The future looks bleak for the residents of Bandhwari village, which is 20 kilometres from Gurugram. A 40-foot mass of untreated, unsegregated municipal waste located two kilometres from the settlement has for years degraded the local air, water and soil, and altered the social fabric of the community.
Locals have attributed the high incidence of cancer and other inexplicable illnesses among villagers to contaminated groundwater and have also blamed the landfill for the lack of prospective brides for the young men of the village.
A waste-to-energy (WTE) plant, scheduled to become operational at the site by August 2019, holds the promise of a better future.
However, experts warn that the damage, which the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG), forest department and Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) should have collectively foreseen, has already been done.
“We have been cheated of our natural resources. How can the authorities restore the forests and water bodies to their original condition?” asked Surat Singh, a resident of Bandhwari.
In August 2017, the MCG contracted Eco Green, a private subsidiary of the Chinese firm, Jianjing Environment, to take over the maintenance of the landfill and install a WTE plant on site.
Eco Green specialises in waste collection, management and the controlled incineration of garbage to produce electricity.
According to Rakesh Agarwal, the managing director of Eco Green, the current predicament is undeniable. “No one can ignore the fact that the heap of garbage is causing problems. Somebody needs to make a course correction before the situation worsens, and that’s where we come in,” he said.
Eco Green’s power plant at Bandhwari, which is expected to become operational in just over a year, will function at a capacity of 25 megawatts and will be able to accommodate an intake of 2,500 tonnes of garbage in one go.
The electricity it generates from this process will be supplied to the city’s existing power grid and distributed locally. The MCG is committed to providing the company with a subsidy of Rs 75 crore, once the power plant is up and running. Eco Green also has a monopoly on waste collection in Gurugram, a service for which it receives a revenue of Rs 1,200 per tonne.
In addition to the WTE plant, which Agarwal says will help assuage Gurugram’s ongoing power deficit, Eco Green has also built a leachate treatment plant to treat the toxic, black liquid that seeps out of the landfill.
The first batch of treated leachate is expected at the end of July, and will be potable. “The only way to stop the leachate problem is to convert it to potable water and consume it,” Agarwal said.
Other measures are also planned to minimise the environmental impact of the landfill. A six-metre-high concrete barrier will be constructed around the garbage heap, in addition to the existing boundary wall.
A smaller WTE plant will also be installed by December 2018, to process the 25,00,000 tonnes of waste that has accumulated at the landfill since 2008. “This additional plant will incinerate 800 tonnes of garbage a day, and the resulting ash will be used to make bricks, which can be used by the local construction industry,” Agarwal said.
Agarwal added that the operations would be in compliance of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2015. Without providing the specifics, he said that a number of corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives are being planned for the benefit of the local community.
“We are already employing people from Bandhwari and Manger villages. We pay them above minimum wage, provide them with health insurance and a provident fund, and give them protective gear to work with,” he said.
A Hindustan Times team found that improper waste management practices are rampant inside landfill. On June 28, HT procured video evidence of leachate flowing out of the landfill through holes in the existing boundary wall, posing a serious risk to the region’s groundwater table, which the CPCB has found to be undrinkable and polluted with carcinogenic heavy metals.
Agarwal, however, denied that this was due to the run-off. “The CPCB report does not attribute the contamination to the dump. It only says that the water is unsuitable for drinking,” he said. Workers at the landfill denied they were provided health insurance, protective gear or provident funds. “We are only given basic protective boots to wear inside the landfill, and nothing else,” said one employee.
Another worker, who earned about Rs 8,000 per month, said that there was no promise of job security, and no severance was provided in the event of workers being fired.
Agarwal said that some workers were currently employed by other private contractors, to whom Eco Green has been outsourcing maintenance of the landfill. He said the company is currently in the process of transferring them to the internal payroll within three to four months.
“We have already regularised about 200 workers and will provide them with all the necessary benefits they are entitled to,” he said.
Activists, villagers and experts, however, continue to oppose the landfill and the upcoming power plant, on legal and environmental grounds.
Rahul Choudhary, an environmental lawyer with the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment, said that the landfill was in violation of multiple legal mandates, such as Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, Plastic Waste (Management & Handling) Rules, Bio Medical Waste Handling Rules, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, and the Forest Act.
RP Balwan Singh, retired district forest officer (Gurugram), alleged that the operation is illegal. Balwan was the district forest officer (DFO) when the district administration began dumping waste in Bandhwari.
“I wrote to the MCG in 2008, and I even approached court, on the grounds that these are panchayat lands and cannot be used for dumping garbage. I even suggested alternative locations, because the Aravallis are a sensitive ecological area, and the risk of groundwater contamination from the dump was huge,” Singh said, adding that the necessary permission for change of land use had not been obtained by the MCG.
Singh added that the forest department had to finally relent in the face of political pressure. “I couldn’t do anything to prevent the landfill from coming up,” he said.
The required legal clearances have not yet been obtained by Eco Green. Agarwal said that the company has carried out an environmental impact study and the ministry of environment is expected to provide them with the necessary agreements in a day or two. Agarwal also denied that the land was originally in possession of the village panchayat.
“The land is owned by the municipality, and the MCG has now given us permission to build our infrastructure on site,” said Agarwal.
Environment analyst Chetan Agarwal expressed scepticism about the upcoming WTE plant, saying that the site, which lies in the middle of the Aravalli forest, and in close proximity to the Mangar Bani sacred grove, is a bad location for such an operation.
Moreover, the capacity of the leachate treatment plant is not enough to contain the amount of leachate generated by such a huge dump. The site lies upstream from Gurugram, and contaminants found in the leachate move toward the city at the pace of half or one metre a day.
“The groundwater is already contaminated. Pretty soon, areas along the Golf Course Road Extension will face the same predicament that the residents of Bandhwari are going through now,” he said.
Dr Nair, a retired scientist from Bhabha Atomic Centre and Gurugram resident, who has previously consulted with the MCG on waste management practices in Gurugram, said that setting up such a plant can be disastrous.
“A plant like this in the middle of the forest will be disastrous, no matter what rules are followed, and cannot be eco-friendly by any means. The technology used to burn garbage for power has already been discarded by other countries on account of harmful SOx, NOx, dioxin and Furan emissions,” he said.
While Eco Green has contingency plans in place to deal with these emissions, Nair said that over time, these pollutants would accumulate in the area and destroy local wildlife.
Both Nair and Agarwal were also against the transportation of waste to Bandhwari. Instead, they advocated for a decentralised, zone-wise waste management system.
The majority of garbage generated should be recycled and composted locally, instead of sending it to an external facility. “The use of trucks to transport waste only adds to pollution and increases the carbon footprint of the project,” Nair said.
Nair also warned against the entrance of private players to fulfil the state’s responsibilities.
“The MCG should get citizens to act responsibly and manage their own garbage. Why should we transfer the burden of our consumption to the villagers of Bandhwari and devalue their space?” he said.
MCG commissioner Yashpal Yadav was unable to provide an official comment. Yadav said that he would have to check official records before doing so
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