India drowns in construction, demolition debris

Waste is piling up across the country. Regulations are in place, but recycling is yet to gain momentum. Down To Earth breaks down the cartouche of waste mismanagement

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Friday 05 July 2019
Demolition waste from a road being redeveloped in Delhi’s Zamrudpur village has left no space for people even to walk. Photo: Avikal Somvanshi/CSE
Demolition waste from a road being redeveloped in Delhi’s Zamrudpur village has left no space for people even to walk. Photo: Avikal Somvanshi/CSE Demolition waste from a road being redeveloped in Delhi’s Zamrudpur village has left no space for people even to walk. Photo: Avikal Somvanshi/CSE

Look around, and you are sure to find at least one construction site close by. Urban India is in a race to construct, and has no qualms in bringing down healthy buildings to replace them with something taller, or uglier. The reason is quite natural: increasing population, rising land cost and easy access to finance. But development also results in the generation of massive construction and demolition (C&D) waste. And people are clueless what to do with it.

“I have engaged a transporter to remove debris,” says Anil Kumar, supervisor of a redevelopment project at Kailash Colony in south Delhi. “I have no idea what the transporter will do with it. It’s not my concern,” he shrugs.

The transporter refused to divulge where he would dump the waste. But it is an open secret that it will end up in the Aravallis at the Delhi-Faridabad border. Kumar, perhaps, does not know about the C&D Waste Management Rules, notified on March 29, 2016, which clearly make all the stakeholders responsible for waste disposal, be it a small-scale generator, the municipal body or the government. It makes debris recycling mandatory and illigalises dumping waste outside the designated sites.

Recycling plants turn debris to usable sand and gravel. The Bureau of Indian Standards recognises these as a good substitute to natural sand in concrete mix.

“Waste recycling is good business and incurs reasonable returns,” says Rajesh K, owner of Rock Crystal, a Bengaluru-based private C&D waste recycling facility. He managed to turn organised recycling into a profitable business without any government subsidy. This is unheard of in other waste recycling streams.

Yet other than Delhi and Ahmedabad, no city has an official C&D waste recycling facility. Had the 2016 Rules been followed, by April 2019, all cities in India would have had this infrastructure to collect, transport and recycle waste. Delhi has three recycling plants — at Burari, Mundka and Shastri Park. Another three are in the pipeline — at Rani Khera, Bakkarwal and one in north Delhi.

The city has designated 168 sites for waste collection. More than half of these are under the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), the richest of the three corporations in the city, is the only one not to have a recycling facility. No one knows, not even Kumar, where its waste collection sites are.

*Additional capacity of plants in the pipeline. 
All figures are based on the capacity of the proposed recycling plants except 
for Delhi and Ahmedabad, which have already set up their plants.

Similarly, locations of the four waste collection sites in Ahmedabad for its eight million people are also shrouded in mystery. When Down To Earth enquired about their locations from Mukesh Gadhvi, deputy municipal commissioner of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC), who is in-charge of the city’s solid waste management, the response was shocking: “Give AMC a week’s notice so that officials can be prepared with the answers.” The query why the information was not in the public domain was not entertained. The response brings clarity on why public awareness on waste management is poor.

Abysmal awareness

Few know the right place to dump debris, fewer know it can be recycled

“I recently found out that the city has a C&D waste recycling facility, and I’m shocked it has been in existence since 2013, that too just 13 km from the city,” says Surya Kakani, dean of architecture faculty at Ahmedabad-based CEPT University.

Kakani sends waste from his building projects for recycling to a private facility, 60 km from the city. His own office is built using bricks made of recycled waste.

Few people in Chennai know that Chennai Municipal Corporation (CMC) has designated 15 places for waste collection. It also offers to pick up waste. During a two-week crackdown in June 2018, the corporation found illegal dumping at 258 places and collected Rs 5 lakh fine from the defaulters.

This was, perhaps, driven by the disparity in the fee and fine money. “Residents find it cheaper to pay Rs 2,000 penalty for unlawful disposal instead of Rs 1,500 for every tonne of waste removed,” says Dharmesh Shah, a Chennai-based environmentalist who is working on solid waste management.

