A proposal by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation of Delhi to develop a 150-acre site on the floodplains of the Yamuna for a landfill and waste-to-energy plant is illegal, dangerous, and reeks of ignorance on the part of the city’s guardians.

The proposal, put forward in June, violates the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, which prohibits pollution or planning of any sort that will pollute any water body, as well as the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, which prohibit any landfill to be raised on a floodplain that is even 100 years old (in this case, the floodplain is less than 10 years old). It also violates a 2015 order of the National Green Tribunal that bans any construction on the Yamuna floodplains.

The site in question – along Pushta road, from the Shastri Park crossing to Khajoori Khas crossing in North East Delhi – belongs to the Delhi Development Authority, which has offered it to the East Delhi Municipal Corporation. On October 18, Delhi’s Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung, under whose authority the Delhi Development Authority comes, approved the plan to raise a landfill at the proposed site. On December 1, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation approached the National Green Tribunal for clearance. The green court has asked the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi Pollution Control Board and the Urban Development Ministry for their comments, and asked them to respond in four weeks.

Toxic zones

Landfills are hotbeds of pollution and contamination, and are by no means an ideal waste management solution.

Delhi already has three landfills – Gazipur in the East, Bhalswa in the North and Okhla in the South – all of which have been around for 20 to 30 years and are bursting at the seams, having long outlived their natural lifespan. The areas in the vicinity of these landfills are highly polluted.

But to propose a landfill on the banks of a river boggles the mind.

If the proposal is cleared, the project – which will manage over 3,000 metric tonnes of garbage daily – will cause irreparable and irreversible damage to the Yamuna river and the overall water landscape of Delhi.

The Yamuna is already one of the most polluted rivers in the world due to decades of neglect by the government and citizens. Despite this, it continues to serve as the primary source of drinking water for millions of people residing in the national capital.

Its floodplains are also one of the most ecologically sensitive zones in Delhi. Its aquifers support vast expanses of riverbank habitat, and are the primary source of ground water recharge in the area. Floodplains drain into the river and therefore play a critical role in recharging the river too.

The proposed landfill is dangerous as it will sit over a source of drinking water in a high-seismic zone, near a densely-populated area and several archaeological sites. Not only that, in the event of flooding, the contents of the dump are also likely to contaminate the river further and flow to sites downstream.

Delhi’s garbage problem

As per government data, Delhi generates over 10,000 metric tonnes of garbage each day, which is disposed of at its three existing landfills, and at a few waste-to-energy plants across the city.

The existing landfills have been around for over 20 to 30 years, and are overflowing with over 330 lakh tonnes of garbage. However, they continue to be used as the state does not have land for new landfills.

All of them have caught fire repeatedly over the years, degrading Delhi’s polluted air further. Toxins from the mixed garbage in these dumps leach into the ground. The state government has admitted that there is no leachate treatment plant at any of these landfills, leading to contamination of the ground water in their vicinity. This is alarming as according to various studies by several scientific institutions, leachate is the most toxic form of liquid available in non-lab circumstances and poses an extreme threat to public health and public ecology.

However, very little, or rather, nothing, has been done to turn around the situation. Most governments resort to faith and rhetoric to solve the problem of pollution in the Yamuna.

One of the reasons for the continuous increase in Delhi’s production of waste is the city’s growing population. This constant population increase is a larger commentary about how centralised our national planning is, which leads to mass migration by people from elsewhere in the country to the National Capital Region in search of economic opportunities.

Though we need a separate debate on the push and pull of this migration, we also need to talk about waste management. Some have held up Sweden as a model. However, following the Scandinavian country’s example of burning waste for energy is equally dangerous. The solution to controlling our ever-increasing generation of garbage lies in reducing, reusing and recycling waste, never in hoarding or burning it.

Vimlendu Jha is a social and environmental activist.