Delhi is a city of 32 lakh people and growing, leaving the municipal authorities of Delhi NCR with the herculean task of collecting, segregating, processing, recycling and dumping all of the solid waste generated. An estimated 1,1108 TPD (tonnes per day) is collected according to a 2022 Delhi Pollution Control Committee report.

According to the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016, government departments in Delhi are supposed to handle and process all of Delhi’s waste through source segregation. Households were also warned about strict compliance with the new decisions, in 2021 decisions to fine those that refuse to separate their garbage, were underway.

Blue and green dual-bin trash cans were seen on the streets of Delhi. Some had coloured dustbin liners, and exteriors painted to properly demarcate both sections. Yet, despite these measures, Delhi NCR only recycles up to 50% of trash collected so far. Most of the city’s garbage is being disposed of in open landfills and dumps.

The frontline workers of Delhi’s solid waste collection departments said, while there is a definite increase in segregation, it is not always done correctly. According to these sanitation workers, the residential areas are doing a better job of dividing their waste in different coloured bags for collection.

The workers say segregating garbage into different bags is beneficial. It allows them to work in a more sanitary and efficient way. Knowing which bag contains food items, or biohazardous waste from hospitals, keeps everyone safe.

“We know we have to be more careful with certain wastes, and it is safer for us this way. Division of garbage helps the rag pickers also take what they can sell, after we have thrown the garbage away”, said Ajay Kumar, who is a sanitation worker in the Chanakyapuri area.

The sanitation workers hope that more people will learn about proper waste disposal over time. Public dustbins are overloaded with even more random litter and garbage.

Bijender Paswan who is a sanitation worker in a residential area of central Delhi said, “At least from the households people send their food waste in a separate bag, outside however no one knows which dustbin is for what and no one follows any rules.”

However, he added that the segregated garbage was collected, in a single truck. Regardless of the colour of the bag, it is all transported in one vehicle and presumably taken to a sorting centre or landfill. This also increases the risk of contamination between the different waste categories, and might change whether certain refuse can be recycled or repurposed, explained Paswan.

Rag pickers sift through this unsorted garbage at landfills or smaller dumps. They are the last in line of Delhi’s garbage segregation system. Plastic, cardboard etc, are removed for resale.

Santosh Kumar, who has done this job for more than a year, sorts piles of garbage under the busy flyover of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur. “Everything comes together, and I separate them into bottles and cardboard to sell. If the garbage starts coming segregated, it is both good and bad, it will be cleaner, but it will go for further sorting somewhere else,” said Kumar.

The lack of proper segregation allows people like Kumar to organise the discard and earn a daily living. For now, as the city struggles to manage its overflowing trash problem, ragpickers are the helping hands who make sure at least some of the wrongly disposed of garbage is recycled.

While there have been slow increments in the total amount of waste recycled, numbers still range from 48% in East Delhi, 50% in South Delhi, 47.2% in North Delhi, and 100% only in NDMC. A large portion of total waste generated is left untreated or mishandled.

Wrongful bagging of garbage, mishandling when transporting, and lack of enough treatment infrastructure results in what we see today. According to Sonali Mehra, who has worked in various waste management departments, and is currently a project associate with Swachhata knowledge partners, better collaboration between citizens and the state is needed. “Many policies and directives have been taken for the betterment of our waste management and there has been a significant difference, yet there is more work to be done.

“Fostering a collaborative and inclusive approach between policymakers, formal waste management entities, and waste pickers’ associations can lead to more comprehensive and sustainable solutions,” said Mehra. This, she added, will allow a balance, and bridge the existing gap between authoritative legislation and ground work.

The government authority’s various attempts at organising solid waste management jumbled down the line with local grassroots-level independent workers currently composing the sanitation operations for Delhi NCR. One can only hope as policy after policy is passed that eventually reality will catch up and reflect them.

This story is published as part of The Citizen's two week mentorship programme.

Text photographs (except Cover) by Sumantika Bhandari