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.
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!
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.
"Who Needs Himalayas?": People Review Delhi's Infamous Ghazipur Garbage Dump https://t.co/nOBc9o7FCr
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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.”
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 Scroll.in 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.
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.