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Waste-to-Energy and Ghazipur landfill closure threaten livelihoods of informal recyclers, Delhi, India


After two decades of uncontrolled dumping, Ghazipur landfill reached its capacities in 2002 and should have been shut down in 2004. However, a lack of political will and alternative disposal sites, as well as the fast-growing volumes of waste, led to its continued use in the following, and with that, environmental pollution and health hazards further augmented. A new waste-to-energy plant caused protests from waste pickers and residents alike but did not bring significant improvements in reducing waste volumes. After a deathly dump collapse in 2017, plans to close the city’s oldest and largest landfill were slowly resumed.

The landfill is located in East Delhi, next to a canal and near the city’s main wholesale meat and flower markets, and managed by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC). As of 2019, Delhi generates about 11,000 metric tons of garbage every day, from which about 3,000 tons are brought to Ghazipur, and the rest to Okhla (South Delhi), Bhalswa (North Delhi) and a newer landfill in Narela Bawana (North Delhi) [1][2][3][4]. Over the last decades, the landfill has caused severe air, water and soil contamination and by 2019 grown into one of the largest structures of Delhi, reaching more than 65 meters in height – about the size of Taj Mahal [5][6]. While technically Ghazipur should have become closed after it exceeded its capacities in 2002, the amounts of waste have doubled since then and remained a permanent threat to the safety of people working and living in the area [7]. According to a 2019 report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), 4.74 million tons of garbage have been dumped in Ghazipur since its opening in 1984 [8]. Efforts to remediate the site have so-far been insufficient [9].

Ghazipur landfill is frequented by about 1,500 waste pickers, who every day collect about 20 to 25 percent of the dumped waste. As of 2016, about 1,000 waste picker families lived in an informal colony as close as 100 meters from the landfill, many of whom had been there for over 20 years [7][10][11]. Most of them are migrants from Bihar, West Bengal, Assam or Bangladesh - usually marginalized groups without formal rights, for whom, in lack of other alternatives, the collecting and selling of recyclables served as a way to survive and sometimes build an existence in Delhi [5][12][13]. There are up to 350,000 waste pickers in Delhi in total, where they typically earn between 30 and 100 Rs per day (about 0.75 – 2.50 $US) and are estimated to recycle between 15 to 20 percent of the city’s waste. Despite that, the group remains highly vulnerable and especially people working at landfills – usually women and children (in Ghazipur about 30 percent, as young as seven years old) – are at the end of the informal recycling chain, as arriving waste has usually already been sorted through for the more valuable items [1][5][11][12][14].

Ghazipur’s waste pickers are thus particularly exposed to permanent risks and toxic conditions at the landfill. Waste of all sorts has been dumped largely without any segregation or treatment, besides the covering with earth and insecticides, and occasional compacting. As of 2016, the site continued to receive about 3,000 tons of waste, including hazardous medical and electronic waste. [10] As of 2019, leachate remained still untreated and went down the drain [8][15]. Particular matter and toxic smell from the dumpsite spread over kilometers, affecting not only waste pickers but also residents of Ghazipur, Kondli, Kaushamb, Kalyanpuri, Kohda and Gharoli, among others [1][10][16]. Nearby residents report that the land was once forested and used for grazing, while they are now affected by contaminated water and air; many of them cannot afford to relocate and several complaints at local authorities and a court have gone unanswered. The pollution has caused severe health impacts, ranging from skin infections, dengue, and malaria (from mosquitoes breeding in humid garbage and wastewater), tuberculosis to asthma attacks and cancer [3][13][14][15]. Waste pickers report about similar health problems and regularly falling sick. For instance, a member of the waste picker colony in 2019 stated: “Birth defects are common. Everyone has asthma or stomach illness. Every year, someone dies of cancer. The water tastes of metal, we know it’s poisonous. But we have nowhere to go.” [14]

