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For The Residents Around Delhi’s Landfills, ‘Swacchata’ Is A Far Dream

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In the pre-pandemic days, when you could breathe in public without a mask on your face, there were still two areas where I held my breath while going to school.

Why? Well, there were two garbage dumps on the way, why else? It was an everyday mission to not wrinkle your nose in disgust around them. On the particularly smelly days, I’d cross to the other side altogether.

Representational image.

As hard as it is to believe, those dumps had become as much a part of my school journey as my classes.

India’s, specifically metropolitan cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, growing garbage problem needs no introduction. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi produces 8,700 tonnes of solid waste everyday, equivalent to 85 Blue Whales!

What Does It Mean For The Residents?

Everyday, we pass by these roadside dumps, jump over the waste lying in our way and move on with our lives as if these dumps are nothing but foul-smelling distractions. But things are a lot different for the people who live around these areas as well as sanitation workers. 

I don’t open my balcony even during the summer months because of the foul smell and the mosquitos that hover over the waste. It used to be worse when my son was younger. We couldn’t let him out of our sight while playing because he kept catching sight of shiny things in the garbage and wanted to take them, ” Arti, a resident of South Delhi and whose house is situated across a garbage dump told YKA. 

For the people who live next to big landfills such as Okhla, Ghazipur, or Bhalswa, respiratory problems are a common sight. These landfills are also a major cause of water pollution, their toxins contaminating groundwater as well as the river Yamuna.

Animals, cows and pigs mostly, end up ingesting plastic, thereby killing themselves. Polluted water, toxic air and dirty land all contribute to making the lives of the residents harder. 

While those like Arti, who are still better off living in comparatively cleaner residential areas still have to think twice before setting foot outside the house.

Not only do they have to take more precautions against malaria and dengue, with nearby dumps becoming breeding grounds for insects and flies, but also the social life of the community members takes a hit in the quagmire.

Arti finds herself making excuses when people express their wish to meet her at her house.

The municipality is supposed to clean the dump regularly but that is not the case. The waste rots here for weeks before they send a garbage truck. It would be better if the schedule is followed strictly with regular sanitisation of the dump.

Have The Sanitation Workers Been Treated Fairly?

Sanitation workers have it much worse. Ramesh*, a sanitation worker, looks blankly at me when I ask him about the kind of tools and safety gear he receives for handling waste. The grim truth is that India has failed its waste handlers even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A survey concluded that 92.5% workers do not have the required tools, 89.9% do not have uniforms and 90% do not have health insurance or any kind of healthcare facility. An article published on the Indian Express reported that half the municipal workers who died in 2020 due to COVID were sanitation workers. 

When I tested positive in May 2020, the financial situation of my family deteriorated”, Ramesh* tells YKA. “I barely make 10 thousand rupees a month. With the extra burden of  COVID, we had to empty out a huge chunk of our savings. Even my wife couldn’t get more work as a domestic worker because of my diagnosis.”

What he experienced was social exclusion by his own neighbours, who tried to stay as far away from his family as they could. Even after his recovery, he had to maintain distance from his kids, in fear of them somehow becoming sick due to the germs he carried home every day.

What is worse is that in the tussle between the central and the state government, the salaries of MCD workers are put on the line.

There is always some delay in the payment of salaries. We cannot even stop working. What else are we supposed to do?” asks Ramesh*.

But that isn’t the entire picture of the problems marring the sanitation machinery. Research shows that the majority of the sanitation workers in India belong to the most disadvantaged and socially vulnerable communities, namely, the Dalits.

What this means is that the lack of proper safety gear puts them and their families at higher risk of developing health problems such as asthma, skin and blood infections and even cancer from being exposed to dust and hazardous compounds present in domestic waste.

This reduces the life expectancy for the entire community, while denying them any chances of rising from their backgrounds. 

Did The Government Do Nothing?

The Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 focuses specifically on making Indian cities and towns garbage free, with Waste-to-Energy (WTE) plants being considered a viable option to process the waste.

The municipal corporations of Delhi too, are working under the directions of the National Green Tribunal to prepare a 250-crore plan to bioremediate the Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla landfill sites and reduce their height. 

But the problem lies in the very plan itself. The landfill sites are already struggling to meet the bioremediation deadlines set for them and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that most of the garbage is just being circulated instead of being dealt with properly.


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The costly WTE plants which have been set up do more harm than good. What actually happens in these plants is that the waste is converted into invisible particulate matter and gaseous pollutants in the air, which leads to a higher risk of inhalation hazards for those living near the plants.

Especially in a city like Delhi, where the Air Quality Index is never satisfactory, such plants further aggravate the problem of air pollution. 

The answer to our waste problem isn’t making our cities garbage-free but making them zero-waste. The real mission should be to minimise the domestic waste we generate by adopting sustainable practices like reusing and repurposing and using biodegradable items.

Moreover, the generated waste needs to be treated within municipal wards before sending the discarded waste to these landfills. We have already ruined our planet enough, what we now need to do is take remedial measures to try to undo the harm caused by the waste we generate.

*All names have been changed to maintain anonymity.

The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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