An account of the challenges and learnings of creating an open-source map of the C&D waste management infrastructure in Delhi.
The itch initially was to use my master thesis as a way to unravel the complex matter that was the Indian construction sector. I knew I would lose heart had I not *had* to do it. Neither would I have found the time or fursat alongside the hundred other things I’d be doing.
So here I am, 6 months of gruelling research, multiple interviews, and hundreds of surveys later – continuing my investigation into the problem of Malba in India. Thanks to my thesis, I have spoken to people I’d otherwise be too intimidated to talk to – senior government officials, top architects, published researchers. And today, as I have a somewhat-comprehensive picture of this sector, I attempt to transcribe this for you in a simpler manner.
Malba Map emerged out of a simple need to make everything spatially and visually clear. My aim with it was simple enough – to mark out hotspots of illegal dumping (where the Malba is) and the C&D waste infrastructure of the city (where the Malba should be) onto a map. And then figuring that last-mile connectivity. Check out what we have so far on the map below.
Any Indian city’s C&D waste infrastructure comprises two things – recycling centres and intermediary collection points for waste. Delhi has around 5 functional recycling plants and over 200 designated collection points. It is important to note the word “designated” because it implies the responsibility of the Urban Local Body (ULB) to allot these.
When you google these points you get no concrete information (pun intended), but rather an article from DownToEarth from 2019 stating that these collection points are nowhere to be found. They even describe the experience of calling several ULB helplines, getting vague responses like – “Put it in the Bhalswa landfill” or “Just call some labourers. They will throw it away” – if any responses at all. Thanks to my student researcher status, I managed to get my hands on the location for around 55 points of the EDMC. After my thesis, I found information for another 15 points in NDMC. Mind you, 125+ points were still rogue.
After months of calling the SDMC to no avail, it finally took an insider contact to find the location of another 125+ points. Bless him.
Did that mean my search was complete?
Did I finally have all the data I needed?
Hallelujah! I could not believe it.
And I probably shouldn’t have believed it.
Plot Twist time.
So me and my wonderful, hardworking team at Malba Project (special props to our intern Rohit), started mapping these collection points out tentatively on google maps. We started noticing some weird inconsistencies such as mentioning the same collection point twice (make that one point less for Delhi), typos etc. This made even the tentative marking of these collection points quite hard.
After we had marked these out on google maps, we started venturing out to physically validate these.
Here are photos of what we have found. This is from a collection point that was supposed to be ‘Near New Ashok Vihar Police Station’. Nothing exists here. There’s some rubble right outside the boundary wall of the police station, but we wouldn’t call this a collection point.
Figure 1: The “Collection Point” near New Ashok Vihar Police Station is merely a field. (© Malba Project)
And here’s a ‘Collection Point’ in New Kondli that is actually a parking lot.
Figure 2: The “Collection Point” at New Kondli which has actually a parking lot. (© Malba Project)
Just for your reference, here is what a collection point could look like. This is an image from Noida, Delhi’s neighbouring city, so close that it falls under the Delhi-NCR (national capital region) jurisdiction. It does the bare minimum by demarcating its boundaries and indicating with a board outside it that this is indeed the right place to dump your Malba. However, according to the C&D Waste Management Rules 2016, this facility should be covered and have sprinklers inside to avoid dust – a major contributor to air pollution.
Figure 3: Collection Point in Sector-62 Noida (© Malba Project)
But why is Delhi (with all its money and infrastructure) doing so badly in terms of its C&D waste management, when its neighbour which literally started a year back, is doing astronomically better? We were puzzled. Were we just not able to find these points? What’s happening? So we decided to take a trip down to ask some ULB personnel about it. And what they let slip just saved us a lot of effort (we hope). We know you saw it coming.
These points are fake. They do not exist. They exist only on paper.
Anywhere the ULB sees an empty ground – they just designate it as a C&D waste collection point because they are legally obliged to. Who will check whether this is real or not?
Malba Project will, for starters.
The ULBs publish this information in archaic mediums such as newspapers every few years so that no one ever finds this information and traces it back to the ULB being complacent. And they get to say – “We have 200+ collection points in Delhi. The most in any city in the country. We have put all the information regarding these in the public domain. If people can’t find the location, it is because they don’t want to follow the law. What can we do? It is not our fault.” (Actual quote from a ULB official)
The ULBs are blaming it on the people being foolish, callous, uncaring. That distracts from who really is to blame here.
There was a wonderful saying that one of my professors in Norway would say. He said, “We believe that people are inherently good. If you show them why they need to do something, and how to do it, we truly believe that people will do it.”
“We believe that people are inherently good. If you show them why they need to do something, and how to do it, we truly believe that people will do it.” Professors in NTNU, Norway
That is the attitude with which they implement policies. That is the trust between people and the government which makes Scandinavia so aspirational. I would like to believe that India can be like that too. But we need a government that actually wants to do good. And we as residents of Delhi definitely want to put our trust in our elected representatives.
Watch how you can contribute to the Malba Map.