The Supreme Court on Thursday, 12 July, rebuked the Lt. Governor of Delhi for not handling the Capital’s mounting solid waste crisis. The Court used strong words in chastising him saying that “You say ‘I have all the power, I am Superman’ but you don’t do anything to address even the garbage issue.” The reference was to the Lt. Governor’s reported statement that he had superior powers over the elected Delhi State govt. despite a recent ruling of the apex court clipping his wings on the issue.
Clearly, there is a turf war between the LG and the state government, that is actually a proxy for the war between the BJP govt. at the Centre and the elected Delhi govt. of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Garbage collection and disposal has been one of the problems that has been drawn into this political battle.
That’s because solid waste disposal is mainly a responsibility of the local municipal bodies which are controlled by the BJP. The amended Delhi Municipal Corporation Act provides for superintendence by the Central govt. of these bodies in their discharge of functions. Chapter 17 of the Act contains 43 sections (350 to 393) that come under ‘Sanitation and Public Health’. Specifically, section 350 directs the municipal commissioner to arrange for “efficient scavenging and cleansing of all streets and premises”.
The LG as the representative of the Central govt., and also because he is aligned with it, is supposed to be looking after garbage disposal. Again, the DMC Act clearly provides these powers to the LG in various sections, especially in sections 485 to 490A.
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Earlier this year, the LG had framed a solid waste management strategy which was termed “Utopian” by the furious Court. The LG’s absence from three successive meetings called by the state govt. to discuss the issue also came under the Court’s angry condemnation.
But why is garbage such a big issue in Delhi?
The answer lies not only in the political battles but in a long history of neglect, and also in the highly wasteful, consumerist lifestyle that has been adopted by the citizens, especially the elite sections.
According to one estimate by the Centre of Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi based advocacy organisation, Delhi produces about 14,000 tonnes per day (TPD) of solid waste. But CSE admits that this is uncertain because of absence of good estimates by the municipal or other agencies. This calculation is based on an estimate of about 550-600 grams of solid waste per person per day.
The municipal corporations of Delhi say that over 10,500 TPD of garbage is collected. That means every day, some 3500 tonnes of garbage remains uncollected. It lies in streets, garbage dumps, open spaces etc. That would work out to about 12.77 lakh tonnes of uncollected garbage accumulating across the city every year.
The city has three incineration plants and two centralised composting units with a processing capacity of 6,100 TPD. Although no figures are available, but assuming a best-case scenario, that’s the amount of solid waste these plants would be processing every day.
That leaves about 4,600 TPD of garbage that is collected and dumped at the three dumping sites – called land-fills – of Okhla, Bhalswa and Ghazipur. That’s about 16.8 lakh tonnes every year.
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These sites were declared full way back in 2008. But since no alternative site was selected, garbage continued to get dumped in these three only. No govt. whether state or central has taken the trouble to think of where all this garbage should go. It was business as usual. That’s the reason why the Supreme Court noted that the Ghazipur land-fill is now 65 meters high, just short of the iconic Qutub Minar which is 73 meters tall.
It should be noted that the crisis would have been much bigger were it not for the presence of about 1.5 lakh ‘rag-pickers’ or garbage collectors. Coming from the most poor and oppressed sections, they sort through garbage dumps, segregating plastic, metal, and other recyclable material, and convey it through a network to aggregating sites. A significant fraction of solid waste is thus ‘processed’ by these informal workers, employed by big contractors.
Given the gargantuan crisis, aggravated by years of callous neglect, the Supreme Court would be well advised not to rely upon the extant bureaucracy or political leadership to come up with any viable plan for a long-term solution. Also, merely asking govts. to make people aware of their duties of segregating garbage or not dumping it on streets (like Swachh Bharat) is not going to work. Somewhere down the line, the very creation of this enormous amount of waste has to be curbed. This can be done only by a big change in lifestyles.