New Delhi: In Tajpur Pahadi, located in the nether regions of Delhi’s Badarpur area, lies a large pit half-filled with grey ash. It stands 28 acres in area and at least 15 meters deep, and if you look over the edge of the cliff-like drop, pigs and dogs can be seen inside the pit, scavenging for unburnt garbage to eat. On its surface, at ground level, children play cricket and a dilapidated makeshift house of plastic shelters a family of metal pickers.
Unlike Delhi’s three towering landfills – in Okhla, Bhalaswa and Ghazipur – the pit at Tajpur Pahadi is used specifically to hold the ashes of burnt trash from a nearby waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerator that is owned by Jindal Urban Infrastructure Limited. Waste is dumped into it without regulation from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which is in charge of the city’s waste management.
“It’s a big concern that the ash has just been left out in the open without treatment” says Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager for environmental governance (municipal solid waste) at the Centre for Science and Environment, which has conducted an extensive study on WTE technology in India.
“It should be dumped in a hazardous materials facility because it’s full of half-burnt garbage and heavy metals.”
Cancer, lung disease and growth defects
Simply put, a WTE plant burns combustible waste of high calorific value to produce power. But it also produces two other byproducts: ash and smoke/gas emissions.
These emissions, called furans and dioxins, are considered deadly for human life and environment. Not only do they settle in the body and lead to reduced fertility, growth defects, immuno-suppression and cancer, but they also considerably reduce air quality.
Delhi’s air is among the world’s most polluted. A 2016 study had found that at least 15,000 people died prematurely due to pollution in the capital city alone.
The Jindal plant is an example of how, when unregulated, WTE can have disastrous consequences.
Dr Chanchal Pal, an ENT specialist at Jasola Apollo Hospital, a little over 1km away from the plant, is witness to the effects it has had on patients and her family.
“There has been a tangible rise in the number of cases of nasal allergies and interstitial lung disease, which is otherwise classified as rare. It can often be a precursor to cancer,” she explains to ThePrint. Interstitial lung disease causes tissue scarring and stiffness in the lungs.
Dr Pal’s 82-year-old mother-in-law, who had visited her home in Jasola in 2016, died of bronchial asthma caused by interstitial lung disease after staying in the area for only three months.
Her neighbour’s mother met with a similar fate, as did her colleague. Both had been living in Jasola since before the plant’s installation in 2011.
“None of them had any grave illness or prior breathing issues. The worst part is that even though we know, as doctors, that the emissions from the plant are harmful, there are no scientific studies done by India on these plants to prove us right,” Pal added.
It is a fact that WTE technology is severely underresearched in India. In the West, where it is widely adopted, it has been thoroughly researched and vetted, with stringent emission standards and recycling rules, none of which are enforced in our country.
India, however, is galloping towards growth in WTE technology because of its ability to incinerate thousands of metric tonnes of trash, with the added benefit of producing power. Under the Narendra Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, NITI Aayog has prescribed that a Waste to Energy Corporation of India be opened under which multiple plants can operate across 100 smart cities in the country by 2020.
In 2019, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) opened 100 tenders for WTE plants.
But India isn’t ready for it, says Sambyal. “The lacklustre treatment of emissions and ash should indicate how ill-equipped the country is to handle this technology.”
It all begins with waste segregation – at home
The Modi government’s quest for an efficient solid-waste management system has prompted it to look westward, where countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Germany manage their waste with clockwork precision.
Most waste in European and Scandinavian nations is processed through WTE plants, with only 1 per cent of the country’s waste finding itself in landfills.
The biggest relief WTE provides is that it reduces up to 2,000 metric tonnes of trash into ash that should be, at most, 10 per cent of the input volume. Given the amount of trash India produces – at least 55 million metric tonnes of waste per year – this should mean WTE works well, especially as the country is struggling to find more landfill space.
“But for WTE systems to work efficiently, you need segregated waste. Dry waste, which is combustible, needs to be kept separate from wet waste, and that needs to begin at the household level,” says Vijeyata, a Delhi-based urban sustainability systems design consultant.
“In India, most of our waste is wet and organic, which makes it unsuitable for the WTE plants. The composition of India’s waste would need to change to fuel these plants effectively, considering they require vast amounts of trash to run,” she added.
