Delhi's overflowing landfill gets a Waste to Energy plant, and waste picker families are empowered

High-rise dump

Last January, the Indian Air Force identified an unusual risk to their Republic Day flypast: birds. Every day thousands of birds fill the east Delhi skyscape, circling over what looks like a hill just east of the Yamuna. At night several fires light up the slope and send smoke streaming into the sky. This hill is the Ghazipur landfill.

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25 metres tall and sprawling over 70 acres, the massive dump is visible from 5 kilometres away

Categorised as an Uncontrolled Solid Waste Disposal Facility, the Ghazipur landfill receives one third of Delhi’s garbage. Operating since 1984, it is the oldest functional landfill in the city, estimated to contain at least 12 million tonnes of waste, including sewage and construction rubble from east Delhi. 

Methane from the garbage sets off fires, while toxic leachates flow into the groundwater

The landfill crossed its limit 15 years ago, but remains in use for lack of another site. Methane from the decomposing waste sets off spontaneous fires on the mound, while toxic leachates flow into the Yamuna and seep into the groundwater. Further, given that Ghazipur lies in a highly vulnerable seismic zone, the potential disasters from an earthquake here leave little to the imagination. For the 100,000 people who live within a kilometre of this dumpsite, the dangers are real, constant, and inescapable.

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Each day, 600 trucks drive up the mound adding nearly 2500 tonnes of new waste

Moving mountains

In 2010, IL&FS Environment embarked on the mighty task of stemming this environmental and health disaster. IL&FS developed the Waste to Energy (WtE) plant project on a PPP framework for the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), as a scientific solution to address the current dumping of waste at Ghazipur.

India’s first Euro-compliant WtE plant, it will mitigate 8.2 million tons of greenhouse gases

Built with the capability to process 2000 tonnes per day (TPD), the plant now generates green power by processing 1300 tonnes of municipal solid waste each day. An elaborate pre-processing facility prepares the waste to ensure a high calorific value for the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) produced, which then feeds into the state-of-the-art boiler ensuring efficient combustion. The RDF produced at the plant has been tested to have a calorific value of over 3000 Kcal/kg.

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Since August 2016, the facility has already processed more than 2.5 lakh tonnes of garbage

This is India’s first WtE plant compliant to Euro norms for emissions. It uses treated sewage water in its operations thus fully complying with the 4R (Reduce, Reuse, Recover, Recycle) principle of waste management. To implement highest levels of transparency, along with a visitors gallery, IL&FS has installed a Continuous Emission Monitoring System (CEMS) in the plant, which enables key emission parameters to be viewed online in real time. The facility has generated over 230 lakh kWh of clean electricity from more than 2.5 lakh tonnes of garbage, and has garnered international media attention.

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A visitors gallery, along with a Continuous Emission Monitoring System, ensures the highest levels of transparency at the plant

Meanwhile on the ground

The area around the dumpsite houses 95% of Delhi’s fish and flower trades, and nearly 80% of the meat and poultry trades, besides dyeing units and a paper market. Adding hundreds of tonnes of waste to the landfill every day, these businesses also generate a fragile livelihood for thousands.


Ghazipur is home to one of Delhi's largest wholesale flower markets

A mere 200 metres from the dumpsite is the Ghazipur slum — home to 1500 rag-pickers: men, women and children who scour the waste in search of a daily wage of Rs 150 or 200. While IL&FS Environment was designing the WtE project, IL&FS’s Nalanda Foundation, then called the Social Inclusion Group (SIG), directed its attention to this waste picker community, which forms the very bottom of the economic and social pyramid in Ghazipur. They are the destitute whose basic sustenance depends upon the scraps of fresh waste they can scavenge before the digger trucks arrive, while they wage a hopeless battle against an army of diseases every day.

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Paltry, uncertain incomes and poor living conditions characterise the waste pickers' life in the Ghazipur slum

Gulmeher — ‘the blessings of flowers’

Gulmeher was born in 2013 through a collaboration between IL&FS and IDS, an Uttarakhand NGO, to offer a safe and dignified livelihood alternative to women from the waste picker community. Starting with five young women from the slums, SIG and IDS set up a unit training them to make beautiful articles for sale, using discarded flowers from the Ghazipur wholesale flower market. Begun with seed capital from IL&FS, the unit has since grown into a self-sustaining producer company with over 40 women artisans from the community as participants and shareholders.

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The now self-sustaining unit produces items from sale using discarded flowers

Many families were unwilling to let women go to a formal workplace; women themselves were hesitant

Active community engagement gains the women's trust and kindles hopes of a better life

Working with communities entails various challenges that need to be comprehended and sensitively overcome. Here, many families were unwilling to let women go to a formal workplace; women themselves were hesitant as they often had young children to look after, or could not venture far from their shacks for fear of theft or fire in the house. 

SIG and IDS engaged deeply with the waste pickers, discussing their issues, and using community gatherings, street plays and songs to create awareness around health, education and livelihood. With an atmosphere of trust established and a new spark of hope in the eyes of these women, the story of Gulmeher began to unfold.

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A safe and empowering space is created for waste picker women

Blossoming health, education and dignity

Gulmeher is much more than the Phool-Patti handicraft unit or the Sui-Dhaga embroidery and stitching unit. Periodic medical camps address healthcare needs, and Gulmeher’s bank provides financial inclusion services within the community. As an area resource centre Gulmeher also conducts nutrition and sanitation workshops, and education programs for children. While as waste pickers the women could work for only a few hours a day in dangerous and uncertain conditions, they now work full time as empowered artisans, creating beauty out of waste.

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Each woman artisan is a stakeholder in the Gulmeher Green Producer Company

IL&FS’s Panchhi programme helps enrol Ghazipur children into school, supports students academically and offers co-curricular activities like karate, digital literacy, dance, theatre, and filmmaking. Now in its fourth year, Panchhi has helped mainstream 50 children into school and is supporting 150 children with a stimulating and holistic education.

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Co-curricular activities motivate and support community children

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Panchhi's educational programmes open windows to new worlds for over 150 kids

Reclaiming precious urban land

A 2015 study by IIT-Kanpur concluded that unscientific waste management accounts for 20% of Delhi’s air pollution problem. To chip away at the volume of existing waste in the landfill, IL&FS Environment is actively considering using the municipal solid waste for road embankment of the NH-24 from Delhi to Meerut. This replicable initiative has the support of the Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs under the Swachh Bharat Mission, and of the stakeholders — EDMC, CRRI (Central Road Research Institute), and NHAI (National Highway Authority of India) — for its environmental and health benefits, and the impact it will have in freeing up urban land for re-use.

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IL&FS plans to use the existing municipal solid waste for highway embankments

Against the backdrop of its path-breaking WtE plant that will mitigate 8.2 million tons of greenhouse gases (an emission reduction equivalent to removing all the cars from the roads of Delhi for 100 days), and save 213 acres of land valued at over Rs 2000 crore, IL&FS has led a gritty social transformation among the poor who live in the shadows of Delhi’s garbage mountain. Through an initiative that is participatory, empowering and inspiring, 350 women and their children are now leading new lives off the dumpsite. Ghazipur is testimony to IL&FS’s vision and ability to meet the enormous environmental and social challenges that face India, in a scientific, empathetic and holistic way.