Delhi landfills

Delhi’s Trash Hills

By: Staff Reporter
Three humongous landfills of Delhi—Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalaswa, are way past their capacity. Yet they continue to grow. As their collapse appears imminent with each passing day, threatening to sink the city under its own weight, authorities are suggesting measures for alternative spaces that are clearly not viable.
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The Indian society is a segregated one, divided along the lines of caste, class and religion. Our population crossed the one billion mark a decade ago and the demographic dividend it provides, combined with wealth accumulation and increase in gross domestic product are often cited to tout the country’s likelihood of achieving the status of a global superpower (Haque, Das and Patel, 2018).  And yet our centres of growth, the metropolitan cities, are in a dismal state of near collapse when it comes to waste management.

Urban areas are thus characterised not just by a growing economy and an expanding city boundary but also by a marked increase of what we discard. Every day, accumulated garbage enters those veritable graveyards—landfills. Landfills that continue to absorb every conceivable form of trash—organic, recyclable, toxic and more—way beyond their saturation point and in flagrant disregard of the judicial direction that permits only construction waste to be disposed. And therefore the landfills grow, trapping within them compostable, recyclable and reusable matter.

Where we ought to integrate, we choose not to, and what we ought to segregate, we collectively discard, adding to the mountains of trash that threatens to collapse and bring the city down under their weight. The Central Pollution Control Board, in a review report published in 2016, recorded that waste generated in the country amounts to 135,198 tonnes per day (TPD), of which 47,456 TPD is landfilled.

As a practice, landfilling is still acceptable, despite the fact that cities have limited availability of land for waste disposal and designated landfill sites have been running beyond their capacity for over a decade. The practice has become especially problematic in Delhi, a city that generates more than 9,620 tonnes of waste per day (CPCB, 2016).

 Delhi Landfills | Monstrous Trash Hills

Sanitary landfilling, as defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the controlled disposal of wastes on land in such a way that contact between waste and the environment is significantly reduced and wastes are concentrated in a well defined area. Landfills are built to isolate wastes from the environment in a manner that renders them innocuous through biological, chemical and physical processes. Anaerobic digestion occurs in case of wastes buried inside the landfill and the methane generated through this process is meant to be captured and used for generating renewable energy. Unsanitary landfilling, on the other hand is generally characterised by open dumping, lack of monitoring of site, stray animals and birds feeding on the site along with the absence of leachate or methane collection systems. Organic waste in unsanitary landfills undergoes anaerobic decomposition and leads to the emission of methane.

The Rules and Provisions

The legal framework for solid waste management (SWM) in India, as provided by the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, defines sanitary landfilling as the final and safe disposal of residual solid waste and inert wastes on a land in a facility designed with protective measures against pollution of groundwater, surface water, bird menace, pests or rodents, and greenhouse gas emissions. The three landfills in Delhi—at Ghazipur, Okhla and Bhalaswa—by no stretch of imagination fulfils the parameters provided by the UNEP or the SWM Rules, 2016. Recurrent fires, discharge of polluting gases and landfill slides repeatedly occur, posing a major health hazard for residents around the region (Nath, 2016; Sunny, 2017; Sharma, 2017). The primary cause is the uninhibited practice of non-segregation of waste. In fact, of the 9,620 tonnes of waste generated daily in Delhi, a major fraction (~51 per cent) is compostable, including food, vegetable market and yard waste; recyclables such as paper, plastic or glass and inerts such as ash, silt and stones constitute about 17.5 per cent and 31 per cent of the waste respectively (Annepu 2012; Sharma, 2017).

However, until 2015, Delhi reportedly had only one compost plant handling 150 tonnes of waste per day and an integrated waste processing plant dealing with 1,250 tonnes of waste per day (DPCC, 2015). The remaining organic waste enters the landfills in a blatant violation of the SWM Rules. Under the 2000 SWM Rules, landfilling was permitted only for non-usable, non-biodegradable and inert waste that are not suitable for recycling or biological processing. This point was reiterated in the revised 2016 SWM Rules (MoEFCC, 2016), with the addition of pre-processing rejects and residues to the categories of waste that could be disposed into the landfills. The Rules also state that every effort needs to be made to recycle or reuse the rejects to achieve the desired objective of zero waste going into the landfill. This also means that more than half (4,080 tonnes) of the waste generated in Delhi is legally prohibited from entering the landfills. However, owing to the non-segregation of waste and lack of adequate infrastructure for composting or recycling, almost the entire waste generated daily in the city enters the landfill, adding to the woes of the already saturated sites.