Large amounts of methane are generated through the decomposition of organic waste in anaerobic conditions (which is often the case when unsegregated waste is piled up) so that the site is now a large greenhouse gas emitter. Released gases regularly result in fires and occasional explosions, that have led to accidents and injuries of waste pickers. In 2010, a massive fire reached the waste pickers colony, burned down all huts and killed two dwellers. In 2013, another fire destroyed 180 homes [11]. A methane capturing facility was installed in 2015 but proved inefficient [8]. Fire outbreaks have occurred again, such as most recently in October 2017 and March 2018 [16]. Also, accidents have been caused by unstable slopes. The most tragic incident happened in September 2017, when parts of the garbage mountain collapsed after heavy monsoon rains and crashed into the nearby canal. The collapse killed two people and left five more injured and was regarded as the result of years of inaction, as previous expert warnings about the safety risks had been ignored. After that, it was announced that the landfill would become closed and waste pickers become prohibited from accessing [3][7][8][10].

To tackle Delhi’s increasing waste problem, the city in 2007 initiated a controversial shift towards waste-to-energy technologies and announced the building of two incinerators. The first project was launched in Okhla, where South Delhi’s landfill was in a similarly critical situation, but the plans for a 16 MW plant had been strongly opposed by civil society groups since 2009 [17][18] – see also related conflict in the EJAtlas. In Ghazipur, the constructions of a 12 MW plant became delayed several times but were eventually started in 2013, as part of a public-private partnership between the company IL&FS, EDMC and the Delhi government. A third plant with a capacity of 24 MW was announced in Narela Bawana [17][19][20].

As Demaria and Schindler (2016) note, these projects continued a process of privatization, which already started in 2005 with the contracting of private companies for waste collection and transportation services in many parts of the city. The incinerators moreover implied a reconfiguration of Delhi’s waste management, as especially the high-calorific recyclable waste was contested and became now more and more incorporated into private, large-scale schemes, while it had so-far nourished the informal recycling chain. [17] That, above all, implied that waste pickers became increasingly dispossessed from access to valuable recyclable waste, and left in an even more precarious situation. In Ghazipur, the incinerator thus threatened the livelihoods of thousands of waste pickers, as most of them would not receive a job at the plant (about 100 jobs were promised) and not be able to find another one. IL&FS publicly noted that it was not responsible for the welfare of the waste pickers, although it also funded CSR projects to support the affected community [10][13][20].

The project faced strong opposition by residents of Ghazipur and waste paste picker organizations of Delhi. The residents welfare association and the waste pickers union “All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh” (AIKMM) formed the Ghazipur Anti-Incinerator Committee and in 2012 issued a press release in which it demanded the immediate stop of all ongoing work on the plant, the dismissal of all waste-to-energy projects, participatory and decentralized waste management policies, and recognition and support of the informal recycling sector. Also a citizens hearing (“Jan Sunwai”) attended by 300 people and a demonstration march to the Delhi Secretariat were organized [17][21][22][23]. The formed alliance, which also consisted of other waste picker and environmental groups, called the project an environmental crime, as it would emit carcinogenic emissions and leave toxic ash and residues, and because it was placed right next to a colony of waste pickers, a school, several health facilities, and a dairy farm. They further pointed out that incineration threatens the livelihoods of waste pickers as it directly competes with recycling for waste of high calorific value. It would thus eliminate jobs and disfavor recycling in the area, but also be more costly. As an alternative, AIKMM called for a socially inclusive recycling model that also ensures better at source separation of waste [23].

