By Chitra Mukherjee:
A large portion of the 50m high Ghazipur landfill, almost matching up with another majestic towering structure of Delhi, the Qutub Minar, collapsed on September 1, 2017.
The Ghazipur landfill is the oldest operational landfill in Delhi. The landfill, one of the four dump sites in Delhi, commissioned in 1984, reached its saturation point in 2002 when it reached 20m in height and yet continued receiving 3000 metric tonnes, about one-fourth Delhi’s total waste generation, of mixed waste every day. This waste comprises of rotting food waste, recyclable scrap like plastic, paper, cardboard, metal, glass, bio-medical waste like bandages, injections, medicines, hazardous electronic waste like used cell phones, batteries, sanitary napkins, diapers, rusted knives, blades, broken CFLs, tube-lights and much more dangerous, toxic and hazardous material that Delhi generates and throws away every day without segregating, composting or recycling.
The landfill is like a sanitary dump, without linings or systems to collect leachate or any means to flare landfill gas. The current practice includes covering the waste with earth and insecticides. Some compression is also undertaken, but not routinely. The landfill itself comprises of smoky patches, where spontaneous combustion takes place, likely resulting in the release of dioxins and furans. Greenhouse gases are also released from this landfill, and occasional explosions from methane have been observed.
The Ghazipur landfill is not built according to the Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2000 which mandates that all landfills need to be scientific ones and should follow several strict criteria like having non-permeable liners to take care of toxic leachate to avoid water pollution, should have proper garbage management facilities installed, etc. So this is for all purposes a dump site which pollutes the air, land, and water of Delhi and creates cancer clusters around it. If you climb up to the top, you can see the dense development around it. Apart from residential areas, there is a planned fish and chicken market, a slaughterhouse with waste disposal facilities, and highly controversial waste to energy plant that receives 1200 m tonnes of waste every day from the dumpsite and proposes to make energy out of it, a very expensive, polluting and questionable plan.
It is also home to about 1500 families of informal waste handlers who collect 20-25% of the waste being dumped every day on the dump site. They brave hazardous and highly unsafe work conditions to collect more than 40 different kinds of recyclable scrap including PET, plastic, metal, glass, and even human hair.
With the landfill collapse, an inevitable blame game has started among the local government and the municipality officials whose jurisdiction the landfill falls under. A proposal has been made to shift the waste coming in at Ghazipur in East Delhi all the way to a fresh dump site at Rani Khera, in North West Delhi on the Delhi Haryana border.
All this begs the question – why are we not looking at long term solutions for waste management? Our governments have always been infamous for their knee jerk reactions in the face of crisis, and disaster management methods that instead of mitigation only create potentially bigger threats to the environment.
The solution to managing waste isn’t creating bigger and newer landfills. The solution isn’t dumping the waste from the cities to the hinterland and causing NIMBY (not in my backyard) agitations. And the solution is definitely not creating waste to energy incinerators for burning waste and generating carcinogenic dioxins and furans.
We need to read our very progressive Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2016 which has mandated reducing and recycling waste. We need to consider decentralized models for processing waste instead of carting all the waste from the source of generation to a far away dump site incurring huge expenses in transportation and manpower. We need to look at including and integrating the informal waste recycling sector of waste-pickers, kabbadis, scrap dealers who work, collect, and process waste, making India one of the countries with the highest recycling rates in the world. This sector is responsible for recycling 20% of India’s waste and are the true environmentalists. It is high time they got their due and are not treated like the trash they pick up and recycle. We need them to keep our cities clean and green. So let us not rob them of their livelihoods, their children of their education and a basic right to a healthy, safe and secure life. They help prevent the creation of landfills. But for them, we would have more Ghazipurs, Bhalaswas and Okhlas that threaten to swallow up our cities with their waste.
Manuja, a waste-picker who stands to lose her livelihood as the waste from Ghazipur shifts to Rani Khera, says, “I start work at 4 am every morning and pick plastic bags, bottles and metal scraps from the landfill. I sort these out and sell them to a dealer who buys scrap from me. I earn ₹50 every day from this. I don’t know if I am keeping the city clean by recycling scrap that would have otherwise gone to the landfill, but I do know that I have no livelihood now. Is the government not responsible for poor people like us?”