This is not so in Kolkata. New Town Kolkata Development Authority (NKDA) charges Rs 2,000 per tonne to remove waste and imposes a heavy fine of Rs 50,000 for unlawful disposal. The offender has to pay an additional penalty of Rs 10,000 per day if payment is delayed.

Neighbouring Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has mandated waste management. Residents have to declare the time it would take to complete construction work and deposit Rs 1,600 per truck of expected waste. This must be kept within the building compound, or non-intrusively by the roadside. KMC collects the waste from here. But again, where does the waste go from here?

“Kolkata and Chennai’s waste collection system is just a litter relocation exercise as they don’t have recycling plants,” says Shah. In Mumbai, improper waste disposal is not just a nuisance, but is also affecting its eco-sensitive wetlands.

Wetlands at stake

Eco-sensitive Vasai and Thane creeks have become waste dumping grounds

It all started around 2008 when Deonar dumping ground, in Mumbai’s suburbs, started experiencing frequent fires. Acting on a public interest litigation filed by environmentalist Rajkumar Sharma, the Bombay High Court banned any new construction in the city as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was not following rules in disposing waste. Result: people started off-loading debris into the wetlands near Vasai and Thane creeks.

In May 2018, the Supreme Court lifted the ban with the rider that new construction would be allowed only after ensuring proper disposal of construction debris. This meant space for disposal had to be identified. The city administration invited public and private players to volunteer their land for waste disposal. This was a big bonus, as environmental impact assessment or clearance is not required on this land.

“Entities that were long struggling to get permission to develop the wetlands for real estate are now lining up to get their land declared official C&D waste disposal sites,” says Sharma, who is part of the committee set up by the Bombay High Court to monitor C&D waste management in the city.

“In effect, the government has legalised destruction of wetlands,” he says. The city now has 10 dumping sites, all on wetlands. Private land owners claim that dumping waste on wetlands helps reclaim it. But improper crushing and poorly compacted ground become vulnerable to collapse during monsoon as water washes away loose particles creating voids susceptible to caveins. Thane is infamous for such building collapses every year.

Incorrect disposal cost Bengaluru heavily during the construction of the swanky Bengaluru Kempegowda International Airport. In its first phase, which concluded in 2013, the contractor took advantage of the massive project site and dumped waste on the land meant for the second phase of the project. Now, the contractors of the second phase are struggling to clean the site, which is costing them both time and money.

“While drilling we are not sure if we have hit the bedrock or it’s just a compacted pile of waste concrete from the last phase. If it’s not the bedrock, the foundation can easily collapse. It is a risky affair,” says a site engineer who did not wish to be named. “Contractors saved on transportation cost, but they are now spending way more on removing the debris,” says Rajesh of Rock Crystal. His company has been awarded the contract to construct and operate Bengaluru’s first C&D waste plant at Kunnur village on the city’s outskirts.

Few know  that Ahmedabad has a C&D waste recycling plant at Pirana, just 13 km from the city

Stolen and sold off

Debris mysteriously disappears on way to recycling plants

Even as the organised sector is still learning to use and recycle debris, for some contractors it is a thriving business. “Most of the waste deposited at the collection points in Ahmedabad does not reach our recycling plant. It curiously disappears en route,” says Dhun Thackar, a designer at Amdavad Enviro Projects Pvt Ltd, the operator of Ahmedabad’s waste recycling facility.

He believes that brokers steal and sell off debris to builders who use it for backfilling and to reclaim wetlands.

The mega Pragati Maidan redevelopment project in New Delhi, which includes the controversially demolished iconic Hall of India, must surely have generated massive amount of debris. But it’s all unaccounted for. To plug such leaks, Pune approved the public health and sanitation by-laws 2017.

At present, it is pending with the Maharashtra government. The city aims to limit the use of private transporters in its waste collection system. To track waste, it makes calculations according to the volume of the proposed demolition and construction, and the distance of disposal site from the project.

