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“Even though I'm used to the poisonous air, my body still reacts to it. Every day I wake up and feel like I can't breathe. My eyes burn," said Mohan Thakur, a resident of outer-north Delhi’s Swami Shraddhanand Colony, which sits right next to the Bhalswa landfill that caught a massive fire on 26 April, Tuesday.
Three days since, despite ongoing attempts to douse the flames by the Delhi Fire Service, plumes of dark acrid smoke continued to fill up the air around the landfill, as the massive mound of garbage dump could be seen speckled with smaller fires.
Thakur’s wife Neelu Devi who’s been living in this area for the past 25 years with her family, said that the landfill fire has become a frequent phenomenon.
“The landfill caught a big fire last year as well around the same time. For the past few years during summer, the landfill catches fire that goes on for days."Neelu Devi, Resident of Swami Shraddhanand Colony
The Hazard of It All
Bhalswa is one of the three towering landfills in Delhi besides Okhla and Ghazipur. Large quantities of methane gas emissions from anaerobic decomposition of organic waste makes these landfills highly flammable.
Less than a month ago, a fire raged for days at the Ghazipur landfill in east Delhi. "It's day four and there are six fire tenders and 20 firefighters still present at the Bhalswa landfill. Firefighting measures are riskier at landfills, and dousing flames can take days," said Delhi Fire Chief Atul Garg. He pointed at two main reasons behind this – lack of segregation of waste and tricky access.
Garg said, "From food and medical waste to cloth, plastic and e-waste, everything is dumped together at landfills. All of this burns easily. Due to the e-waste present, small blasts also take place that keep the fire going on for days. This makes access harder. We don't know when a portion of the landfill will fall."
The Fire Chief told The Quint on Friday noon that the fire at Bhalswa landfill will most likely be doused entirely by evening, after which the cooling operation will begin.
Combined with the capital’s poor pollution levels, recurrent fires and toxic fume emissions from these landfills pose a serious health and environment hazard for the entire city, especially for those who live in the adjacent areas.
Residents of this colony, which is largely dominated by families hailing from lower-middle class backgrounds, however, are left with no choice but to continue living here. For many, selling their homes and moving to another part of the city is not an option as property rates remain poor, due to the colony's proximity to the landfill.
“We fear for our lives and for our children’s lives but what can we do? We have no choice. We try to protect our children by keeping them indoors as much as we can but for how long can we do that?” asked Neelu Devi.
Her husband, a security guard by profession, added, “Our children were young when we started living here. We had little means but we had to feed them and take care of their education, so we continued living here. If such hazardous incidents continue, we will be compelled to go somewhere else.”
The Economic Cost of Bhalswa Landfill Fire Among Waste Pickers
It's not just residents of nearby colonies who get affected by the fires at Bhalswa landfill.
For ragpickers – the poorest of the poor in the area – the garbage from the landfill is the only source of livelihood, which earns some of them roughly Rs 8,000 every month.
SK Siraj, 19, who collects waste from the landfill, pointed towards the fire and told The Quint, "All the scrap that we collect from there to earn a living is burning away. This is our only form of sustenance."
Siraj hasn't slept for two days as worries of a debt of Rs 2 lakh keep him awake. "I have a debt back home. The only way I can pay back is if I earn, and this is how I earn – by collecting and selling scrap from the Bhalswa landfill. This is our life."
Fire chief Garg said that several advisories in the past have been sent regarding access to the landfill. "We have repeatedly told relevant authorities that landfill access should be curtailed but the ragpickers keep returning. They too have no option."
Ragpickers don't just go to collect scraps at the landfill, many also live in makeshift tents at the base after they migrate to the capital from other states. In this fire, some of these tents too got destroyed.
Jahangir Ali, a ragpicker, who lives at the landfill with his sister, his wife and their children, said, "The last few fires were farther away. This one is closer to us and that's why we are facing problems."
How the Bhalswa Dumping Ground Grew in Size
The Bhalswa dumping ground has been operational since 1994. According to reports, spread over 70 acres, the landfill reached an estimated height of 62 metre by 2019. In other words, it's as tall as a 15-storey building.
Bhoop Singh, who runs a dispensary shop in Shraddhanand Colony, said that he has seen the landfill grow in size since he moved to the area in the early 1990s.
"It used to be hollowed out in the middle earlier and it was much smaller, but year after year it's been growing bigger and wider," he said.
Over the years, it has accumulated around 80 lakh metric tonnes of the city’s garbage, forming almost a hillock. In the recent years, as the city expanded, 2,400 metric tonnes of waste is dumped here everyday.
The Solid Waste Management Rules that were brought into effect in 2016, by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, mandate that waste should be segregated at source into biodegradables, dry, and hazardous waste.
The government notification also states that local authorities should “allow only the non-usable, non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, non-combustible and non-reactive inert waste and pre-processing rejects and residues from waste processing facilities to go to sanitary landfills."
A sanitary landfill is one where waste is isolated from the environment to decompose into biologically and chemically inert materials.
At the Bhalswa landfill, however, one finds everything ranging from bio-waste, medical waste, plastic to animal carcasses.
Residents Caught Between Poisonous Air and Water
It's not just the air around Bhalswa that is hazardous. The poison has seeped into the groundwater as well.
"The tubewell water that we get here is yellowish in colour and pungent smelling. Forget about drinking it, we can't even bathe with this water. We get our water from tankers every week but then there are some days when the tanker also doesn't come."Sanjay Singh, E-rickshaw driver from Swami Shraddhanand Colony
A report in Citizen Matters explains that in the absence of proper sewerage and leachate controls, leachate from the landfill seeps through the ground and contaminates groundwater. Sometimes, the water that has several harmful carcinogens, also pools around the base of the landfill where the ragpicker families live.
Altogether, the toxic water in the ground, the pollution in the air, and the occasional fires, have been inducing several skin and respiratory ailments among those who live around Bhalswa.
"Most of the elderly people here have respiratory issues. We know that because they come to buy medicines for breathing ailments from here. The contaminated water also causes malaria and dengue here. Those with weak immunity are completely at risk.”Bhoop Singh, dispensary store owner
The Delhi government on Thursday, 28 April, directed the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) to impose a Rs 50 lakh fine on the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) over the Bhalswa fire.
Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai also sought a detailed report from the DPCC.
Adjacent to Singh's dispensary, another elderly resident who runs a beverage kiosk, expressed frustration at the lack of action from authorities.
"What we want is that the tap water be clean, roads be built, and the landfill be removed. Our main demand is that the landfill should be removed from here," he said.
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