Ghazipur’s waste-to-energy plant remained controversial after its opening in 2016 and, as feared, caused health hazards through the unchecked release of carcinogenic dioxins and furans to the atmosphere [10][18][22]. Moreover, despite an official capacity of 1,500 tons of waste daily, large quantities could not be processed and were left as residues at the dump (biodegradable waste, inert waste, and ash from combustion) [24]. In fact, according to a 2017 study in Ghazipur and Okhla, incinerated waste had only half of the calorific value than actually necessary, as 55 to 60 percent was organic and of high moisture content - and it would thus first need better segregation measures. As a result, dioxin emissions are higher and from a total of 5,000 tons of waste incinerated in the city daily, about 40 percent end up as fly and bottom ash in unlined landfills, releasing heavy metals and plastic particles to the air and groundwater. [18] This also confirmed previous objections that waste-to-energy is not an appropriate solution for Delhi’s waste problem. According to a 2019 CSE-report, only 15 percent of the city’s waste is non-recyclable and of high-calorific value, and thus suitable for incineration according to the 2016 solid waste management rules. Moreover, the tariff for energy from waste-to-energy plants was almost double than the one from coal and solar plants, which means that incineration is only economically viable for investors due to the high subsidies. The CSE also noted that there was no continuous monitoring of emissions, as the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) currently only controlled the installation of monitoring equipment but not the monitoring itself [25].

After the collapse of 2017, waste became temporarily directed to Rani Kheda, where residents and local politicians started to stage protests and environmentalists alarmed about the risk of water pollution [26]. Hence, shortly after, the dumping of waste was resumed in Ghazipur, accompanied by new promises to remediate the landfill and complaints of locals about the pollution [15]. Also, informal recycling continued, and along with that, the severe risks caused by steep and unstable slopes, subsurface fires, and smoke emissions. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2017 urged the local authorities to close Ghazipur, Bhalswa, and Okhla landfills, to find alternative locations and to adopt bio-remediation and bio-mining strategies while experts also called for more scientific approaches to develop sanitary landfill sites. The directions were only implemented slowly by the EDMC, so that in 2019 a parliamentary panel again urged Delhi’s authorities to take immediate action. Also, several other public bodies suggested bio-mining (to extract minerals and useful materials like plastic, rubber, metals and gases) and to convert the area into a park, so that a tender process for bio-remediation was started. A project initiated in 2016 under the umbrella of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission planned to segregate and use about 65 percent of the landfill’s accumulated garbage for highway construction but had become delayed several times. In 2019, EDMC noted that waste volumes had continued to increase, but that the area could be fully cleared within five years if the project would finally take off. At the end of 2019, it started to segregate waste with trommel screens [10][16][27][28][29][30]. However, as of March 2020, the remediation efforts in Ghazipur were still regarded as insufficient by the CPCB, which in a report noted that no stabilization measures were taken and also the screening of legacy waste and treatment of leachate were not done in line with the guidelines. A part of the segregated waste was used as “refuse-derived fuel” for the waste-to-energy plant, but the remaining screened waste simply remained at the site [2][7][31].

In the search for alternative locations, EDMC in 2018 requested land in Sonia Vihar and Ghonda Gujran from the Delhi Development Authority. Ghonda Gujran is planned to receive a supposedly more modern waste-to-energy plant, a bio-methanation plant, an aerobic composter, and a small construction and demolition plant, and would thus produce compost, methane gas, and manure out of wet waste as well as bricks out of the residual ash. Non-processed waste would be placed in a “scientifically managed” landfill. While the NGT approved the plans in 2019 and EDMC announced in 2020 that works could start soon, the project encountered strong opposition from residents and also environmentalists raised concerns about possible contamination through leachate as the proposed project risks contaminating important aquifers and the Yamuna river. Thus, this case repeats the patterns of previous controversial location proposals and “not in my backyard” protests [2][6][24][32].

Moreover, several new waste-to-energy projects in Delhi are in the pipeline, in different stages of implementation: EDMC has proposed to install a new waste-to-energy plant in Ghazipur and in 2019 signed an agreement with the Singapore-based company AG Dauters for a “zero carbon emission and residue” plasma gasification technology to convert accumulated waste into energy. The project has still no formal approval, but is planned as a one-year pilot phase with a possible extension for 21 years. In South Delhi, there are controversial plans to expand Okhla to 40 MW, which in 2019 provoked new citizens' resistance, and for a new incinerator in Tehkhand. In North Delhi, two incinerators are proposed in Bhalswa and Narela Bawana. Officials of the municipal corporations noted that the city had no other solution than to expand WTE projects, given the growing waste volumes, the problems in finding new landfill sites and insufficient waste segregation, and argued that better measures could be adopted to control emissions. However, as it is feared, these expansion plans are likely to continue the harmful impacts of incineration and irresponsible waste dumping [4][18][33].

