According to reports, by the end of this year, Delhi will have its second waste-to-energy plant generating electricity at the landfill near Ghazipur. A similar plant, Timarpur Okhla Waste to Energy plant, sited in the vicinity of a residential colony and a hospital, has started generation since the beginning of this year.
The Delhi government is buoyant that it has finally found a solution to tackling the ever-increasing piles of waste. No government wants to grapple with millions of tonnes of waste dumped on prime land, polluting the groundwater and the air and threatening to multiply.
Delhi, with limited space, views waste-to-energy plants as a win-win solution. “Energy production is incidental. Our main concern is waste,” says Shakti Sinha, Principal Secretary, Power, summing up the government’s perception of these plants.
“The plants are absolutely safe,” he asserts. “We use state-of-the-art technology, and these are run as per the European Union norms with strict monitoring. The plants do not pose a threat to the people or the environment.”
But environmentalists and residents are not convinced. They still want the government to rethink the policy to set up waste-to-energy plants that burn waste, releasing harmful dioxins into the air.
“The government’s main concern is land. It is the only source of resources- generation for an urban local body. By burning waste, they are reclaiming land,” says Duny Roy of Hazards Centre, a non-governmental organisation. The government, he argues, should have learnt its lessons from an older, defunct waste-to-energy plant at Timarpur, which was shut down after it failed to serve its purpose.
Opposition to these plants is not only based on the risk the technology poses to the health and the environment, but also on the amount of electricity they generate. Production is as little as 16 MW at the Timarpur Okhla plant and will be 10-12 MW at the Ghazipur plant, a relatively small quantum.
“The financial viability of the Timarpur Okhla plant is dubious, and it is unlikely to be a commercially successful project,” says Bharati Chaturvedi of Chintan, an NGO working to reduce ecological footprints and increase environmental justice.
Environmentalists have been red-flagging the issue of dioxins that will be released when the waste burns, and the threat dioxins pose to health is well documented, she points out. Both Mr. Roy and Ms. Chaturvedi agree that tackling waste is a challenge, but they disagree with the government’s policy of dealing with it.
“We need to cut down on waste, the packaging industry is a culprit; from food to refrigerators, everything comes packed in fancy packaging and all of that adds to the waste. Wet garbage, which forms the bulk of our waste, can be turned into compost, some waste can be recycled, building material can be used too,” says Mr. Roy.
Ms. Chaturvedi pitches for emulating global best practices such as reusing, recycling and composting.
“Waste is also a source of livelihood for some. Waste-pickers should be allowed to segregate waste, take what can be put to use. In San Francisco, for instance, there is a material recovery facility where even that city’s waste-pickers come to sell. Residents are also sensitised to not dumping together wet, hazardous and recyclable waste. In Holland too, there are shops, much like our own Kabariwallas, where metal and other recyclable wastes are segregated, the Philippines has laws on waste-pickers and designated junkshops. Burning waste is not the only solution.”
Brushing aside the concerns, the government insists that the opposition to the plants stems primarily from the “not-in-my-backyard” mindset. “Everyone wants to get rid of waste, but they want it to be done somewhere away from their neighbourhood,” says an official of the Delhi government.
Mr. Sinha wants the sceptics to reconsider their stance. “Forget Timarpur, the current waste-to-energy plants are based on technology that does not harm. Look at the amount of waste that has piled up all around us, Ghazipur has five million tonnes of waste, and it is growing. There is no more space for a landfill in Delhi. Even if a single megawatt of power generated at this plant is 25 per cent more expensive than what is produced at a thermal plant, it is well worth it.”