Delhi now has 25 million residents, making it the second most populous city in the world. Every day, its inhabitants generate about 10,000 tonnes of rubbish — and waste management is one battleground in how the city approaches development.  India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, broom in hand as he launched Campaign Clean India (Swachh Bharat Abhiyan) last month, is personally leading a war on waste.
A booming population, urban sprawl and technology transfer failures are some of the factors adding pressure on the government to manage solid waste sustainably.
This exploration of Delhi’s waste landscape — through images as well as conversations with experts and local workers — offers a snapshot of how technology, institutions and people are shaping the future of solid waste management in the city.
(Photography by Anita Makri)
The Bhalswa landfill site in western Delhi is the newest addition to the city’s waste mountains. In operation since 2011, the site was added to three others that long ago reached full capacity: Ghazipur in the east of the city, Bhalswa in the north and Tughlaqabad in the south. It receives rubbish collected from the Rohini and Civil Lines areas of the city.
Noise, odour, smoke, dust and wind-blown litter are common on landfill sites anywhere in the world. As biological material decomposes, it gives off heat that can cause spontaneous combustion and a fire risk. Poorly maintained landfills also attract birds, vermin and insects. They can be hazardous to health by contaminating the air, soil and water.
In Delhi, local authorities manage waste by transporting it to incinerators on or off site. But the city has a troubled history with incinerator technology. For example the Sukhdev Vihar waste-to-energy plant, which began to operate in 2012 five kilometres away from the Tughlaqabad landfill, has been served with repeated warnings for causing excessive pollution by the National Green Tribunal, which rules on legal disputes related to the environment. Local residents have protested against the plant polluting their neighbourhoods with particulate matter, dioxins and heavy metals. 
The imported technology employed at the plant has been used successfully in Europe. But incinerators need waste with a high proportion of paper, cardboard and plastic. Indian waste, on the other hand, contains mostly non-recyclable, organic material with high water content. This means it burns poorly, generating little energy. And if plants fail to install proper devices to capture toxic substances released by the small proportion of plastic and other combustible materials there are, the ash or flue gas released by incineration would still carry pollutants.
In addition to Sukhdev Vihar, incinerators are being built at Narela-Bawana (West Delhi) and Ghazipur (East Delhi).
For incineration to work properly, household waste must first be segregated so the right components get burned. Thousands of Delhi’s poor inhabitants, such as the women shown above, already separate out the waste dumped on landfill sites — although they do this not in relation to incineration, but to find items they can sell.
Such ‘rag pickers’ have traditionally been part of the informal recycling system in Delhi. Here and in other developing world cities, thousands of families of waste pickers live near landfill sites, making a living off the recyclable materials they extract from the city’s waste mountains.
For rag pickers, rubbish is a resource and a survival strategy. Even under unhealthy conditions, their work earns them enough to support their families. And in the absence of a municipal recycling system and segregation of waste at source, such as people’s homes, they play a key part in the city’s waste management.
As well as working on landfill sites, waste pickers collect refuse door to door. For Salim, pictured above, part of the work involves collecting household rubbish from apartment blocks in Rohini. Delhi’s residents have historically been responsible for taking their waste to a partially covered structure called a dalau, run by the municipality. In practice, rag pickers often carry the refuse to the dalau after they have sifted through it to recover items they can sell, as well as non-recyclable materials destined for landfills that they take to neighbourhood collection points.
In Rohini, residents pay waste pickers to collect their rubbish and transport it to the designated disposal point. But private companies contracted by the city now have access to apartment buildings to collect household waste at source and for free. They transport it to a nearby landfill, and eventually it is likely to feed the incinerator coming up at Narela-Bawana. The rag pickers fear that once all three incinerators are functional the city’s privatised, centralised service will push out the informal sector, threatening their livelihoods.
Dharmendra Yadav of the All-India Waste Workers Union tells SciDev.Net that, under a pilot scheme, the waste collection company now employs some waste pickers to manage the dalaus. They are paid the minimum wage of 4,500 rupees (around US$73) a month — less than they would earn if they were still working independently.
There are around 50,000 rag pickers like Akbar Khan in Rohini. So far, 250 of them have been employed this way. They eventually face a system that would limit or block their access to waste.
A similar arrangement — where rag pickers are employed as labour rather than earning income from recycling independently — is planned at an incinerator being built at the Ghazipur landfill site in southern Delhi. The plant’s management tells SciDev.Net that a process to segregate waste before incineration is already being tested, and that plans are in place to install a mechanism to monitor emissions. They want to avoid the mistakes others have made — for example, the Sukhdev Vihar plant’s burning of unsegregated waste is part of the complaints against it. In response to these, the National Green Tribunal last week directed municipal authorities to ensure segregation of waste at the point of origin — for example houses, offices and hotels — and charge for this service.
The plan is to employ 60 waste pickers, at minimum wage, to pick out waste from a conveyor belt. But this is a small proportion of the rag pickers already working and living at the Ghazipur landfill site, who run in the thousands.
So what will the future of waste management look like in Delhi?
Dunu Roy, director of the local NGO the Hazards Centre, says incineration is not the answer. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of inflammable materials in waste has increased, he says, and, at the same time, their toxic nature is now clear. “[And] while waste-to-energy plants were earlier somewhat removed from city centres and high-density populations, today they are right next to hospitals, residential areas and commercial centres. So their impacts are also higher as is the local resistance to them.”
For Ravi Agarwal, director of Delhi-based environmental campaigners Toxics Link, the belief that technology is the way to deal with waste is at the root of a misguided approach by government. There’s no incineration technology produced locally, he explains, so it has to be imported — but that needs to be combined with standards and regulations. The technology has to work with the scientific capacity and the standards that will ensure low emissions, he says — a network of laboratories, for example, able to measure to low levels, and technicians able to run those tests.
Agarwal, who is also contributing to sustainable cities research under way at Sussex University’s STEPS Centre in the United Kingdom, points to the bigger picture of how the city’s institutions approach the problem and criticises the focus on waste processing as unsustainable.  Ironically, he says, incinerators have been built in recent years because carbon credits can be claimed for them as part of a UN mechanism to lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is because they are seen as better than methane-creating landfills. But that’s viewed from a European perspective — Europe doesn’t have all the possibilities for waste management that somewhere like Delhi does.
“When you break the problem down, you see that technology is one element of it, but actually there are so many other elements which you have never recognised,” he says. “If you have a local waste collection system and you do local composting, or biomethanation of organic waste [a process that converts it to biogas], and if you then deal with the construction waste separately — which they have started doing … in real terms, you have so many other options which reduce transportation costs, which create local jobs, which create valuable products and divert waste from the landfill, which has to be the key element of waste management.”
Anita Makri is opinion and special features editor at SciDev.Net. Ranjit Devraj is the regional coordinator for SciDev.Net’s South Asia edition.
This article is part of the Spotlight on Transforming cites for sustainability
Delhi’s waste site story
Anita Makri, Ranjit Devraj