Supreme Court deems Delhi’s untreated waste crisis “horrible,” urges immediate action to protect citizens’ rights

During a recent hearing, the bench comprising Justices AS Oka and Ujjal Bhuyan emphasized the urgency of immediate measures to ensure that the quantity of untreated solid waste does not increase until proper facilities are established to treat them.

The Supreme Court has expressed concerns about the generation of 3,800 tonnes of untreated solid waste every day in India’s national capital, Delhi, terming the situation as “horrible.” The apex court has highlighted that this massive pile of untreated waste directly infringes upon the fundamental right of citizens to live in a pollution-free environment, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

During a recent hearing, the bench comprising Justices AS Oka and Ujjal Bhuyan emphasized the urgency of immediate measures to ensure that the quantity of untreated solid waste does not increase until proper facilities are established to treat them. The court noted that this is a vital issue for the capital, which should transcend political considerations, and questioned what the world would think of India’s inability to manage waste in its capital city.

Waste Management Challenges in India

India’s rapid urbanization and population growth have exacerbated the challenge of solid waste management. The country grapples with the generation of an estimated 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with cities like Delhi and Mumbai facing overwhelming quantities. Inadequate infrastructure, lack of efficient collection and disposal systems, and limited waste treatment facilities have contributed to the mounting crisis.

Lack of proper segregation of waste at the source hinders effective recycling and treatment processes. The widespread practice of open dumping, particularly in urban areas, poses severe environmental and health risks. Many municipalities lack access to advanced waste treatment technologies, such as waste-to-energy plants or composting facilities, leading to the accumulation of untreated waste.

Moreover, inadequate financial resources and insufficient manpower often impede the implementation of effective waste management strategies. Limited public awareness and participation in waste management practices, such as proper segregation and responsible disposal, compound the issue.

Waste Treatment Issues

In September 2019, a portion of the Ghazipur landfill site in East Delhi collapsed, resulting in the death of two people and highlighting the dire consequences of uncontrolled waste accumulation.

In March 2023, a massive fire broke out at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai, one of the largest landfills in Asia. The blaze raged for several days, releasing toxic fumes and causing air pollution in the surrounding areas.

The once-pristine Varthur Lake in Bengaluru became a symbol of the city’s waste management crisis, with untreated sewage and industrial effluents turning the water body into a toxic, froth-filled mess in 2021.

The Okhla waste-to-energy plant in Delhi faced protests from residents who claimed that the plant was releasing toxic emissions, leading to a temporary shutdown for maintenance and upgrades.

In 2020, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued notices to several states and union territories for non-compliance with the Solid Waste Management Rules, highlighting the lack of effective implementation of waste management regulations across the country.

The Supreme Court’s Intervention

Expressing concern over the potential increase in solid waste generation due to ongoing development works in Delhi and surrounding areas, the Supreme Court has directed the Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs to convene a meeting with all relevant authorities to find a solution. The court has warned that if the authorities fail to present concrete proposals, it may consider passing a “drastic order” to address the environmental crisis in the capital and its surrounding regions.

The Secretary has been instructed to prepare a report outlining the proposed solutions and present it to the court by July 19. The bench has emphasized the seriousness of the issue and hopes that all authorities will take proactive measures to address the drastic consequences of inadequate waste treatment capacity.

Sustainable Waste Management Strategies

As India continues to grapple with the mounting waste crisis, experts suggest implementing comprehensive and sustainable waste management strategies such as promoting and enforcing segregation of waste at the source, enabling efficient recycling and treatment processes, investing in modern waste collection, transportation, and treatment facilities to handle the increasing waste volumes, exploring and implementing advanced waste treatment technologies, such as waste-to-energy plants, composting facilities, and bio methanation plants, encouraging waste reduction, reuse, and recycling practices to minimize the amount of waste sent to landfills or treatment plants, implementing awareness campaigns and incentives to encourage public participation in responsible waste management practices, and strengthening and strictly enforcing waste management regulations to ensure compliance by all stakeholders, including households, industries, and municipalities.

The Supreme Court’s intervention highlights the urgency of addressing the waste crisis in India. Collaborative efforts from authorities, stakeholders, and citizens are crucial to ensure a cleaner and healthier environment for present and future generations.