Making a molehill out of a landfill mountain in Delhi

Parties make cursory mention of rising landfills in the city in their manifestos as residents living near them continue to suffer

May 09, 2019 01:34 am | Updated 03:03 pm IST - New Delhi

New Delhi, 04/05/2019: A woman cover her face due to toxic air outside her house at Ghazipur Dairy village. In the background view of Ghazipur landfill can be seen on saturday morning, New Delhi. Photo: Anuj Arora / Intern

New Delhi, 04/05/2019: A woman cover her face due to toxic air outside her house at Ghazipur Dairy village. In the background view of Ghazipur landfill can be seen on saturday morning, New Delhi. Photo: Anuj Arora / Intern

Standing at the doorstep of her house, Guddi Kumar, 29, who moved to Ghazipur after she got married 11 years ago, smiled ruefully as she talked about the over 50-metre-high Ghazipur landfill next to her house.

“Like my son, whenever he gets cough, there is no relief. We have to get medicines from Kalyanpuri as the local doctor’s medication does not work,” she said, resting her hand on her nephew, Nikhil Kumar, 5, who is to join school next month. About a stone’s throw from her asbestos-roofed, one-room house, EDMC dumpers were driving on the tracks snaking around the Ghazipur landfill.

Manifesto mention

On Monday, the AAP claimed “Ghazipur landfill is no longer being used to collect Delhi’s waste” in its East Delhi manifesto. But every day, about 650-700 trucks dump around 3,000 metric tonnes of garbage at the landfill, according to EDMC officials. The trucks continued to dump waste on Tuesday.

The issue of the three landfills in the city — Bhalswa, Ghazipur, Okhla — which are an environmental and health hazard, has hardly been mentioned during election campaigns by top leadership of the three main political parties in the fray.

On Wednesday, both the Congress and the BJP East Delhi candidates promised to find a solution to the Ghazipur landfill in their respective manifestos. The AAP manifesto had promised to clear the garbage at Ghazipur dump within two years. However, the issue was not brought up by any of the three candidates (AAP, BJP and Congress) of East Delhi when interviewed a week ago about the core issues in the area.

The Hindu talked to about 15 people living near Ghazipur and Okhla landfills who complained about stench, health issues and politicians who promise to find a solution to the problem only during elections.

After part of the Ghazipur landfill collapsed on September 1, 2017, killing two people, dumping of waste was temporarily stopped at all three landfills in the city. But it resumed as there was no other space to dump the waste. The three landfills had crossed their safe height limits more than a decade ago.

Diseases, polluted water

From the bedstead to the rim of the buckets of water, there were swamps of flies everywhere in Mahendri Devi’s house.

Her mother-in-law, Maya, 60, who has been staying near the landfill for the last 30 years, took out a prescription from National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases, Delhi.

“When we told the doctor that we live near a landfill, he asked us to take her [Maya] somewhere else. When we took her back to our village, she was better, but her health deteriorated when we came back here,” said Maya’s son, Karan Kalva, 38.

“I have breathing difficulty. I have to use a pump to breath better,” the 60-year-old said.

Pointing in the direction of a pond which separates their settlement and the landfill, Guddi said: “It used to be a canal. But people encroached on it and now it’s a pond. When it rains, water from the pond enters our house.”

She said things have only worsened after they started living in the area. “When I got married and came here, the landfill was further away from our house, but now it’s closer,” she said. “We want to move out of this place.”

Devi, a mother of four children, said, “Trucks move throughout the night and they do not even spray water on the dusty tracks [of the landfill]. Talking about a waste-to-electricity plant set up next to the landfill, she said: “More smell and smoke emanates from that company.”

Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager at the Centre for Science and Environment, said landfills cause both environmental and health hazards. “Soil and groundwater near landfills get polluted. Also, they emit methane, which catches fire and pollutes the air,” she said. “The life expectancy of people who live around landfills is less.”

Fifty-five-year-old Lucky Ram’s one-room shack made of tin sheets has Okhla landfill’s boundary as the fourth wall. Squatting on the ground outside his shack, he said, “When it rains, there is so much stench form the landfill that we lose our appetite. How can you eat when you feel like puking?”

Ram, a labourer hailing from West Bengal, has been staying in the shack for the last two years. He is currently working at the under-construction ESIC Hospital building next to the landfill.

“After it rains, reddish black water from the landfill floods the area. When we eat rice, there are flies all over it,” he said as two of his friends nodded in agreement.

The employees of the hospital, who live in the nearby government quarters, also complained about the landfill. “Many families moved out of this place after their children fell ill frequently because of the landfill,” said Sneha, 34, who works as a pharmacist at the hospital. “Wind brings dust from the landfill and if I don’t clean the house for a day it looks like a dusty road.”

Anil Machanta, 44, who runs a dairy farm, about 30 metres from the Ghazipur landfill, said, “When the winds blows, the gases from the landfill make it difficult to breathe. I know it is dangerous, but what can I do?”

Way forward

“What we have in Delhi are non-sanitary, non-scientific landfills. These are just dump sites or hillocks of garbage,” Ms. Sambyal said. She said there should be decentralised processing of waste. “Delhi should use hybrid solutions, but landfills are definitely not the answer.”

Chitra Mukherjee, head of advocacy and policy at Chintan, an environmental NGO, had a similar view. “The landfills are a report card on how poor is the waste management system in India. The wet waste should be composted at house or colony level and dry waste should be recycled.”

Both the experts said that the existing rules are not implemented by the municipal corporations and this has led to the mess in handling of waste in Delhi.

Political apathy

A majority of the people said they have accepted that nothing can be done about the landfills.

The residents near Ghazipur claimed that none of the candidates of the three major political parties had come to the area. Labourers living next to the Okhla landfill said they do not vote in Delhi.

Mr. Machanta, said, “Most people run dairy farms in the area but they don’t live here. If we had our vote here, then something could have been done about it.”

When asked whether she had demanded dumping to be stopped at the landfill when politicians came to ask for votes during last election, Devi shook her head. “This won’t be shifted out. It’s going to be here.”

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