India’s flirtation with WTE dates back to the 1980s, when it emerged as a popular waste management solution in the West. By 1987, India had opened its first such plant in Timarpur, Delhi, in the same place where the Jindal plant now stands.
The result was underwhelming. It shut down three years later for not producing enough energy and running into deep losses. The Planning Commission, in a 1995 report, had warned that unless plants ran strictly on segregated waste, they would all meet the same fate because of the input of poor-quality waste.
Kaveri Gill, associate professor at the Shiv Nadar University and former consultant of the Planning Commission, tells ThePrint, “What the Planning Commission recommended 25 years ago still holds true. Even if this technology were to be set up, a major city like Delhi wouldn’t need more than one plant, because the recyclable, combustible waste generated would equal the input needed for just one plant.”
But with municipal solid-waste generation on the rise, and no effective solution in sight, WTE made for an attractive prospect once again. In 2008, a National Master Plan for WTE development had set the ball rolling for various plants to open across the country.
Sambyal says that the “success” of the plants operating across the country has come at the cost of violating several norms. “Because the input waste amount is so huge, these plants are burning mixed waste to stay alive. Not only does that need auxiliary fuel, it also leads to more harmful emissions,” she tells ThePrint.
Achieving sustainability is meaningless when it can harm people
Why then, does WTE technology continue to thrive in India and draw investments from Denmark, Spain, Germany and large Indian corporates?
For one, there is the Modi government’s desire to be seen as achieving its sustainable development goals. Collaborating with foreign countries and importing their waste management techniques work well for both parties.
“By converting waste to energy, India would come one step closer to achieving its energy goals,” said Aparna Roy, associate fellow and co-lead, Climate Change and Energy at Observer Research Foundation. She adds, “But if it leads to more emissions, that would be defeating the purpose.”
Another motive for WTE is its mammoth industry, which has already grown to Rs 10,000 crore. Subsidised land, free waste to run plants and ability to sell energy at a profit make WTE a viable investment opportunity in the country.
A report by the Centre for Science and Environment found that operation and maintenance costs of running WTE plants is high – they must run 24 hours at a temperature of over 1000 degrees Celsius. So the cost of producing one unit of electricity is high and thus it is sold “at a much higher tariff than other sources of energy.”
Keeping it profitable are the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 which require states to “mandatorily” buy electricity off the plants.
Besides Jindal, the other two plants in Delhi – one in Ghazipur, in collaboration with the IL&FS Environment, and the other in Narela Bawana with the Ramky Group – also run on the basis of a public private partnership (PPP) with the MCD.
At least three more are set to open in the city – one by Jindal and two by DESMI, a privately owned Dutch firm running a pilot project to better India’s solid waste management.
ThePrint reached out to DESMI, which was brought to India by the Department of Biotechnology, to ask about the proposed WTE plants. But its representatives declined to comment until the plants are fully functional later this year.
“Large concessions on the fuel (being the municipal waste) and land make this a very lucrative opportunity for big capital,” Gill says.
According to the Waste to Energy and Waste Management Market report, India’s garbage industry, currently at $2,500 crore will swell by another $1,400 crore by 2025.
Gill adds, however, that the advent of large WTE plants and smaller incinerators can risk India’s already existing waste industry, built in large part by rag-pickers and scavengers who manually segregate waste from landfills.
“The role they play is essential since they segregate our waste and sell it for recycling purposes. And a lack of segregation is the very reason for all our solid-waste woes – from mounting landfills to inefficient WTE plants,” Gill explains.
The rise of WTE plants could risk the informal jobs, undertaken overwhelmingly by India’s scheduled castes.
“By refusing to acknowledge this informal system of waste segregation, there is little hope to ensure their safety or rehabilitation into WTE technology,” Gill adds.
Critics also point out that WTE technology overlooks the 74th amendment of the Constitution of India, which seeks to decentralise power and strengthen the governance of municipal bodies.
An endless loop
A source, who did not wish to be named, flat-out said there weren’t enough accredited facilities to carry out emission testing for the current WTE plants in the country, let alone the 100 more that are to open.
“There isn’t enough manpower or infrastructure to consistently test the WTE plants in the country,” says the source, of the three accredited testing facilities in the country. “These tests are expensive and rigorous, costing at least Rs 35,000.”
Without proper implementation of the steps before it, namely decentralisation, waste segregation and recycling, the sustainability goals that WTE might help India achieve are hollow, and the future seems grim.