What seems to largely remain sidelined throughout this process to tackle Delhi’s waste management problems is the inclusion and support of Delhi’s informal recycling sector. In Ghazipur, waste pickers and people living in the nearby informal colonies continue to face high insecurity over their future, albeit there have been some efforts to provide alternative livelihoods for the community. For example a 2013 project by the Gulmeher foundation (supported by IL&FS) trained about 150 women waste pickers in upcycling flower and paper waste to manufacture calendars, wall art, decoration and colors [34]. 

Environmental groups such as Chintan and Toxics Link have favored the closure and remediation of the landfill area but also called for more decentralized and socially inclusive waste management models as well as the large-scale implementation of waste segregation at source and bio-methanation programs [4][7][14][16]. Such attempts are also advocated by several waste pickers organizations across Delhi. For example, AIKMM and Safai Sena have been organizing waste pickers to register for waste collection services and to voice claims over social and political rights, such as the issuing of ID cards, access to child and health care, and basic welfare schemes, or the provisions of spaces and equipment for waste segregation [1][17]. Similarly, the National Association of Waste Workers aims to organize waste pickers as a way to make their claims heard to policymakers, increase their social recognition, and halt harassment by the police and authorities. The association has been struggling for the right to the city for waste pickers and participatory decisions over urban development in Delhi, forming coalitions with slum-dweller organizations, NGOs and trade unions [1][5].

These organizations have also called out the delays and political reluctance in implementing existing waste management laws, which, at least on the paper, would promise better integration of the informal recycling sector into waste management. Most notably, under the Management of Solid Waste Rules 2016 and Delhi’s Bye-Laws adopted in 2018, waste pickers would have to become mandatorily included in municipal waste management. Moreover, if the rules were implemented in practice, generators of waste would have to segregate wet, dry and hazardous waste at source, supported by decentralized sorting stations, recyclables would be recycled, wet waste would be composted or processed to methane, and only materials such as low-quality plastic, multi-layered plastic, or certain polymers that cannot be recycled would go to waste-to-energy plants.[1][18][24].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Waste-to-Energy and Ghazipur landfill closure threaten livelihoods of informal recyclers, Delhi, India
State or province:Delhi
Location of conflict:Ghazipur, East Delhi
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Urban development conflicts
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Waste privatisation conflicts / waste-picker access to waste
Specific commodities:Land
Domestic municipal waste
Recycled Metals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

As of 2019, about 2,200 tons of solid waste, 700 tons of construction and demolition waste, and 200 tons of drain silt were dumped in Ghazipur every day, as no other options were available. About 1,000 tons of that became incinerated, leaving about 400 tons of ash and residues that end up in the landfill, while the rest was dumped directly. [9]

Project area:29 ha
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:100,000
Start of the conflict:2002
Company names or state enterprises:Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited (IL&FS ) from India - Operates 12 MW waste-to-energy plant in Ghazipur
Relevant government actors:East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC)
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)
National Green Tribunal (NGT)
Delhi Development Authority (DDA)
Government of NCT Delhi
Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Techno
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Ghazipur Anti-Incinerator Committee
Residence welfare Associations Ghazipur
All India Kabari Mazdoor Mahasangh (AIKMM)
New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI)
National Association of Waste Workers
Gulmeher Green
Safai Sena
Centre for Education and Communication (CEC)
Human Rights Law Network (HRLN)
Association for Social Justice and Research (ASOJ)
Bal Vikash Dhara (BVD)
Green Flag Kachra Sharmik Union and Janpahal
Waste Wise
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)
WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment – Globalizing and Organizing)
Hazards Center
Centre for Science and Environment
Toxics Link

