For the first time, the government has made a budgetary provision to encourage setting up of WTE plants. In his Budget speech, finance minister P Chidambaram said the government will support municipalities that implement waste-to-energy projects, through different instruments like viability gap funding, repayable grant and low-cost capital.
While the three municipal corporations have welcomed the move, environmentalists say the technology is not sustainable in India. Sunita Narain, director of The Centre for Science and Environment, said Indian waste is not suitable for incineration as it is not properly segregated.
"The policy shows a complete lack of understanding of the garbage that is drowning our cities. WTE plants are a good idea, but they have not worked in the country. They require high calorific value waste and careful monitoring to ensure that there is no emission of dioxins and other toxins because of burning plastics. What we need instead is waste management strategies which encourage segregation, recycling and reuse," she said.
Gopal Krishna, Convener, ToxicsWatch who has been protesting against the existing WTE plant in Delhi, says that for every five truckloads of waste burnt, one remains as toxic ash which still must be carefully stored or dumped in landfills. "Even the most technologically advanced waste incinerators produce hundreds of distinct hazardous byproducts, including dioxins, heavy metals, halogenated organic compounds and nano particles," he said.
WTE plants exist in Kanpur and Mumbai, besides Delhi. Experts say Kanpur has managed to deal extremely well with waste but India, with its massive population, needs to factor in the human cost of such technology. For each such plant, hundreds of rag pickers end up losing their jobs.
On the flip side, municipal bodies say it is the most effective way to manage waste. Delhi has a functional 16MW plant at Okhla and one plant each will become operational in Ghazipur and Narela-Bawana by the year-end. Municipal agencies say the Centre's provision of viability gap funding-the government pays for the gap in recovering of capital cost-will encourage private players.
"In metros, WTE plants are the only option to dispose of waste and yet earn from it. Municipalities don't have funds to pay upfront to bridge the gap between the capital cost incurred by the concessionaire and the recovery,'' said S S Yadav, commissioner, East Delhi Municipal Corporation.
Delhi's three municipal corporations are planning to set up three more WTE plants. The South Corporation has already placed a request for land with Delhi Development Authority to set up two WTEs. The corporations are now focusing on streamlining waste collection and segregation, a lesson learnt from the Okhla plant project.