Friday, 29 July 2016

When Indira Gandhi wasted money on waste management


(Part of My Memoirs)







      During my long innings in the Government of India, I often found Prime Minister Indra Gandhi and her son Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi would not hesitate to sacrifice national interest for the sake of their personal interest, ego, whims and fancies.  Nehru too gave first priority to his own image, perhaps to win Nobel Prize for peace. Here is an example of what Indira Gandhi did during her visit to Denmark a couple of months before her assassination in 1984.

Before her visit, I received a proposal from the Ministry of Non-Conventional Sources of Energy to set up a waste management plant in Delhi. At that time I was Joint Adviser in the Project Appraisal Division (PAD) of the Planning Commission. The proposal had come for techno-economic appraisal.   According to the details furnished by the Ministry, a waste management plant was to be set up with Danish assistance in outer Delhi; garbage collected from all over the city was to be transported to the plant; garbage would be fed in a central incinerator plant and the heat generated would be used to generate electricity. The entire plant was to be imported from Denmark and the cost was to be met out of Danish aid.

Prima facie, there were two advantages: disposal of garbage and generation of electricity as by-product. It was also mentioned in support of the proposal that such planets existed in several developed countries and were running successfully. It was submitted as an integrated project; generation of electricity was possible only when the incinerator was large enough. For objective techno-economic appraisal, I divided the project into two parts: (a) cost of disposal of garbage at a central place and (b) incremental cost of generation of electricity.

The cost of generation of electricity depended primarily on the calorific value of garbage. Clarifications obtained from the Ministry revealed that the calorific value was very low, much lower than the calorific value of garbage in developed countries. It is quite natural because in our country rag-pickers collect papers and everything which could be of some value. What is ultimately left is completely rotten. Moreover, during the rainy season garbage is completely wet and cannot be incinerated easily. My analysis indicated that the incremental cost of generation – excluding the cost of transportation and incineration –would be more than Rs. 10/- and that there would be no generation of electricity during the rainy season. No consumer would be ready to buy electricity at that cost. Even in 2016, it is a very high cost. That calculation was done 32 years ago, in 1984.

Naturally, the finding demolished any justification for a large central incinerator. I examined the options. One option was to use garbage for landfilling which was being done in the past (and is being done even today). If garbage was to be incinerated, it would the much more economical to set up smaller plants in different parts of the city. Transportation of garbage from far-off places would require specially designed trucks; transportation in conventional open trucks would result in garbage falling on road throughout the journey. Such smaller plants could be easily manufactured in India. There was no need for importing a large plant. The Danish aid could be utilised for something useful.

During the course of appraisal, I came to learn that the Danish proposal was part of an ambitious plan. If the project succeeded in India, the manufacturer would be able to get orders from many other countries. Supply of the plant under Danish aid to India was expected to open a big market.

I was not allowed to submit my final appraisal note. My queries had upset the mandarins of the Ministry. The Secretary of the Ministry, a renowned scientist on deportation from the Atomic Energy Commission, came to me twice to discuss and influence the techno-economic appraisal. Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi was very keen to sign the agreement for the import of the integrated plant during her visit to Denmark. The Secretary had courage to submit a negative report. When he found that it was not possible to get a favourable report which would please Mrs Gandhi, the proposal was withdrawn from me. I received a formal letter letter from the Ministry that there was no need to siubmit appraisal report.

The agreement was signed during Mrs Gandhi’s visit to Denmark. She and her Danish counterpart must have been mighty pleased that a ‘historic’ agreement had been signed. Mrs Gandhi won a friend and her Danish counterpart hoped to help her country’s business. A plant was set up in North Delhi. It was a total disaster and had to be closed after wasting Rs. 30/- crore on its unsuccessful operation. A report to that effect appeared in one of the leading newspapers to Delhi. The report mentioned that nobody cared to consider the shortcomings pointed I had pointed out.


Senior bureaucrats, especially from the IAS, are often dubbed as spineless, unable to take a stand before their political masters. I have seen many of them during my long career in the government. But here was a scientist who was no different from a generalist. As a scientist he had full understanding of the technical flaws in the project but had no courage to tell the Prime Minister that it was not feasible. We used to call such scientists ‘political scientists’. I propose to write about such a political scientist of the rank of Minister of State who literally lost his cool when he discovered that a techno-economic appraisal report prepared by me opposed a project which was very dear to Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi.

Devendra Narain
June 25, 2016