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India’s concrete jungles are choking its air

C&D waste generated by frenzied construction activity to feed growing housing needs is posing a serious risk to the country's air quality.

Gurgaon, India — First there were small mounds; then picturesque waves of ridges, like the ones in children’s landscape paintings; even the lone, tall tree died. Now it is just endless hills of broken concrete, bricks, tiles, marble, dried paint, soil, steel, wood, glass, iron and weeds sprouting up.

“The hills of debris have become higher than our eight-feet boundary wall, like a moat around a fort,” says Ruchika Sethi, a resident of Gurgaon.

She vividly remembers how in less than six years the vacant lot behind their 100-acre gated community, Nirvana Country — metamorphosed into a dumping ground of construction and demolition (C&D) waste. “Buildings were popping up everywhere in this land of developers and there was rampant and careless disposal of debris, with two to three trucks a day,” she says.

The gated communities boast of lush landscape, “non-native lollipop looking trees” but outside it is a graveyard, she says. “Like most children here, my daughter has to use nebulizer or inhaler 200 days a year to fight asthmatic allergic cough.” She is part of the citizens group Clean Gurgaon and they are campaigning for proper disposal of C&D waste in designates sites.

The underbelly of India’s construction upsurge is a haphazard labyrinth of high-rise apartments and commercial buildings, migrant laborers clamoring and giant cranes clawing: kicking plumes of dirt; stinking, choking clouds of dust and smog; trucks carrying raw materials and waste and cacophonous sounds.

India is building feverishly, often razing old structures yet more than 70 per cent of the buildings that will be standing in 2030 are yet to be constructed, according to Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

CSE estimates India will be producing 21,630 million tons of C&D waste between 2005 and 2030, requiring a landfill the size of the eastern state of West Bengal. For now, the waste is being dumped in rivers and open spaces, along street corners and used to fill up water bodies and wetlands — choking cities and aggravating pollution, jeopardising human and environmental health.

Avikal Somvanshi from CSE explains how C&D debris spawns air pollution. Almost 36 per cent of the C&D waste in India is fine particles, including soil, sand and gravel. This loose soil flies and spikes the particulate matter (PM) levels of air, thus affecting air quality. “It should be a localized problem affecting regions around the site of construction and or demolition, but transportation of this waste in open trucks and lorries for disposal spreads it all over,” Somvanshi says.

Yet, C&D waste continues to be grossly underreported in India. According to CSE estimates, in 2013 the C&D waste generated by buildings alone was 626 million — 52 times higher than the official estimate. “It is an inert waste, and until its quantum becomes unimaginable it doesn’t have any direct problem and inconvenience as municipal solid waste or industrial waste does. That’s why nobody bothers until it becomes impossible to ignore,” Somvanshi adds.

The unchecked and delinquent dumping of C&D debris is aggravating health risks, according to Sanjay Mehta, a doctor at Artemis Hospital. “We are seeing various types of dengue fever emerging in areas we never had dengue cases,” he says.

Mehta explains C&D waste creates small pools of fresh water, especially during monsoons, where mosquitoes breed in 24 hours. “Even a fistful of water is enough so imagine how much breeding space is provided by debris.” Exposure to dust is causing respiratory problems. The weeds growing among the debris releases spores leading to allergies.

“C&D waste blocks drainages, it leads to water borne disease such as diarrhea, typhoid. When your drainage spills on to the road, this water gets into ground water and reaches the kitchen and bathrooms,” Mehta says. Not all ground water is treated or filtered or equipped to deal with sewage water. Lead in house paints can seep into ground water and when ingested can lead to chronic anemia.

Globally C&D waste is often recycled and reused. Singapore recycles 98 per cent of its C&D waste, while 63 per cent was recycled in Scotland. But in India the recycling and reuse industry is struggling to attract takers. Avikal Somvanshi from CSE says, “Currently there is no model for managing this waste at the central or state level. Some municipalities have on their own started taking action as it started to become problematic for them.”

For example, the Municipal Corporation of Chandigarh collects debris within 48 hours when residents call the waste hotline. Since 2011, the Gurgaon municipal authority has been claiming on its website the city will have two to three C&D recycling plants. But none to be found on ground,” he adds.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi is the only one in country that operates a C&D waste recycling plant in partnership with Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Ltd (IL&FS). According to Sandeep Malhotra, manager of IL&FS, Delhi generates nearly 5,000 tons of C&D waste per day and the recycling plant scientifically processes about 1,200 tons per day and has handled about 1.54 millions of tons of waste since its inception in 2009.

Malhotra says the recycled products are “very good in strength.” “The main thing is acceptability of the product in government sector and big builders. There are some BIS [Bureau of Indian standards] codes, which are to be revised, which says only fresh material should be used.” He adds that they can be used as material in the construction of footpaths, parking lots and non-load bearing sections.

“The products need government support,” he adds.

About Bijoyeta Das

Bijoyeta Das is a journalist and photographer. She has reported from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, South Korea, South Africa and USA and holds a masters degree in Journalism from Northeastern University, USA and a photojournalism postgraduate diploma from Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. Das directs media development projects at Metta Center for Nonviolence.

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