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Bhalswa fire a warning, it’s time for mandatory waste recycling in Delhi

columns Updated: Apr 25, 2016 10:08 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Bhalswa fire

Experts say that the trash piled in dump yards degenerates into highly combustible methane gas.(Ravi Choudhary/ HT Photo)

As the fire simmering within the Capital’s Bhalswa landfill grew into a blaze last week, it also sparked a new round of AAP-BJP politicking. The AAP government alleged that the fire was to “sabotage” its ongoing odd-even road rationing experiment and that the city’s air would be fouled by the garbage fire.

Delhi’s four dumpsites are managed by the BJP-run municipal corporations and its leaders said the AAP was playing politics. They termed dumpsite fires as a “natural phenomenon” that occurs routinely even in advanced countries such as the US and the UK.

Politics apart, the event has served to direct attention to what has been the Capital’s dirtiest secret.

Last summer, a fire broke out every third day at Delhi’s landfills. Experts say that the trash piled in dump yards degenerates into highly combustible methane gas. Some fires are deliberate, set off by rag-pickers to segregate metal from mixed waste. Others may be accidental, sparked by a burning cigarette tossed away carelessly. The dry atmospheric heat also sets these dumps ablaze.

Our authorities don’t think dumpsite fires are a serious civic hazard, unless, of course, they visibly contaminate the city air. Early this year, the fire at Deonar, Mumbai’s largest and oldest dump yard, raged with flames so high and smoke so thick that it was visible even from space. For a week, the air pollution levels were higher than Delhi’s and schools had to be shut down.

Deonar has 17 million tonnes of garbage dumped over 132 hectares. At least 5.87 million people live in the 10-km radius of the dumpsite, states the Waste Atlas 2014, a compilation of data on the 50 biggest dumpsites of the world.

Delhi’s Ghazipur, one of the four methane-filled simmering landfills in the national capital, has also made it to this list of 50. In operation since 1982, Ghazipur has collected 14 million tonnes of household trash and animal waste from the markets and slaughterhouse nearby, plus thousands of tonnes of plastic and construction rubble.

Atop the 70-acre dump, a small army of rag-pickers, many of them children, collect every possible bit of recyclable material. They brave the stench, the feral dogs fighting for territory, and a host of health hazards in the absence of basic protection. The Waste Atlas listed asthma, tuberculosis, skin diseases as some common health conditions among the rag-pickers here.

At least three million people live within the 10-km radius of Ghazipur and the nearest residential settlement is just 200 meters away. This landfill is not just fouling the local air and groundwater, the Waste Atlas states that it may also be polluting Sanjay Lake that is 2.5 km and the Yamuna, which is 7km from Ghazipur.

Three out of Delhi’s four landfills ran out of space nearly a decade ago. Today, Delhi is drowning in its own trash and there is no place to dump. Waste-to-energy is the latest buzzword in the government. But experts insist that all municipal waste combustors release a number of extremely harmful pollutants. Landfills, they say, should be the last option for waste management and recycling is the only way to reduce the trash load sent to dumpsites.

Thanks to the rag-pickers and local kabadiwallahs, almost a fourth of Capital’s plastic and other waste gets recycled. But except for this informal intervention, Delhi has almost no mechanism to segregate waste. Just as it has no mechanism to reduce waste generation.

The central and Delhi governments collaborated to conduct cleanliness drives under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But no cleanliness drive will be successful unless we fix the backend issues. The governments must push for laws to make recycling mandatory for residents. We could learn from and provide institutional support to our rag-pickers, who have been doing what is essentially the job of the citizenry and the municipal staff.

Dumpsites are not local problems affecting only the neighbourhoods in their vicinity. They are ticking stink bombs that can take a city down. Mumbai knows the feeling. So does Bengaluru. In 2012, the city of gardens was reduced to a city of trash when villagers living on the outskirts refused to allow the city’s garbage to be dumped in their backyards.

If Delhi is any wiser, Bhalswa dumpsite fire should trigger actions more meaningful than customary blame games.