Lessons from Bhalswa on waste management in cities
The crisis needs holistic waste management from generation to disposal. Four approaches may help:
Images of the fire raging at the Bhalswa landfill last month were a stark reminder of India’s waste crisis. This year alone, there have been fires at the Perungudi dump in Chennai, Dadu Majra in Chandigarh, and Ghazipur in New Delhi. Of the astonishing 150,761 metric tonnes generated per day (TPD) across India, over a quarter goes to landfills while an additional quarter remains unaccounted for.
The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 apply a “polluter pays” principle that charges waste generators for collection, processing, and transportation of waste, and spot fines for non-segregation. Since Indian waste has high biodegradable content, the rules also recommend setting up waste processing facilities for bio-methanation and/or composting. However, poor segregation leads to mixed waste being dumped irresponsibly, turning dumpsites into ticking time bombs. These sites generate explosive gases and pose a massive health hazard, especially to vulnerable waste-picker communities forced to live near and off them.
SWM rules require urban local bodies (ULBs) to seek authorisation for setting up waste treatment facilities, if they manage over 5 TPD of waste. Only about 60% of these applications was granted in 2019-20. Many landfills are exhausted and ULBs lack the finance to procure new land. Finding new sites also faces strong opposition from different stakeholders due to the complex challenges of plummeting values of adjacent land, deterioration of nearby environmental resources, and health risks. As a result, ULBs end up relying on unsanitary dumpsites.
The crisis needs holistic waste management from generation to disposal. Four approaches may help.
Reducing the waste that arrives at landfills is the first and most obvious step. Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh, Chandrapur in Maharashtra, and Taliparamba in Kerala have adopted a “zero-landfill model” of development, which focuses on resource recovery, recycling, waste segregation, and decentralised processing of organic waste. Indore’s centralised material recovery facilities, which segregate waste by recyclability value, are supported by two bio-methanation and one composting facility that together keep 630 TPD of biodegradable waste from reaching landfills.
Two, going local will promote decentralised waste management and help reduce transportation costs, which make up a bulk of municipal expenditure. Many innovative small enterprises have developed technology solutions – waste deposit kiosks, marketplaces to trade recyclable waste, radio frequency identification and GPS tagged waste – to improve collection efficiency.
Three, make landfilling the last resort. Landfills are meant for inert and rejected waste and should make up no more than 15-20% of the total waste. Sites need to be scientifically designed to manage leachate and enable the controlled extraction of methane as a fairly clean energy source. Delhi’s Narela-Bawana remains India’s only planned scientific landfill with a waste-to-energy plant that can treat 2,000 TPD, generating 24 megawatts of energy.
And last, recognise landfills as infrastructure with limited carrying capacities, which require end-of-life management plans allowing for reclamation for other uses. The Mahim Nature Park in Mumbai is a reclaimed dumpsite now boasting of housing and a wide array of trees and biodiversity. Closing existing landfills also offers potential for methane capture, such as Mumbai’s Gorai landfill. After collecting almost 10 million tonnes of waste over its 35-year life, it has been closed, levelled, and managed through 40 engineered leachate and methane extraction wells and a power generation facility, financed by carbon credits.
Landfills are the third largest methane emitter in the country — a gas 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide over 20 years. India is rapidly urbanising, and by some projections, would need land the size of New Delhi for landfills by 2050. Across the country, innovative solutions are being developed, but ecosystem reforms and mobilised investment are needed. Without behaviour change, coordinated stakeholder action, and building capacities for enforcement, we will be locked into a cycle of increasingly unmanageable landfills rendering land unfit for any other use for at least half a century.
Aarathi Kumar is senior programme associate and Jaya Dhindaw is programme director at World Resources Institute India (WRI India)
The views expressed are personal