Toxic Air Has Always Been An Everyday Reality For These Delhiites

Written by Pitambara Somani and Anisha Mittal:

There is no denying that air pollution is a concern that transcends genders, ages, boundaries and class. However, even within these groups, there are some that are more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution than others. The poorest of the poor, those that make a living recycling our waste, is one such group. They reside near mountains of garbage, formally known as landfills, and scale it every single day to make their living. They pay one of the biggest prices of pollution. In addition to this, with our current economic priorities, despite working one of the most important jobs for sustainability, they do not have the monetary strength to defend themselves against pollution.

A small spark is all that is needed to ignite the highly combustible methane released by landfills. According to research, burning of municipal waste contributes significantly to Delhi’s air pollution.  A senior official from DPCC said that landfill sites, especially Bhalaswa, are always on fire. Wastepickers live near these very landfills that are constantly burning, emitting toxic fumes and particulate matter. In fact, around 1500 waste-picker families live about 200m from the Ghazipur landfill. Every day tonnes and tonnes of waste is dumped into these landfills, and that invariably means more waste is burned and more toxic fumes are released.

Due to the proximity of their homes to landfills, and their inability to buy expensive products such as masks, purifiers and cars to travel, they are unable to combat air pollution. According to the Lancet Commission, 1.81 million Indians die every year due to air pollution. It’s something to consider when 1.81 million people are dying because of a problem that was created by us and can be solved by only us. Air pollution already causes a multitude of diseases and deaths to those who have access to information and the means to cope with it. We cannot even begin to conceive the struggles of those that do not share this same privilege. This is exactly why we need to sensitize ourselves to the reality of air pollution and those who are defenceless against it.

‘Let me breathe’ is a group of aspiring youths who record and post stories on social media of how people are surviving air pollution. One video covered the struggles of the wastepickers living near Bhalswa landfill. They should stay indoors under these conditions, but most of them face the dilemma of going to work and earning or taking the day off for their health. Most of them chose the former – you can guess why. Unfortunately, the four walls of their homes cannot protect them against the smog either. Closing schools has also become counterproductive as it has become more difficult for the parents to keep their kids indoors at home. A lot of them recount anecdotes of their poor health, of their struggle to cope with our toxic air. Bhalswa is only one of the 3 major landfills of Delhi. Lakhs of people reside near these landfills. Lakhs who count!

The winters are even direr. It is deeply saddening to think that the landfills from which they make their livelihood is contributing to their mortality. The government and its citizens need to recognize this and create an action plan that caters to this group in our society as well. The wastepickers for generations have been doing their bit to limit the environmental impact of our lifestyles. Now, it is time for us to find viable solutions to reduce the costs they bear from the environmental degradation sanctioned by societal and political apathy.

With the dawn of the toxic smog enveloping Delhi again, they need us to act fast. Unaware, and defenceless, these people are unable to employ the defence mechanisms we engage. Something as simple as the use of masks to battle against the current pollution scenario is a privilege they do not experience, but you can change that for some! Help us take a step in providing these waste pickers with some relief.  

Follow this link for information on how you can help make this smog hit winter a little better for them:

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