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Ghazipur landfill collapse: We buried our heads in trash until it buried us

At least two people were killed when part of a huge mountain of garbage came crashing down in the Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill.

columns Updated: Sep 02, 2017 23:21 IST
Shivani Singh
A day after heavy rain in Delhi, a section of the Ghazipur landfill collapsed over a car and three two-wheelers on Friday.
A day after heavy rain in Delhi, a section of the Ghazipur landfill collapsed over a car and three two-wheelers on Friday.(Mohd Zakir/HT Photo)

Millions of years from now, wrote professor Jay Quade of the University of Arizona, field geologists would chiefly recognise us for our trash, and the Cenozoic (Age of Mammals) would be succeeded by the Garbocene (Age of Garbage). That is, if we, future geologists included, survive that global wasteland.

Given our callousness, that is a big IF. No one who ever took NH-24 on the way to Uttar Pradesh could have missed the build-up, so to say, to the disaster that killed two at the Ghazipur dumpsite on Friday. Even if one was not looking, the stench from the looming monstrosity on the Delhi border was simply inescapable. It smelled like death.

The 70-acre mountain, which could tower over a 15-storey building, is just plain garbage piled up to a height where it was already experiencing routine minor landslides. And yet, nobody moved a finger till a massive chunk of it slid down and killed people on Friday.

In operation since 1984, the Ghazipur landfill has collected 13 million tonnes of household trash and animal waste, thousands of tonnes of plastic and construction rubble. By 2002, it had filled up to capacity. Fifteen years later, it continues to receive trash from east Delhi. In fact, three out of Delhi’s four landfills ran out of space nearly a decade ago. Today, Delhi is drowning in its own trash.

PUSHING THE LIMITS

Building new dumpsites is not easy. There is no shortage of land. But who would want a giant landfill in their backyard? Except for rag pickers who collect every bit of recyclable material from the simmering piles of trash. The Waste Atlas 2014, a compilation of data on the 50 biggest dumpsites of the world, listed asthma, tuberculosis, skin diseases as some common health conditions among the rag pickers working at Ghazipur.

But rag pickers are not the only ones affected. At least three million people live within the 10km radius of Ghazipur and the nearest residential settlement is just 200 metres away. This landfill is not just fouling the local air and groundwater, says the Waste Atlas, but possibly also the Sanjay Lake and the Yamuna within its 7km radius.

Last year, a fire at Deonar -- Mumbai’s largest and oldest dump yard -- raged with flames so high and smoke so thick that it was visible from space. The air pollution levels forced schools to shut down for a week. Deonar has 17 million tonnes of garbage dumped over 132 hectares. At least 5.87 million people live in the 10km radius of the dumpsite.

In 2012, Bengaluru, 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 backyard.

Till Friday, when a portion of the rain-soaked Ghazipur dumpsite came down, Delhi’s garbage crisis has remained restricted to stray municipal strikes and political blame-games. The methane-laden dumpsites were conveniently tucked away in voiceless working-class neighbourhoods on the city borders. Out of sight and earshot, not many cared how and where they tossed their trash.

But sliding mounds of garbage killing people are no freak accidents. In the past decades, hundreds of people have died in landfill collapses in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Manilla (The Philippines), Shenzhen (China), Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Bandung (Indonesia) – all because of civic neglect and apathy.

FACE UP TO THE REALITY

Our waste pile was already killing us daily, poisoning the air we breathe and the water we drink. Now that it has caused more visible deaths in one fell swoop, Delhi better face up to its waste management crisis. Landfills, in fact, are the last option and recycling and composting is the only way to reduce the load sent to dumpsites.

In government circles, waste-to-energy plant is seen as a one-stop solution. But waste combustors release a number of harmful pollutants, which only get worse if unsorted trash – plastic, electronic waste, glass and all kinds of discards — make it to the incinerators. For any successful reform to roll out, segregation of waste and composting have to be the starting point.

After decades of waiting, the laws on mandatory garbage segregation have finally been formulated. The rules propose that people pay for garbage management services, and suitable fines and penalties are imposed on those who litter the city’s street, drains and water bodies. But Delhi’s authorities are already several months late in firming up bylaws to enforce these measures.

At a more fundamental level, to be able to discard judiciously, we must also bring ourselves to consume less. Next time you throw a plastic bottle out of the car window or even in the bin, think. There will be no one to remember you for ushering in ‘the Garbocene’.