“The plan is to institute a system where a developer can claim refund of the waste fee if they are able to prove in-situ reduction, reuse, and recycling of waste,” says Saket Jadav, junior engineer, Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC).

Better waste management will be rewarded and the city would refund the difference in the original estimate and the disposal, he adds. PMC also plans to make providing proof of disposal mandatory and linking it with completion certificate.

At present, Pune does not have collection points for small generators. Jadav says that all 15 municipal zones have been directed to identify space for their solid waste resource centres. A waste recycling plant has also been commissioned, but is delayed because of land ownership.

Recycling makes sense

But people are still apprehensive about the quality of recycled products

The Waste Management Rules 2016 stipulate that local authorities and the government must use 10 to 20 per cent recycled waste in their buildings. Central Public Works Department (CPWD) was the first government agency to adopt it.

While constructing the Supreme Court’s extension building, CPWD used 1.8 million bricks made from recycled waste sourced from NDMC’s recycling plant at Burari. “All the non-load bearing walls are built using recycled waste bricks,” says B B Makkar, chief engineer of the project.

A major inhibitor in the project was the tax on recycled waste, which is higher than on virgin material. “We paid 18 per cent GST on recycled bricks instead of 5 per cent GST levied on regular bricks,” says Makkar.

This was discouraging, but it turned out to be cheaper as the use of mortar and plastering reduced. “The overall masonry cost us Rs 7,500 per cubic metre of wall. Regular masonry would have cost Rs 7,700 per cubic metre,” he says.

The Delhi government has issued an advisory asking municipal corporations to mandate 5 per cent use of recycled waste in building constructions. But there has been no progress on this. Delhi’s recycling plants are overflowing with unsold recycled products.

A big reason for this is apprehensions on the quality of products derived from waste. “We had reservations while reusing bricks from the Burari plant. It failed our quality control test. But we worked with the engineers to customise the concrete mix used in the making of bricks. The end product was stronger than regular bricks available in the market,” says Makkar.

To build end-user confidence, the facility in Ahmedabad has its recycled bricks and pavers certified green by Indian Green Building Council and Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment. Gujarat Metro Rail Corporation is buying recycled waste to construct Ahmedabad Metro.

In Bengaluru, the Karnataka Department of Mines and Geology claimed the end product was a variant of sand, therefore Rock Crystal would have to pay royalty. Arguments in court established that recycling of debris is not akin to stone crushing and is therefore, not liable for royalty payment. But this has not been established in other states, and can put the recycled waste product market in danger.

The area where recycling is unviable is the informal sector. This is because it is a large-scale business. “If the technology is miniaturised, waste would be managed at the neighbourhood level itself,” says Jyoti Mhapsekar, president of Stree Mukti Sanghatana, a Mumbai-based organisation that works on waste management and environment apart from women’s empowerment, children’s education and child labour.

“The informal recycling sector is highly enterprising. Had it been possible to monetise waste, it would have been done already,” says Sarthak Tapasvi, architect with SwaCH, a non-profit that provides waste management services in Pune.

There are good practices that can be emulated. For instance, no waste leaves any construction or demolition site in Dharavi, says Rahul Srivastava of Urbz, a group of architects and planners that works in the slums of Mumbai.

“We salvage all the building materials for reuse from any demolition site. Things that cannot be reused get used for backfilling. Urbz aids and trains masons and contractors to make better use of space, materials and even finances.

A similar approach to salvage building materials from demolition waste is being undertaken at a Kailash Colony lane where Kumar is redeveloping a building. The house was deconstructed, with each brick, window and door meticulously retrieved from the walls and stacked in neat piles for resale. The only bit that could not be salvaged was the concrete from the columns and the floor slabs.

These had to be sent to waste disposal sites. The process was not much slower from Kumar’s outright demolition approach, and involved a lot more skill. The owners of the house made money selling the recovered building materials instead of paying to a transporter to dump it at an illegal destination. There is an urgent need to work more in this direction and come out of the deluge of debris.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated June 16-30, 2019)

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