Waste in Delhi

By Ojus Jain


  • What is the current status of Municipal Waste Management in Delhi? Are there any cultural/historical legacies that can be traced in today’s MWM landscape in Delhi?
  • How does class and/or socioeconomic status affect one’s experience of Delhi’s MWM? Building further, in Delhi’s vast squatter settlements, what is the role of the scavenger? How prominent is the role of the informal sector?


New Delhi, as one of India’s largest and fastest growing metropolises, has experienced substantial growth in its municipal waste in the last three decades. Driven by factors such as globalization induced from India’s 1991 economic reforms and constant urban population growth, the Delhi municipal waste management (MWM) system has struggled to effectively address the city’s evolving needs and production of waste. Many residents of Delhi routinely complain of large illegal open dumping sites, overflowing waste bins, and air and water pollution. Still, the experiences of Delhi’s residents are not uniform; individual experiences of Delhi’s MWM system are augmented by issues of socioeconomic class and status.

The MWM system in Delhi can be broadly subdivided into three constitutive stages: waste storage, waste transport/collection, and waste disposal. This report will trace household (non-human) waste and consider the status of MWM and its intersections with class at each stage.

The first stage in Delhi’s MWM is domestic waste storage. A majority of Delhi’s residents choose to store their waste in small bins outside of the home or directly in the streets (Kumar 2013). Eventually, this waste is collected by either a member of the household, a Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) sweeper, or a contracted private sweeper, and taken to the community’s dhalao, a large dumpster surrounded by a brick or concrete structure. Dhalaos are intended to store up to 16 metric tons of waste, and yet they are regularly overfilled and surrounded by stray animals (cows, pigs, dogs, etc.)

Furthermore, waste and ‘filth’ in general are highly stigmatized in Indian society, and the handling of waste is usually associated with the ‘backwards and oppressed classes,’ or socioeconomically marginalized populations. Consequently, the methods that one uses to collect and store domestic waste can be indicative of one’s socioeconomic standing. In a survey conducted of 300 households of various socioeconomic background, it was found that a majority of high- and middle-income houses relied on private contractors, hired either by themselves or by their neighborhood, to collect and segregate their waste. Rarely did high- and middle-income respondents indicate that they stored and sorted their waste themselves. The low-income respondents, on the other hand, disproportionately relied on themselves and the MCD workers to sort and segregate their waste (Kumar 2013).

Not only does this variation in collection method correspond with class, but it also has a profound influence on the efficacy of Delhi’s MWM recycling. As part of their government-backed contracts, private companies, servicing largely the middle- and high-income neighborhoods, are only required to segregate approximately 20% of all recyclable materials (Gidwani 2013). In contrast, the waste that is collected by MCD workers or stored by the individual household is segregated at much higher percentages. This is because this waste is processed in a large and intricate informal sector staffed by Delhi’s approximately 100,000 scavengers, known as kabaris. These kabaris rely on waste collected in dhalaos to scavenge for plastics, metals, and e-waste that can be sold in Delhi’s informal recycling market. They are, in fact, so effective at scavenging for waste that it is estimated that a vast majority of the city’s e-waste is processed by scavengers, and that they reduce the amount of waste reaching Delhi’s landfills by approximately 20% annually (Gidwani 2013). Despite their centrality in Delhi’s MWM, they are regularly marginalized by Delhi government officials. They are primarily targeted in two ways: by being sidelined in overly technocratic waste management solutions and being constricted in space (due to slum demolition) that is required to effectively store, sort, and segregate recyclables (Gidwani 2013).

Furthermore, Delhi is only able to effectively collect about 80% of the domestic waste produced and transport it to dhalaos (Joshi 2016). This leaves the remaining 20% to be illegally dumped in open sites near each community or settlement (Nagpure 2019). Not surprisingly, the prevalence of illegal dumping increases as one descends the socioeconomic ladder. The inefficiencies of city sweepers and personal collection mean that those in lower socioeconomic status are forced to dump their waste in their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, illegal dumping is still present in high income neighborhoods, although the illegally dumped waste tends to be inert material from construction that cannot be disposed of in dhalaos (Nagpure 2019).

