On May 16, 2007, in a temporary relief, the Supreme Court permitted the Union ministry of new and renewable energy (mnre) to subsidise five pilot waste-to-energy plants. The ministry is taking this as an approval for all waste-to-energy technologies, while experts advise caution.
The court had, on May 6, 2005, prohibited the government to sanction any further subsidies to such plants. The decision had come up in the Almitra Patel v Union of India case. The Court had then noted that a bio-methanation based waste-to-energy plant at Lucknow had not lived up to its promise and had ordered the government to constitute a committee comprising experts, including those from the non-government sector, to inspect the Lucknow plant's record. A 14-member body was constituted with D K Biswas, former head of the Central Pollution Control Board, as its chair. Questions were raised about the composition of the committee.The committee submitted its final report in December 2005.
mnes was last year re-christened mnre. The ministry has been actively promoting and subsidising waste to energy technologies like bio-methanation and incineration, and is interpreting the recent verdict as a green light to all technologies including incineration. But that may not really be the case.
In its recent order the apex court held that, "the matter relates to solid waste management by various municipal corporations. After hearing parties this court on 6th May, 2005 observed that till the position becomes clear as regards the viability of projects for generation of energy from municipal wastes (by the bio-methanation technology) the government would not sanction any further subsidies...". The court went on to say "The Committee has recommended that projects based on bio-methanation should be taken up only on segregated/uniform municipal waste (msw) unless it is demonstrated that in Indian conditions, the waste segregation plant can separate waste suitable for bio-methanation". Explains Rajeev Dhavan, senior advocate, Supreme Court, "In substance, the court was concerned only with projects that generate energy from municipal waste by bio-methanation and not non-conventional energy use generally."
But mnre interprets the ruling differently. "The order is not restricted to only bio-methanation. The court did not specify the technology," says A K Dhussa, director, mnre. "It has only specified segregation be used for bio-methanation, keeping in view the suggestions of the expert group," he adds.
The expert group had indeed suggested segregation of waste but it directed that all waste be segregated at source. The Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000, also require segregation of solid waste. But Dhussa contends that "for technologies like incineration we can use unsegregated waste". Dhavan responds "The Court's order is not a refuge for any and everything that the ministry wants to do. Nor is it a license to the ministry to experiment with other projects without taking due precaution."
Dioxins are formed when chlorinated plastics or pvc are burnt in municipal waste incinerators. Amongst the most toxic manmade substances, they are known to have serious effects on health. "Presence of some dioxins and furans in the emissions cannot be ruled out. Therefore, necessary measures must be taken for testing the emissions for safe disposal or utilisation of by-products...such as ash...There is presently no system for monitoring of dioxins and furan," says the expert group's report. It also recommends, "a detailed study on the issue of dioxins and furans and formulate standards and safeguards for such emissions to tackle the issue in a comprehensive manner."
"We will tackle all concerns including those relating to dioxins," says Dhussa. He adds that no final decision has been taken about the nature of the five pilot projects permitted by the court. mnre will have its hands full in resolving the technology and segregation issues as to make sure that all recommendations of the expert group are implemented in letter and spirit.
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