Gone to waste: How India is drowning in garbage
Travelling from central Delhi towards Ghazipur in the city’s east, the first warning that you get of the approaching landfill is the sight of circling birds of prey. The mound of waste itself becomes visible much before one is assaulted by its stench. Smoke rises steadily from the pile, as the decomposing waste generates highly combustible methane gas.
None of this bothers 10-year-old Jeevan and 12-year-old Devender as they make their way to the top. For years, the two have spent much of their time at the Ghazipur landfill — picking, sorting and selling waste. Without the protection of gloves or masks, the boys, like most ragpickers working at dumping sites across India, are vulnerable to infections and illnesses. “Often we cut ourselves on bits of discarded glass or metal,” says Jeevan. But they show no animosity towards the waste that helps them earn a living.
Not just the ragpickers, most of those living and working in the neighbourhood have made peace with the trash. Two girls take a shortcut through the landfill on their way to the neighbouring dairy. A couple walks hand-in-hand through the dump. Markets, houses and places of worship dot the land just outside the 32-year-old landfill — in blatant disregard of the specifications introduced in the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, which requires landfills to be “away from habitation clusters”.
An officer at the Central Pollution Control Board says existing landfills are facing problems because of encroachment. “The old dump sites had no buffer zone,” he says.
When it comes to waste management in India, little is the way it’s meant to be. Mumbai literally raised a stink recently when a fire broke out at the Deonar landfill, severely compromising air quality in the city. The national capital too is fast becoming one huge garbage dump with civic body sanitation workers on a strike to protest against non-payment of salaries.
“We need to learn from Sweden, which is a zero waste country. We need to learn from countries like Sri Lanka, which is segregating its waste, or Bhutan where everybody is conscious to not pollute their land,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, programme officer, sustainable industrialisation, Centre for Science and Environment.
While a landfill fire or a strike by workers is not an everyday issue, activists insist we are following a flawed system of waste disposal and management. The metro cities and major economic hubs generate the maximum volume of waste, but a survey of 20 smaller cities selected to be developed as smart cities show that most are struggling to manage waste. And activists feel The Smart City planhas not given as much weightage to management of waste as it has to infrastructure and development. The Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 gives detailed specifications for collection, segregation, storage, transportation, processing and disposal of MSW.
This includes directives to municipal authorities to organise awareness programmes for citizens to encourage segregation and recycling. Most activists too push for segregation at source and feel a strict framework of laws and the fear of penalty is needed to make people comply. “Our policy has to mandate segregation and penalise all households and institutions that do not segregate at source,” says Sambyal.
In its absence, most people do not even bother to make the most basic dry and wet waste segregation. “Whatever little recycling is happening is because of our waste pickers, who are recycling about 20-25% of our waste. The government should make them contract employees and provide them with space to work. Formal recognition will give them regulated work hours, pay and health benefits,” says Chitra Mukherjee, head of programmes, operations, Chintan, an NGO.
In Bhopura near the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, Chintan runs a waste recycling unit where approximately 70 wastepickers work in hygienic conditions. The dry waste is recycled and wet waste composted. “Only 10-15 per cent of the waste that we get is sent to landfills,” says Jai Prakash Choudhury, secretary of the Safai Sena, a registered organisation of waste pickers and recyclers who work alongside Chintan to run waste recycling units like the one in Bhopura.
Instead, what the government is doing is looking for more landfills when even the existing ones are flawed. “Many municipalities simply dump the waste and claim these dumps are landfills. Landfilling should be done only for inorganic wastes and the rejects after processing.
The landfilled waste should be compacted and put under soil cover daily so that there is no fear of pollution,” says the CPCB official. With land being at a premium across urban India, most landfills in the country are also way past the saturation period. “Improper waste management causes problems such as air pollution from burning of wastes both at landfill sites and in open areas and pollution of groundwater (from leachate — the liquid residue that forms as water seeps through contaminated areas and mixes with surface and groundwater),” says Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, World Health Organisation (South-East Asia Region).
At the Ghazipur landfill site, where the civic body is running a waste-to-energy plant on trial, locals complain of pollution. Last year, the National Green Tribunal ordered an inspection of the waste-to-energy plant in the capital’s Okhla area after residents raised similar concerns.
“Plastic and metals are the major source of the calorific value of the waste. The combustion of plastics gives rise to highly toxic pollutants,” says Sambyal. The CPCB officer, however, feels such plants can be operated without causing environmental pollution if proper measures are installed. While that may or may not be true, Sambyal believes the very model is not correct for India.
“Fifty-five per cent of our waste is organic, thus its calorific value is low, unlike in countries like Germany and Sweden, where the majority of waste that goes to incinerators has high content of plastic and packaging material,” she points out. Sambyal pushes for decentralisation in waste management, where waste is segregated and treated locally.
“Our state policy must discourage landfills. In no time, these dump sites will catch fire, which are often difficult to extinguish because they burn through methane, plastic, and other highly flammable substances,” she warns. The fire at Deonar was finally extinguished on Friday, 10 days after it broke out. Unless we take stock of our waste management, the only thing that might remain uncertain is the site of the next crisis.