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Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill

What’s life around Ghazipur landfill? Team Banega Swasth India spoke with some of the people living near the landfill to understand the hardships they go through every single day

Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill
A view of Ghazipur Landfill in the national capital of New Delhi

New Delhi: Imagine living in the backdrop of A big mountain of garbage as tall as the iconic Qutub Minar, which is 73 metres high. Visualise that the roads adjoining your residence is covered with all kinds of garbage, dirty water, leaching out from the landfill. It is filth all around you, covering every nook and cranny of your surroundings. The stench is omnipresent, no matter whether you are indoors or outdoors. This nightmarish existence is the reality of people living near the Ghazipur Landfill site near the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border.

Team Banega Swasth India visited the location of the Ghazipur landfill that was commissioned in 1984 and its life span expired 20 years ago in 2002. But the landfill continues to be the dumping ground of most of the national capital’s waste. According to the latest reports submitted to the Union Jal Shakti Ministry and the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi’s waste dumping in three of its landfill sites at Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla, increased by 15 per cent in a year.

Yeh kachra ghar humari zindagi ki zarrurat hai aur yehi humari zindagi ke liye sabse bada khatra bhi..(This garbage dump is the key to meet our basic needs and at the same time it is putting our life in danger),” said Shaikh Abjaa Hussain.

Also Read: Solid Waste Management In India: The Challenge Of Growing Mountains Of Garbage – Landfills

Shaikh Abjaa Hussain has been living in one of the villages near Ghazipur for the last few years. Shaikh Abjaa Hussain works in Murga Mandi (Wholesale Market For Chicken and Eggs) in Ghazipur but time and again he finds himself heading to the dumping ground.

Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill

Shaikh Abjaa Hussain explains to us how Ghazipur landfill is the key to everyone’s basic needs who have been living in the village

Explaining his dependence on the dumping ground he said, “We are poor people, we have no option but to look at ways of earning some extra money. And this dumping ground is our best bet.

Further explaining how the dumping ground is key to his survival, he added,

At the dumping ground, we find many things. It is like our small treasure. From finding items like plastic, steel, copper – we get everything. Every day, I reach there at 5 am in the morning, I wait for the trucks to come and dump the garbage. Then I start looking for items that I can sell and earn money.

Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill

For people living nearby Ghazipur, the stench is omnipresent, no matter whether they are indoors or outdoors

When asked, if the numerous health hazards posed by the garbage dump doesn’t concern him, he laughs it off and concludes,

Everything in life is risky, you can lose your life even while travelling on the road. To earn extra money, we risk our lives by going to this dump yard. For us, it is like earning extra money and for money sake only, we risk our lives time and again.

Moving further along the cramped lanes of the village, we witness the difficult lives of its inhabitants. While we struggled to negotiate our way through the garbage all around us, the locals brave these living conditions on a daily basis.

Also Read: Solid Waste Management In India: The Great Garbage Challenge

Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill

The cramped lanes of the Ghazipur village, where we witnessed the difficult lives of its inhabitants

A few miles into the village, we were stopped by a 45-year-old man, who is fondly known as Dilip Uncle, he explained the landfill and the threat it poses and how there is no way out of the crisis in the near future.

Dilip who has been living in the area for the past 25 years said,

In the starting, I used to live, sleep in the dump yard. I have seen it becoming bigger and bigger over the years. I used to work in MCD before, I was in charge of planting trees, maintaining parks in the areas near the landfill. Over the past 25 years, I have seen those parks and trees get engulfed by the dump yard as it expanded slowly. The Waste-To-Energy plant has now come in the picture, it is now slowly managing that waste and converting it into electricity. But the problem is that the waste here just keeps on increasing.

Dilip also highlighted another big problem and said,

You may have noticed that the villages, areas around Ghazipur have black liquid on the roads. It looks like roads are covered with dirty water, but that is actually the water waste that is coming from the landfill.

Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill

45-year-old Dilip has been living near Ghazipur landfill for more than 25 years

The dirty water that Dilip is referring to is called Leachate. It is basically a liquid that forms when landfill waste breaks down and water filters through that waste and along the way picks up toxins. Rain falling on the top of the landfill is the greatest contributor to leachate. As the liquid seeps through the landfill and collects decomposed waste components, chemical reactions take place and produce a toxic leachate “cocktail”. Over the years, these toxins percolate through the soil and groundwater, and become environmental hazards with long term implications.

