Surrounded by grey hills of plastic shreds, 35-year-old Charan Yadav (name changed) is busy at work. The air is heavy with acrid fumes and a nagging cough shakes his body every few minutes.
Yadav is a worker in Mundka — a wasteland on the Delhi-Haryana border, where around 6,000 unskilled labourers are being driven to death and disease by the plastic bag that you plunked in your neighbourhood garbage bin this morning.
The village is the final destination of all the plastic waste churned out in Delhi’s homes. It is also Asia’s biggest market for recyclable plastic waste.
|A young woman melts plastic soles of shoes at a yard in Mundka. Fumes released from burning PVC can cause cancer. (Photo: Arvind Yadav/HT)|
“The tiniest piece of plastic, after being discarded by users in the city, ends up in Mundka. Here we manually sort the plastic waste, run them through shredding or grinding machines. Then we recycle them for making plastic grains or send them to nearby factories,” explains Yadav, the sound another coughing fit drowned by the noise of a machine belching out colourful plastic ribbons.
The trade in Mundka —- unregulated and hazardous— ensures that the city is never short of any conceivable item made of recycled plastic. Truckloads of plastic waste arrive here throughout the day.
Plastic items, from syringes to shoes, are sorted and kept in heaps, some of which are around two-storey high. The process of sorting, processing and recycling has poisoned the village’s air with plastic dust and odour.
“The problem is not the work they do, but under what conditions they do it,” explains Ravi Agarwal, director of NGO Toxics Link. Visit the various yards and you will know what he means.
As if oblivious of the haze of fumes engulfing the yards, labourers — men, women and children— go about their work, picking out plastic soles from a pile of used shoes and melting them in fire.
Journey to the deadly dump
|Left: Truckloads of plastic waste arrive at Mundka throughout the day, carrying plastic bags, shoes, syringes and other waste from every corner of the city. Centre: Plastic items are piled in heaps, some two-storey high. The waste is sorted by men, women and children with bare hands; then run through machines for either shredding or grinding. Right: Workers separate needles from used plastic syringes, their hands hardened by scars and bruises. It is illegal to manually process medical waste.|
Children, hardly 15, assemble thousands of pet bottles to cut them with crude machines that throw up clouds of toxic dust.
Sixty-year-old Laxmi (name changed) separates the needles from heaps of used plastic syringes, her hands hardened by scars and bruises. It might be illegal and hazardous to manually process such hospital waste, but Laxmi counts the many processing units here as a blessing.
“Without them, people like me will not get even Rs 150 a day,” she says.
According to Ram Avtaar Chauhan, president of the plastic traders’ association, Mundka has around 500 registered yards and many unregistered yards.
The magnitude of the occupational health hazard here is staggering. A few years ago, around 60 per cent of the labourers failed the basic on-the-spot lung function test carried out by NGO Toxics Link as part of a study.
“Inhaling fumes released by burning plastic had impaired the lungs of many and almost everyone had a terrible coughing problem,” says Ravi Agarwal.
The situation is no different now, as Dr TN Shukla, medical superintendent of Sonia Hospital, a private hospital near the village, points out. “One in every five labourers who comes here for tests is diagnosed with fibrosis (sores) in the lungs. Many have layers of plastic dust covering the inner lining of their lungs.”
When local quacks fail, it is here that labourers first come for diagnosis. “Since they are poor, most, if not all, skip any kind of long-term follow-up of their condition,” he says.
But traders maintain there is nothing wrong with the work. “What goes on here is not harmful for labourers at all. The recycling work that takes place meets all standards. Workers have never complained about the working conditions,” says Chauhan.
Experts disagree. “It’s almost a whole town of potentially ailing labourers. Burning plastic, especially PVC, releases harmful gases like dioxin and furan, which cause cancer. The inner walls of the lungs develop sores. Moreover, the hospital waste being processed covertly poses huge risk of infection,” says Dr TK Joshi, head of Centre for Environment and Occupational Health, at Maulana Azad Medical College.
The warning signs have been around for a while now. The question is: who will stop Delhi’s dumping yard from turning a graveyard?