The Okhla case: underlining the need for dialogue and transparency in sustainable development

Despite apparent adherence to established environmental regulations, the government of Delhi is now faced with an angry community and the threat of delays and looming costs involved in possible relocation of the waste-to-energy plant it had planned to open in July 2011 in Okhla, South Delhi.

The Municipal Cooperation of Delhi (MCD) has entered a public-private partnership with Jindal ITF Ecopolis to build the 200 crore Okhla project, which should convert 1950 tones of solid waste to 16MW of energy per day. Although it is claimed that all precautions to prevent environmental or health hazards have been taken, citizens are strongly objecting the creation of the plant due to expected “poisoning of their living environment”.

For the MCD, the project is a part of the solution to two of Delhi’s most pressing problems: power shortage and waste management.  A representative of the MCD has stated that the project will meet all “statutory obligations”. It will be the first commercial Waste-to-energy plant in New Delhi and the largest of its kind in Asia.

Residents’ opposition to the project, stems mostly from concerns about the air quality of their environment. In a letter to union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, they state that “While there is overwhelming evidence that plants of these types produce toxic gases, residues and respirable particles, the Okhla plant is being set up barely 150m from the nearest established residences”. This claim is rooted in the knowledge gathered that similar plants have not worked as planned due to the composition of waste. According to a resident, in order for the waste to generate enough heat, “elements like plastic will have to be added.” Also, concerns have risen over the amounts of waste that need to be transported to the plant and related noise pollution.

According to Allard M. Nooy, CEO of the company, the technology has been proven and “the plant will be operated after complying with all conditions of the DPR (detailed project report)”. The company has won the ‘Frost & Sullivan Indian Environment Industry Excellence Award 2010’ and sees itself as continuing to add economic and social value to the economy. In reaction to the residents objections Nooy holds the opinion that any interactions with them to remove their apprehensions should be organised by the authorities and not the company.

In reaction to the residents’ letter, Jairam Ramesh has requested chief minister Sheila Dikshit to reconsider the plant’s location. Now, a meeting will be called with the residents in order to address their concerns. Ramesh has expressed the possibility to consider an alternative location.

To draw a lesson here about the nature of sustainable development, the most important issue is not who is right and who is wrong. Rather, it is evident that sustainable development entails more than meeting all “statutory obligations”. Governments must realise that citizens need to be actively involved in projects that will affect them. This involvement must begin at an early stage of the project planning and must be backed by the company engaging in the public-private partnership by providing transparent information about the concrete possible effects of the project in surrounding areas. Then, if the project is indeed harmless, citizens will have access to this information and need not object. Or, if concerns of the citizens are grounded, the location can be reconsidered at an earlier stage, saving both the negative publicity and the costs of moving the operation at such a late stage in the planning process.  Sustainable development is a process in which dialogue and transparency are essential elements.

Further reading and references:  Officials say plant to be operative in July, Residents up in arms, Sheila to review waste-to-energy plant at Okhla. Facebook page for resident’s campaign: Okhla ka Ghosla

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