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Delhi residents oppose waste-burning power plant

Written By Gopal Krishna on Tuesday, September 09, 2008 | 11:06 AM

The Associated Press
September 1, 2008

NEW DELHI: India's capital has a lot of garbage and far too little power.

This is a city where many neighborhoods go without power for hours
every day and where enormous piles of garbage mix with summer
temperatures that can soar to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees
Celsius), creating a stew of putrid smells and swarming flies.

So a decision by the New Delhi government to build a 2 billion rupee
(US$45.5 million) power plant that would burn thousands of tons of
garbage every day and produce some of that much-needed electricity
seemed like the ideal solution to both problems.

Except, critics say, there is little chance anything will come from
this plant but noxious fumes and wasted money.

"It's just a knee-jerk response to not being able to handle municipal
waste. And we're a power-hungry country," said Kushalpal Singh Yadav,
a coordinator with the independent Center for Science and Environment,
one of India's most respected environmental groups. "I'm very, very
skeptical that this kind of technology will ever work."

While garbage-to-energy plants have worked elsewhere around the world,
they have failed repeatedly in India, where residents sell most of
their waste to recyclers. That leaves household garbage largely made
up of moist food waste and un-recyclable — and often dangerous —
products like used batteries.

At best, such garbage is poorly suited to the hot fires needed to
produce electricity, critics say. At worst, it's dangerous.

"It creates a cocktail of toxins which have in the past led to health
problems ranging from cancer to skin rashes to stillbirths," said
Gopal Krishna, an environmental health expert working with several
residents' groups that oppose the project.

Yadav noted that New Delhi had a failed plant that used similar
technology in the late 1980s, and another plant in southern Andhra
Pradesh state is also stalled.

Then there are the problems most obvious to the low-income and
middle-class neighborhoods that surround the area where the plant is
slated to be erected.

"The smell of the garbage is already overwhelming," said Arif Khan, a
resident of the Gaffar Manzil neighborhood, which shares a boundary
wall with the site and is already home to a garbage recycling
facility. "When 2,000 tons of garbage arrives in trucks here every
day, I don't know how we'll manage."

From the balconies of the small homes that crowd the periphery of the
proposed plant site, the view is a sea of rotting garbage. The stench
and swarms of flies make it hard to even open your mouth.

So why build the plant, which is expected to start working in early 2010?

India's economy has grown at an average of 8.8 percent for the last
five years, according to government data, and more power is
desperately needed, both by its growing middle class and industry.

During peak hours, demand outstrips supply by as much as 25 percent in
some parts of the country, causing frequent outages and forcing
shutdowns at factories and business establishments.

The country, which depends mostly on coal-fired generating stations,
needs hundreds of new power plants over the next five years to end the
massive electricity shortages that threaten to derail the quick clip
at which its economy is growing, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said
last year.

"If we expect our economy to keep growing at 9 percent to 10 percent
annually, we need a commensurate growth in power supply," Singh said
at a government meeting.

By 2012, India will need to generate at least 200,000 megawatts of
power to eliminate shortages, Singh said. Currently, the country has a
total capacity of 130,000 megawatts.

India's power production is mostly run by cash-strapped state
governments. Although the power sector was opened to private
investment more than a decade ago, few companies have built new plants
because of regulatory bottlenecks.

The New Delhi government, for its part, insists the garbage-to-power
project will work — and that environmental and health assessments make
clear the project is safe.

"We had done an impact assessment survey before the project, and we
have taken due precautions that it doesn't impact the ecology or
environment of the neighborhoods," said Deep Chand Mathur, a spokesman
for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is one of the government
departments behind the project.

"The site itself was identified after a lot of studies," he said.

Of the plant's proximity to homes, Mathur said the city is very short
of suitable land.

Residents, though, say the city simply ignores them.

Last week, hundreds of residents staged a rally to protest the plant,
but are still stonewalled by officials. Khan said that after dozens of
letters and appeals the protesters were waiting for a meeting to be
scheduled with officials senior enough to make a difference.

"No one from the government has so far met us to hear our complaints,"
he said.

International Herald Tribune
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