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Wastepickers, recyclers
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Referendum other local consultations
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Occupational disease and accidents, Infectious diseases, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Potential: Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Violations of human rights
Potential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Development of alternatives:Proposed alternatives by environmental and waste picker groups, as outlined above, are the inclusion of informal waste pickers in door-to-door collection and large-scale, decentralized models for waste segregation and recycling, composting and bio-methanation, as well as scientifically-managed landfills for waste that cannot be treated in another way.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Longstanding problems in waste management have so-far been tackled with technological fixes, without considering social and environmental compounds - as for example the consequences of burning recyclable waste for vulnerable waste picker communities, the lacking support for informal and grassroots recycling practices, and the fact that existing regulations about the hierarchy in waste management and the need to implement waste segregation and composting programs have been largely distorted in the course of the implemented projects.

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Solid Waste Management Rules 2016

Solid Waste Management Bye-Laws 2018 for the National Capital Territory of Delhi (NCT)

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[17] Demaria, F., Schindler, S. (2016): Contesting Urban Metabolism: Struggles Over Waste-to-Energy in Delhi, India. In: Antipode, 48/2, 293-313.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[26] Adak, B. (2017): 'Our village will not become a DUMP!' Angry residents living beside new Delhi waste site protest against landfill as first garbage trucks diverted from deadly Ghazipur trash mountain arrive. Daily Mail Today India, 04.09.2017. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[2] Piplani, G. (2018): The Rising mess Around Ghazipur Landfill. 12.04.2018. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[21] Globalrec (2012): Actualizaciones desde Asia. Globalrec - May and August Newsletter, 27.09.2012. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[1] Singh, P. (2018): In absence of policy, ragpickers search for identity, facilities for kids. The Times of India, 11.04.2018. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[7] NDTV : Closure of Delhi’s Ghazipur Landfill Leave Many Ragpickers Without Any Livelihood. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[8] Sambyal, S., Agarwal, R. (2017): Ghazipur landfill collapse is a result of years of inaction. Down to Earth Blog, 02.09.2017. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[13] Burke, J. (2012): Cleaning up India’s waste: but what is the future of tip pickers? The Guardian, 02.07.2012. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[14] Ghosal, A. (2019): Not everyone celebrating Ghazipur landfill closure: Garbage our livelihood, say ragpickers who live there. Indian Express, 13.10.2019. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[16] Krishna, S. (2019): How one of Delhi’s tallest structures is contributing to climate change. Citizen Matters, 17.07.2019. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[18] Devraj, R., Sambyal, S. (2019): How Delhi’s waste-to-energy plants are way off the mark. Down to Earth Blog, 20.01.2019. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[28] Aggarwal, M. (2018): Delhi’s Qutub Minar Gets Competition from a Tower of Garbage. The Wire, 12.08.2018. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[32] Sharma, V. (2020): Baby steps towards a new waste plant. The Times of India, 19.02.2020. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[10] Mukherjee, C. (2017): The Ghazipur Disaster Shows Everything That’s Wrong With How Delhi Gets Rid Of Its Waste. Youth Ki Awaaz, 05.09.2017. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[11] Pillai, S. (2016): Methane trapped beneath makes Ghazipur landfill a ticking time bomb. Hindustan Times, 28.03.2016. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

[12] Globalrec (2015): “Trash Mountain”: Photos from Ghazipur landfill. (Online, last accessed: 25.03.2020)

Other documents

Officials threatening a waste picker in Ghazipur in 2017 (Photo credit: Raj K Raj)

Meta information

Contributor:EnvJustice Project (MS)
Last update24/04/2020



A junkyard in the waster picker colony

(Source: Polis Blog)

Ghazipur landfill in 2019, next to the WTE plant

(Source: AFPTV)