Delhi Landfills | Ghazipur Landfill

As one approaches the site of the Ghazipur landfill—navigating to what Google maps show as ‘mountain of garbage, Delhi’— an overpowering stench emanating from the dump site overwhelms the senses (Fig. 1). Right next to the landfill are wholesale markets that cater to the entire city and are constantly teeming with thousands of people. Significantly, property price, assessed as a denominator for development, in areas close to this landfill have taken a sizeable plunge, as can be seen by the information shared by real estate dealers on various online housing platforms. In the Ghazipur Village, it stands at a mere INR 5,000 per sq ft, while at Vasundhara Enclave, a housing colony bordering Noida and farther located from the Ghazipur landfill, the property prices are about INR 8,000 per sq ft. Moving about 30 km away from the landfill site of Ghazipur, Vasant Kunj, in South Delhi shows property prices as high as INR 20,000 per sq ft.

One could argue that areas in South Delhi are more developed and ‘posh’, which leads to the prices being higher. But this argument seems flawed when we consider the Delhi-Meerut expressway, the widest in India—an important infrastructural intervention running through the Ghazipur area. With high connectivity, property prices  should also have markedly moved up. On the contrary, the stench and squalor that surround the area make it uninhabitable and residents can barely be faulted. The devaluation of property is another addition to the grim health hazard that the landfill imposes on the hapless local populace of the area.

 Waste Segregation

Segregation of waste was mandated in India as early as 2000 in the SWM Rules. While the earlier rules laid the responsibility of segregation on the municipal authorities, who were directed to undertake a phased programme to ensure community participation, the revised SWM Rules of 2016 shifted the onus to waste generators to segregate waste into six separate categories—biodegradable, non-biodegradable, domestic-hazardous, sanitary, construction-demolition and horticulture (MoEFCC, 2016). Further, bye-laws for solid waste management in Delhi were enacted earlier this year, where emphasis was again laid on the waste generators’ responsibility to segregate waste into biodegradable, non-biodegradable and domestic waste at source (NDMC, 2018). But despite the presence of penal provisions in the bye-laws, meant to ease separation, recycling of waste, and preventing biodegradable and recyclable waste from entering the landfill, the current state of the three sanitary landfills (at Okhla, Ghazipur and Bhalaswa) clearly demonstrate an absence of rigorous implementation by the authorities. In the absence of segregation, management becomes cumbersome when organic, toxic and recyclable wastes are all dumped together.

The 2014-15 Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development calling the three major landfills ‘monstrous trash mountains’ sought responses from the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on why it had failed to surmount the problems of solid waste management in the city. The DDA cited lack of an alternative site at which a landfill may be operated, owing to the high price of land in the city. Reclamation of landfill sites and construction of an integrated solid waste processing complex at the site available for a new landfill were proposed by DDA. But neither proposal came to any fruition. The Standing Committee also took note of the fact that construction waste such as bricks, concrete, wood and rubble were not being segregated before being dumped in the landfill sites.

The United Kingdom reuses over 70 per cent of its construction waste and Singapore over 90 per cent. However, because the total waste generated in the city is not segregated, of the 3,000 tonnes of construction waste created daily in Delhi, a large proportion is not reused for building purposes (Ministry of Urban Development, 2015).

 Pollution and Health Hazards

The present situation, as has been repeatedly pointed by the Supreme Court, is extremely disheartening. Disposal of unsegregated waste into the landfill, combined with the landfills exceeding defined limits in terms of capacity (Livelaw, 2018) has become a health hazard (Livelaw, 2016) for the residents of the city. Methane emissions from landfills are especially problematic. Estimations point out that about 50 per cent of gas emitted from the landfills is methane while carbon dioxide accounts for another 45 per cent—the remainder being nitrogen, hydrogen and other gases (Nath, 2016).

Further, the three main landfills in Delhi at Ghazipur, Bhalaswa and Okhla, commissioned in 1984, 1994 and 1996 respectively are not designed according to the SWM Rules. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee refused to grant authorisation to these three landfills that are by definition therefore, being used illegally. As the Central Pollution Control Board has noted, in the absence of availability for landfill sites all three Municipal Corporations of Delhi were using the saturated sites for disposal of waste.

