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As an infant, I am told I was quite exasperating, even before I could speak or walk. When taken on daily walks, I would screech until whoever was carrying me picked up the litter and put it in the dustbin. At four years of age, my new neighbours complimented me for never forgetting to switch off the elevator fan when we deboarded.
In middle school, I was really inspired by my environment club teacher – who while explaining to us the severity of the water crisis in Gurugram one day- told us how she only used two mugs of water to bathe every day (even when she washed her hair!).
On another day, she showed us frightening pictures of the impact arsenic poisoning through groundwater consumption was having on a community in West Bengal. Through her, I got to know how much water it takes to make one bottle of Coca Cola (one 500 millilitre bottle of coke requires 175 litres of water for production) – 350 times the amount of Coca Cola produced.
In university, I learnt that the water used to produce Coca Cola belonged to members of the Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes in Plachimada, Kerala.
Not only had this groundwater extraction caused an excessive shortage of water I learnt it had also resulted in the contamination of soil and water in community wells. Sludge produced during the production process was sold by Coca Cola to farmers of Plachimada as ‘high-value organic manure’.
However, this sludge was found to have excessive levels of lead and cadmium- which lead to the further ruin of their soil, making the land unsuitable for cultivation.
I understood that patterns of environmental injustice often impacted groups that have been historically disenfranchised and continue to hold lesser political, social and economic power than those instrumental in causing the impacts.
But it was only while doing a survey to understand waste management attitudes and practices in my residential complex in my last semester of university, that I learnt about groundwater contamination and its impact where I live.
Every day, nearly 2,000 tonnes of waste of approximately 2 million people from Gurugram- my residential city as well as Faridabad get dumped next to a village near the outskirts of Gurugram. Bandhwari village is home to 4,104 people, with around half of the population belonging to Scheduled Castes as per the 2011 census. In fact, when you google ‘Bandhwari village’ – instead of a map of the village, a picture of a burning landfill is what opens up. The landfill has been built on 14.86 acres of Aravali forest which also serves as an important wildlife corridor between Delhi and Sariska.
My connection to Bandhwari however goes beyond facts related to waste disposal. As I learnt, the groundwater under my residence in Sector 56, Gurugram flows through the same aquifer that happens to be under Bandhwari landfill and village. The same groundwater aquifer that has been contaminated by the waste from the landfill and declared unfit for any use: domestic, drinking or agricultural. It has been declared ‘unfit for drinking purposes according to the Central Pollution Control Board’s report published in 2017.
The groundwater contamination, now, is spreading beyond Bandhwari village, confirmed by a 2019 report released by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). More than 30,000 people from the villages of Bandhwari, Gwal Pahari, Mandi, Baliwas and Mangar- all within a 5km radius of Bandhwari landfill are facing the impacts of their main source of water being contaminated. According to the villagers, more than 100 deaths related to cancer have occurred in these parts since 2013, with the incidence of the disease steadily increasing due to the pollution caused by the landfill.
On interacting with the villagers of Bandhwari, I found that the geographical, political, social and economic currency that each family holds affected the extent of the impacts they are experiencing.
I also observed that a small group of the socially and economically powerful in the village are also benefiting from the arrangement. A few members of dominant communities holding decision-making powers were awarded contracts to run 20 trucks carrying waste to and from the landfill, and that some of them had also started a private tanker supply of drinking water for their needs, villagers told me. However, talking to members across the social groups, I learnt that they too are experiencing health impacts and the pain of losing loved ones to diseases like cancer.
It’s both depressing and infuriating to learn that despite protests by Bandhwari’s residents for years, petitions by environmental activists, and intervention by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) – the waste we are producing in Gurgugram is still being dumped in Bandhwari.
The solution being proposed by the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) is that a new dumping site is used instead of Bandhwari. However, I feel that this just amounts to shifting the problem elsewhere. The residents of Farrukh Nagar and Pali, where the new landfill sites are being proposed, have protested against it- understandably so.
One of the questions I asked the residents of my complex as part of our survey in university was, “Do you know the ultimate destination of the waste generated from your house?” (a question I had only recently learned the answer to myself).
92% were unaware that the final destination of our waste was Bandhwari landfill. According to solid waste experts, one of the main causes of the problem is the lack of implementation of India’s SWM Rules, 2016 which require everyone (residential complexes, malls, factories etc) generating more than 50kgs of waste to compost their wet waste, give their dry waste for recycling and send their toxic waste to the landfill.
If everyone in Gurugram was to begin segregating their waste, more than 80% of waste (wet and dry) could be directed away from Bandhwari landfill to instead be composted and recycled.
The knowledge of this and of the very real, visible and unjust impacts of our unsegregated waste on the lives of communities and wildlife strengthened my resolve to ensure waste segregation is implemented in my complex.
It was through collaboration, sharing of knowledge and initiative on part of other residents, as well as guidance from those with experience of implementing segregation that my society has successfully begun segregation and composting.
While this is our effort to ensure that we don’t contribute directly to any further harm caused to Bandhwari, much remains to be done to address the environmental injustices the people have to bear through no fault of their own and to alter systems that have allowed this to occur.