.

One could always ask how much damage the leachate run-off does to one’s health. Health conditions can range from sweating, bleeding stomach disorders, to blood disorders, birth defects, even cancer, the doctors point out.

Sometime back reports from Chennai too indicated that leachate run-off was affecting the water quality everywhere. Came the floods and it must be a universal problem now in Chennai. (Hope someone has done the checks). The situation was so alarming in several areas that the ground water is a clear write-off. Health effects could be from an acute or short exposure, or long-term chronic exposure to leachates from landfills. Lead, mercury, cadmium compounds, nickel, toluene, phenols and cresols and benzene are just a few that get into the ground water. Did we know this?

Hence, landfills are not the options. In fact, only after segregation and treatment of all waste that what remains should reach our landfills in the country as a last option. And for us it is the first option! That every institution is at loggerheads with the other in this country unmindful of the harmful effects of the metro waste becomes evident with the Chennai example.

Chennai corporation handles 12 out of the 15 zones in the municipal limits with the other three handed over to a private company - Hyderabad's Ramky Enviro Limited. When Chennai planned to privatise its solid waste management and selected to set up a bio-methanation plant at Kodungaiyur in the North to generate power, the Pollution Control Board stalled it.

That was in 2008. The next year too when another private company sought to generate energy, the proposal was shot down. In 2012, the National Green Tribunal set aside clearance to set up a waste management plant at Perungudi in the South of Chennai claiming it would harm animals located in Guindy National Park.

Newspapers from Chennai recalled the story of a CPI legilsator, A Soundararajan, who rented a house abutting Kodungaiyur landfill to highlight the cause and moved bags along with his family into the house. Soon, he had to vacate when his wife had fallen ill. Benguluru is no better. In fact, it has no landfill site at all and all the waste is transported directly to the 10 processing units every day. The experiment is no better and the metro keeps complaining and protesting about the stink and pollution.

Mumbai is no different. Recently we witnessed huge protests in Mumbai when the Deonar dumping ground was ablaze for days from the January month end sending the city wrapped in a thick smog blanket. This 90-year-old landfill is yet another monumental shame. The problem only increases when there are two different (party) governments - one at the State level and the other at the corporation level as it happened here. All three municipal dumps in the metro are under litigation.

Total closure of landfills, though not on cards, runs into problems due to protests etc. Six years ago, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority planned a regional landfill to be useful for municipal corporations at Taloja in Navi Mumbai. Where is this and what is its status? Apart from Mumbai, Bhivandi-Nizampur, Thane, Kalyan, Dombivili, Ulhasnagar, Ambarnath and Kulgaon-Badlapur local bodies were to share this. No trace of it. If the country's richest Municipal Corporation like Mumbai could not establish a credible and scientific waste management system, who else would have done it? Swachh Bharat?

The need of the hour is immediate and accountable action but not politics. A report by the non-government organisation, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi, based on surveys of wastewater profiles of 71 Indian cities, highlights lack of infrastructure and neglect of sewage with less than 30 per cent of the country's officially recorded sewage being treated in proper facilities.

The CSE survey, released earlier, shows that 70-80 per cent of India's wastewater was ending up in its rivers and lakes. "We are drowning in our excreta," Sunita Narain, director of CSE, remarked.

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