Waste-to-energy plants have mostly failed in India – and yet governments are building more
On June 13, the National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Haryana government regarding inaction over hazardous waste contaminating the groundwater near the Bandhwari landfill.
The waste dumping site, located near the Delhi and Haryana border, has been in the news for many years now. To deal with the many health, environmental, and waste management challenges, the Haryana government has proposed a waste-to-energy plant.
In 2018, Haryana’s Chief Minister ML Khattar laid the foundation stone for a 15-megawatt capacity plant. Later, when a proposal was mooted to increase its capacity from 15 megawatts to 25 megawatts, it received intense opposition from the local people.
Neelam Ahulawalia from Aravalli Bachao Citizens Group, which has run an online campaign against the proposed waste-to-energy plant that has received support from more than 34,000 people, said, “On August 31 last year, a public hearing was organised regarding the increase of the capacity of the proposed waste-to-energy plants. Around 300 people were present there. Everyone opposed the plan vehemently.”
In their petition, they have argued, “Despite the fact that waste incineration is a completely failed model in India, the Haryana government is in the process of setting up a waste-to-energy plant in our Aravalli Forest at the Bandhwari landfill site, which is not only a complete waste of huge amount of money but is another environmental disaster in the making.”
Their fear seems reasonable when one looks at the history of waste-to-energy plants in India. The first waste-to-energy plant was set up in Timarpur in Delhi in 1987. Built by a company from Denmark, the plant was supposed to incinerate 300 tones of municipal solid waste per day to generate 3.75 megawatts of electricity.
Established with the cost of Rs 20 crore, the plant survived for only around 20 days. The reason for its failure was the poor quality of waste coming to the plant, states Dharmesh Shah, a technical advisor with Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, a non-governmental organization.
This waste-to-energy plant failure story has continued since then. “A total of 14 waste-to-energy plants have been installed in India, out of which seven plants were closed,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, an independent waste management and circular economy expert.
Landfills have become a common feature of the landscape in many Indian cities. Increasing population, urbanisation and industrialisation are some of the main reasons for increased waste generation. A 2018 World Bank report also underlined the connection between economic development and waste generation.
During the budget session in 2022, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change informed that the total quantity of solid waste generated in the country was 1,50,761 tonnes per day in 2019-’20. The same World Bank report from 2018 states that India’s per capita waste generation lies at 0.57 kg per day as compared to 0.52 kg in South Asia and 0.74 kg at the global level. India, however, is yet to find a sustainable way to deal with this burgeoning waste in every city.
Talking to Mongabay-India, founder and CEO of iForest, Chandra Bhushan said, “Our capacity to manage waste has not grown with the pace of our capacity to generate waste. There is a huge gap between the quantity and quality of waste we are generating, and the capacity of the municipality to manage that waste.” IForest is a Delhi-based think-tank.
To deal with these challenges, state governments are relying on waste-to-energy plants. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s website says that the total estimated energy generation potential from urban and industrial organic waste in India is approximately 5,690 megawatts.
A report titled “To Burn or Not To Burn”, by the Centre for Science and Environment that was published in 2019, says that plants of a combined capacity of 382.7 megawatts are proposed in India. According to the report, the plants with a capacity of 69.2 megawatts are operational, the ones with a capacity of 84.3 megawatts are under construction and 66.35 megawatts plants are non-functional. Sambyal is one of the authors of this report.
Waste not fit
The proposed Bandhwari waste-to-energy plant is