Worry lines run deep on Syed Isharat Hussain’s face as the 56-year-old resident of Delhi’s Haji Colony narrates the predicament of young boys in his neighbourhood – they can’t find brides. Their colony, once an illegal settlement bordering the industrial township Jasola, is being regularised.
Many boys who grew up in houses without tap water or electricity in this dilapidated neighbourhood have made good. But when families of prospective brides visit, the smiles vanish as they breathe the colony’s acrid air. This is no place for their daughters to live, they decide.
There are multiple culprits. The stench from a large municipal compost plant a few hundred metres away and smoke from a medical waste incinerator that is even closer. But Hussain, along with lakhs of residents of colonies nearby, are now losing sleep over another, bigger plant coming up nearby – a massive waste incinerator that can burn a fourth of Delhi’s daily trash output to produce 21 megawatts of electricity a year.
The plant, built under an arrangement between the Delhi government and Jindal Urban Infrastructure, part of the $12 billion OP Jindal Group, has met with protests, lawsuits and much concern. That is unsurprising, as this plant in Okhla neighbours not just some of South Delhi’s marquee addresses – New Friends Colony, Maharani Bagh, Sukhdev Vihar and the business district Nehru Place – but also several prominent institutions, including hospitals like Apollo, Escorts and Holy Family.
But disregarding these, as also a number of binding guidelines from multiple state agencies and at least one Supreme Court directive, the plant has come up, under the shade of slack regulation, at one-tenth the cost of a world-class waste-to-energy facility, deploying China-made equipment and inadequately provisioning for toxic by-products of incineration.
The Delhi government and chief minister Sheila Dikshit have backed the project fully, hailing it as a technology solution to the city’s two enduring, and worsening, problems – excess of waste and shortage of power. But while contributing to the solution of two problems, the plant kindles a number of new ones, with potentially serious health and environment implications for the city’s 17 million residents.
“Our plant uses the latest technology. It is absolutely safe. Such plants exist around the world in the middle of cities,” says Jindal Saw MD Indresh Batra, who runs the Jindal group unit responsible for the controversial plant. “In Paris, close to the Eiffel Tower, there is a plant.”
Batra and his group – the companies owned by the family of Prithviraj Jindal, Batra’s father-in-law and son of the late OP Jindal – won an open tender in 2008 to build and operate the plant for 25 years. Batra says the plant provides for more than what is mandated. He points out the ministry of environment and forests did not mandate a specialised filtering unit for toxic emissions. Yet, he adds, they put in a Rs 50 crore baghouse filter to ensure safer emission, increasing the project cost from Rs 172 crore to Rs 240 crore.
The polluting potential of a plant using municipal solid waste as fuel is serious. Emissions include suspended particulate matter (SPM), sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrogen chloride (HCl), and dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic substances known to science.