To ease the capacity of landfills waste-to-energy incinerators are proposed. However it has been pointed out that burning waste in incinerators only leads to further pollution by adding highly toxic ash residues, dioxins and furans to the atmosphere, which are carcinogenic and tend to persist in the environment (Sharma, 2017). In 2013, residents of Sukhdev Vihar, situated close to the Okhla waste-to-energy plant, moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to stop the toxic emissions emanating from the plant owned by the State government. The main point of contention raised by the residents was the emission of dioxins and furans, the continued exposure to and inhalation of which can cause respiratory and reproductive health issues (NGT, 2017). In March 2013, the Central Pollution Control Board had found emissions to be in excess—120 times the safe levels (Sharma, 2017). The NGT allowed the plant to function, directing it to pay an environmental compensation of INR 25 lakh to the DPCC for its deficient operation. The penalty so paid to the DPCC was to be used for prevention and control of pollution in the area. (NGT, 2017). Incinerators and waste to energy plants need to be at a minimum distance of 300 to 500 m (CPCB, 2017) from residential areas. This is a general practice in China, Malaysia, Canada and the United Kingdom, as has been noted by the CPCB. The Okhla plant stands at a distance of a mere 35 m from the Sukhdev Vihar colony and should in no context continue functioning (Sambyal, 2017).

Road to Nowhere

The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, in the Supreme Court hearing in July 2018 pointed out that the problem of landfills in Delhi was a legacy of six decades and could not be done away with easily. Following the Supreme Court’s strict directions to address the problem, the Lieutenant Governor formulated an action plan aimed at gradually closing the city’s overflowing landfill sites and also making them scientifically safer. The action plan also sought to prohibit dumping of untreated garbage in the landfill after 2020 (Livelaw, 2018).

Speaking with G’nY, Shyamala Mani, former professor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs and Team Leader at Swachch Bharat Mission-Urban notes, “There are indeed scientific methods to cap a landfill, but first, we need to stop dumping waste in it. The next step is removing any active gas, like methane or leachate coming from it, which needs to be done through a proper study and not just a rough estimation. Methane is spontaneously formed and we need to estimate what are locations it is being emitted from, so it can be trapped and removed. Once this has been done, soil or geotextile can be put over the landfill and grass or other plants can be grown on it to cap the landfill.” Mani also points towards the need of segregation to prevent any further accumulation: “Segregation has to be done at source. Otherwise, when dry waste mixes with wet waste, recycling and composting becomes extremely difficult and expensive.”

Recently, in a separate order, the Supreme Court also approved the setup of waste to energy plant in Delhi Ridge or the Yamuna floodplains to address the problems of solid waste management in Delhi—a plan that also involves cutting of trees in 47.3 acres of the ridge. Ironically, the order came a fortnight after the NGT stopped the felling of trees in Delhi for the redevelopment of residential facilities in South Delhi neighbourhoods. As experts have pointed out, (Nandi, 2018; Jha, 2016; Agarwal, 2018) setting up a landfill site or installing an energy plant poses high risk of leachate contamination in the Yamuna floodplains, thus affecting Delhi’s groundwater quality and is likely to affect eco-sensitive zones in the ridge. The order also contradicts the SWM Rules of 2016, which explicitly prohibit sanitary landfills in eco-sensitive zones.

An earlier proposal, dating to 2000 had suggested using the Asola Bhatti mines for an alternative site, an area that is spread over 447 acres and is removed from Delhi’s thickly inhabited areas. The idea had been recommended by the United Nations and a feasibility study had been carried out by a Danish agency (Bhatnagar, 2017). There has been opposition to using the Asola mines for a landfill site as well. Also located on the Delhi ridge, the area near the mines act as a groundwater recharge system for Delhi. Significantly, it is also an ecologically sensitive area and falls within the Asola wildlife sanctuary (Krishna, 2015).


Alternatives to the saturated landfills in Delhi do not present a clear or viable solution for the future. Any plan of action done for capping landfill, or finding an alternate site for landfill needs to first consider the need to encourage segregation of waste, which can be done by presenting some incentive to individual generators. Further, the capping of landfills needs to be planned extensively and done through scientific methods. Unless further disposal of garbage is prohibited and segregation is implemented rigorously, there is no telling how long it is before the garbage from these exhausted landfills begins flowing into the city.


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