The second stage of Delhi’s MWM system is waste transportation, or the process of collecting waste from dhalaos and transporting it to one of Delhi’s four massive landfills. This is carried out by two formal actors: the MCD and various private companies operating through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). Beyond the expected inefficiencies of bureaucracy, the MCD transportation system is constrained by inadequate transport vehicles and frequent damage and breakdown of existing infrastructure (Kumar 2013). The inequitable distribution amongst different neighborhoods also compounds waste transportation issues and is arguably one of the driving factors behind dhalao overflow. Thus, for the low-income neighborhoods that primarily rely on MCD sweeping and collection, infrequent trash collection is a consistent challenge. Furthermore, breakdown and damage of transportation vehicles is more likely to occur in such neighborhoods. This is because roads are narrower and less likely to be properly maintained in poorer districts (Kumar 2013). The Delhi government has tried to address this issue by introducing the aforementioned PPPs, yet it is often only the middle- and high-income neighborhoods that can afford such amenities.

The final stage of Delhi’s MWM system is waste disposal. Delhi is notoriously home to some of India’s largest open landfills, and they are the city’s overwhelmingly dominant choice of waste disposal. Though there is some composting and incineration being done at some of Delhi’s landfill sites, due to the shifting nature of waste from biodegradables to consumer materials and the relatively high humidity content, the practices of composting and incineration are not widespread in Delhi’s waste disposal (Joshi 2016). There are four landfill sites currently in use by the MCD: Okhla, Bhalswa, Narela, and Gazipur. The sites are maintained by the MCD, but private transportation agencies also purchase the rights to dump their collected waste at the landfills. Because these landfills service the waste disposal needs of the entire city, they are exceptionally saturated. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 1.4 million liters of toxic leachate flow into the Yamuna river daily (Ghosh et al 2019). This, of course, contributes to the Yamuna’s highly polluted condition. Moreover, the three primary landfill sites (Gazipur, Okhla, and Bhalswa) contribute to high levels of methane air pollution (Ghost et al 2019). Currently, the city is considering plans to generate methane-capture plants as a potential source of energy. Using the default, first-order decay, and landfill gas emission model, it has been modeled that methane captured from the landfills in 2015 could have generated 182.76 million kWh of electricity. The average household consumption of energy in Delhi during 2015 was 181 kWh; therefore, energy captured could have powered approximately 1.8 million houses in Delhi (Ghost et al 2019).

Although New Delhi experienced massive growth in its waste production since India’s economic liberalization in the early 1990s, there are few distinct historical trends that have been identified within the academic literature as explicitly contributing to the current MWM landscape in Delhi. That being said, there are powerful cultural legacies, such as the stigma on handling waste, that affect daily experiences of Delhi’s MWM system (Gidwani 2013). Interestingly, I found little literature that focused explicitly on the role of caste in Delhi’s informal and formal sector waste management. This would be a very interesting research question, and I imagine literature on the topic may yet emerge.

In conclusion, Delhi’s MWM system is substantially behind the demands of its city, and as a result, the city struggles to provide adequate waste management resources to its citizens. A given resident’s socioeconomic status only further complicates the matter, with low socioeconomic neighborhoods bearing most of the burden of infrastructure inadequacies. There is rising awareness within Delhi of the need to address the cities glaring waste management issues, yet the question now remains: how will the city chose to move forward?  


Ghosh, Pooja, et al. “Assessment of methane emissions and energy recovery potential from the municipal solid waste landfills of Delhi, India.” Bioresource Technology 272 (2019): 611-615.

Gidwani, Vinay, and Bharati Chaturvedi. “Poverty as geography: Motility, stoppage and circuits of waste in Delhi.” Urban Navigations. Routledge India, 2013. 64-92.

Joshi, Rajkumar, and Sirajuddin Ahmed. “Status and challenges of municipal solid waste management in India: A review.” Cogent Environmental Science 2.1 (2016): 1139434.

Kumar, Ashwani. “Existing situation of municipal solid waste management in NCT of Delhi, India.” Int. J. Soc. Sci 1.1 (2013): 6-17.

Nagpure, Ajay Singh. “Assessment of quantity and composition of illegal dumped municipal solid waste (MSW) in Delhi.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 141 (2019): 54-60.

Zafar, M., and B. J. Alappat. “Landfill surface runoff and its effect on water quality on river Yamuna.” Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A 39, no. 2 (2004): 375-384.

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