Also Read: Solid Waste Management In Delhi, A Giant Problem: Experts

Dilip says he has seen the Ghazipur landfill become bigger and bigger in last 25-years

Talking about the diseases and the health risks Dilip has faced over the years, he added,

There is some or the other form of smoke every now and then coming out of Ghazipur landfill. When it comes out, it is so bad that it makes us breathless, even when we are away from the landfill and sitting at our house. The smoke sometimes also causes fire at the landfill and if there is wind then fire travels and time and again have destroyed our home. We have lost our home, money, our everything in this fire, many times. Moreover, on a day-to-day basis, if there is no fire, then we face breathlessness, skin diseases, dehydration, vomit to name a few. But, even after all the challenges, we depend on the landfill.

Fires at landfills are natural. Many global studies, experts have said that landfills are one of the primary sources of methane emissions. Down To Earth, a fortnightly magazine that was started by environmentalist Anil Agarwal, with a commitment to make people aware of the challenges that the environment is facing states, “When municipal solid waste is deposited in a landfill, it undergoes an aerobic (with oxygen) decomposition stage where little methane is generated. Then, typically within less than a year, anaerobic conditions are established and methane-producing bacteria begin to decompose the waste and generate methane. Methane has the property of self-igniting at temperatures of 60-70 degrees Celsius, which can easily be reached at landfill sites during summer. Highly combustible waste like plastic is dumped in abundance at the site. Hence, the presence of methane even in small quantities can trigger a raging inferno. This is what is happening at Ghazipur.”

Also Read: India’s ‘Mount Everest Of Trash’ – Ghazipur Is Set To Grow Taller Than The Taj Mahal, Here’s How You Can Help

We also met, 23-years old Salma, who used to work at the landfill in her childhood days and is now a member of a Delhi-based NGO called Gulmeher Green that creates alternate livelihood opportunities for women waste-pickers of Ghazipur. Recalling her journey, she said,

I had worked in the dumpyard for 6 years. I never liked that work, but money was an issue and with no other option, I had to work there. I remember crying and asking my parents not to send me to that dump yard. There was pollution, I used to fall ill every now and then. When I got married and had my first daughter, I decided to take a break as I had to be with my child. Even then, when we couldn’t survive on my husband’s monthly salary, I used to go and hunt for things in the landfill. Then NGO Gulmeher came into my life, it educated me about the landfill and its dangers. They told me that I can work with them from 9 to 5 and take care of my child as well, so instead of going to the landfill, I started working with them and since then, I haven’t visited the landfill site.

We asked Salma, if there are alternative options in terms of work then why do people still rely on going to the landfill and risk their life. She smiled and replied,

There are not many opportunities for everyone living here. Some people who cannot make ends meet simply go to the landfill. They don’t care if their life is at risk, all they want is money. Secondly, a lot of the older population also resides here and as they have no employment opportunities, simply to survive they go and find things in the landfill which they can sell and earn their day-to-day income. If you go to the landfill, on good days you might end up finding junk worth Rs 500.

23-years old Salma used to work at the landfill in her childhood days, she explained to us how people of the village still rely on the landfill to make their ends meet

These are just few of the voices of people living in Ghazipur. Back in September 2017, after days of non-stop rain, mounds of loose garbage came hurtling down from the then 50-metre dump, sweeping cars and motorbikes and took lives of two people and half a dozen others were injured. That time, the landfill grabbed international headlines as well, prompting the authorities to temporarily ban the dumping of garbage and prohibit the entry of ragpickers at the landfill. But in the absence of alternatives, the dumping of waste continued and the garbage mountain went on to reach a height of 65 metres in 2019, just eight metres short of the Qutab Minar. Notably, the maximum permissible height of a landfill is only 20 metres, according to Central Pollution Control Board.

Also Read: Heroes Of Swachh India: Story Of A Delhi NGO ‘Gulmeher’ That Has Transformed The Lives Of Women From Ghazipur Landfill Area

Studies conducted across the world, including by the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and WHO (World Health Organization) have time and again pointed towards the health hazards landfills like Ghazipur pose to people.

