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Trading in toxins

Written By krishna on Wednesday, June 01, 2011 | 4:35 AM

Remember those six-rupee Reynolds pens? I used them through several years of school and college, and each time, I bought refills when the ink ran out. Each pen was used until its body cracked. So, out of habit, I hold on to non-functional ballpoints, although it’s hard to find refills, especially for cheaper models. I could buy pens by the dozen, of course. But what none of us can really afford is the accumulated junk.

We can put our discarded stuff into dustbins, then pack it into landfills, but how much of it? How long before the city runs out of room? It has run out of room. Every other street is decorated with little tents of garbage. Trucks take it away. Ragpickers sort through it. But each year the tents grow taller, the stench more powerful.

The simple thing is to set fire to them. But that isn’t a good option, especially for plastics. Perhaps that was when someone came up with an idea — incineration. Then, someone came up with another idea — incinerate garbage and convert it into electricity. Then they took it a step further – “Let’s get carbon credits! Since garbage seems to be eternal, let’s just call it a renewable source of energy.”

So that’s why they began setting up WTE (waste-to-energy) plants in and around Delhi. Now, waste-to-energy sounds like a smart idea, but it isn’t. In fact, it is a failed idea. Timarpur had a WTE plant that had to be shut down after 21 days of operation (in 1990) because it wasn’t really generating much power. Delhi’s garbage was too wet — not good for burning.

Yet, two decades after all that money was wasted, the project has been revived. This, when most of our garbage is biodegradable (less paper and plastic, more organic waste) and Delhi still doesn’t have a garbage segregation policy. Even the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has said that ‘thermal treatment of municipal solid waste is not feasible’.

This, sadly, isn’t just about unfeasible power projects. The technology that will allegedly be used by WTE projects releases persistent organic pollutants, which can leach into food and dairy products. They can damage the reproductive system and cause developmental problems for children. Besides, there are concerns about toxic fly-ash.

So, naturally, Timarpur and Okhla people have been protesting. They fail to see why Delhi is subsidising and supporting WTE plants when the Supreme Court has already disallowed them in 2005. The Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has already written to Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, pointing out violations by the Timarpur-Okhla Municipal Solid Waste Management Company Pvt Ltd (owned by the Jindal ITF Urban Infrastructure Ltd). Even the Delhi Pollution Control Board noted that “no public/public representative/any interested person/NGO attended the meeting for comments/objections on the Project” (sic). Sheila Dikshit apparently did go to meet ‘interested persons’ but stormed out of the meeting since they wouldn’t agree with her. Now ‘interested persons’ have taken their objections to the Delhi high court.

Surely Dikshit knows that the UN’s convention on persistent organic pollutants seeks elimination of WTE technologies, that the European parliament refuses to describe the disposal of garbage as ‘recovery of energy’, so richer nations wouldn’t find it easy to treat central and eastern European nations as dumping grounds. Yet, Delhi is welcoming this toxic, unfeasible technology. I’m reminded of Tagore’s comment about Indians being like ragpickers at other people’s dustbins. He didn’t mean it literally. He was talking about ideas. And surely, Sheila Dikshit knows better than to welcome rubbish ideas into the lives of those who live in Timapur and Ghazipur.

Annie Zaidi
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