A WHO report titled ‘Waste and Human Health: Evidence and Needs’ stated that improper waste management and illegal waste shipments in the landfill result in soil, water and air pollution. It also adds that living in the vicinity of a dump yard can be a health risk for residents because they may be exposed to pollutants through different pathways: the inhalation of substances emitted by the site, contact with water or polluted soil, directly or through the consumption of products, or through contaminated water. UNEP reiterated that open and unsanitary landfills contribute to contamination of drinking water and can cause infection and transmit diseases. The dispersal of debris pollutes ecosystems and dangerous substances from electronic waste or industrial garbage puts a strain on the health of urban dwellers and the environment.

Some steps have been taken by the municipal corporation such as bio-mining. It is a mechanical process to sieve and separate heavy components such as soil and stones from lighter ones such as plastic and paper,  thereby reducing the height of the landfill. Waste-to-energy plant has also been set at the location that helps treat waste and convert it into electricity. Member of Parliament from East Delhi constituency, Gautam Gambhir, said in a social media post, “The landfill height has been decreased by 40 feet in one year and it is the effort of steps being taken by the authority to manage waste effectively from the dump site.”

But, environmentalists feel a lot more needs to be done on ground. Atin Biswas, Programme Director – Municipal Solid Waste from Centre for Science and Environment states,

We would have drowned under our waste if we didn’t have an efficient workforce of 2 million (an unofficial figure) ragpickers or kabadiwalas. But unfortunately, we have not been able to give them any status. I think, India needs a holistic and inclusive approach to deal with the crisis. We need to learn from states like Kerala, who have been managing their waste at source. In the city of Thiruvananthapuram, more than 20,000 houses are doing composting, which means they are reducing the waste at source and the municipality is free from the burden of managing so much waste. If you speak in numbers, nearly 200 tonnes of waste every day is saved for 365 days a year in that city – Imagine so much money and resources that they are saving just by following this simple rule – Reduce.

Swati Singh Sambyal, Independent Waste and Circular Economy Expert added,

90% of India’s cities dump garbage in landfill sites which don’t meet sanitary standards and at this rate by 2047, India will be generating 250-260 million tonnes of waste per year and with this pace of garbage generation without segregation and scientific mechanism to dispose of waste and recycling is unsustainable in the long run, India will need landfill the size of Mumbai, Hyderabad, Greater Noida combined by 2047.

In January, 2018, Urban Ministry under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan announced ‘Protocol for Star Rating of Garbage-Free Cities’ in order to fulfill India’s biggest dream of being a clean nation by October 2, 2019. Later, in 2021, second phase of Garbage Free cities was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was tagged as Swachh Bharat 2.0 with a goal of making all cities garbage-free and ensure grey and black water management. According to the Ministry to achieve the status of Garbage Free cities, at any point of time in the day, no garbage or litter should be found in any public, commercial or residential locations (including storm drains and water bodies). Garbage should be in litter bins or transfer stations only and 100 per cent of waste generated should be scientifically managed, all legacy waste should be remediated. Additionally, there must be a steady reduction in the waste generated by the city and visible beautification of the city, only then the city can achieve a clean and garbage free status.

But for now growing mountains of garbage in most of the cities in India, indicate that proper waste management is still a distant dream. Bigger cities like Delhi are still relying on landfills to dump all kinds of waste. Waste segregation at source and household levels is still not a reality for most and as a result the three landfills in the city continue to grow bigger and bigger, with each passing day. Solid Waste Management rules that came into effect in 2016 also state that cities should not be solely dependent on the landfills, instead, recycle and reuse should be the options that they should go ahead with. The rules also clearly mention that if the landfills site have reached their saturation point then fresh waste dumping should be immediately banned. However, that’s not the case with Ghazipur or any of the landfills in the country. Ghazipur reached its saturation point in 2002 but it still is getting waste from across the city. Environmental experts suggest that national capital should start segregating its waste for starters on an urgent basis and then focus on a concrete waste management plan that will help with resource recovery instead of simply relying on landfilling the waste.

NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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