(This story was first published on 7 September 2017. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives in the event of Swachh Bharat Week.)
On a rainy September afternoon, Rehana had just settled down after serving an elaborate Eid lunch at her in-laws’ east Delhi residence, when the building began to shake.
The 35-year-old thought it was an earthquake and made a panicky exit along with her family, cradling her 5-year-old daughter.
Days later, as Rehana told The Quint about the events of that fateful day, her trembling hands set her bangles clinking.
It was on 1 September 2017 that piles of rotting garbage came tumbling down from Ghazipur’s mountain of trash – one of the national capital’s four open sanitary landfills that could put Rajasthan’s Mount Abu to shame.
The ‘trashslide’ poured into the Hindon river below, causing a wave so massive that it bent the metal barriers surrounding it, washing cars into the adjoining canal, killing two people and injuring a dozen more.
According to an IANS report, the trash that had broken off Ghazipur’s towering landfill amounted to only one percent of its total area.
When The Quint visited the landfill on 5 September, mowers employed by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation were still in the process of removing garbage from the site. They had been pressed into service on 2 September, but couldn't finish removing the waste that had fallen into the adjoining canal.
Ghazipur’s Journey From Molehill to Mountain
Rehana’s father-in-law, Mohd Suleman, moved to Ghazipur’s Mulla colony around 15 years ago. Back then, the landfill site seemed to be just another innocuous garbage dump. Today, it has grown to an astonishing height of 50 metres – way above the 20-metre limit, stipulated by the solid-waste management rule of 2016.
Over the years, Suleman’s house, painted a vivid green, gradually grew to three storeys. But the mountain of trash grew faster, towering over his house as high as a 15-storey structure.
Over the last 30 years, the landfill has grown to cover 29 acres of the surrounding land. Today, the stench is so strong that it renders regular masks ineffective. Beyond the lingering stench, plumes of smoke from the many flare-ups ensure that you cannot live in the area, or even pass by the landfill, without the toxic gases turning your eyes red.
Today, the trash site is a constant source of distress. We fear it may burst open and collapse someday. Moreover, the stench that wafts through the air has made our lives miserable.Mohd Suleman, Local
Mulla Mohallah: A Colony Struggling to Breathe
Residents of Mulla colony say the water, air, and soil pollution from the open landfill has robbed them of their health. They keep their windows shut, because the air around is contaminated with fine particulate matter.
Many here have developed respiratory diseases, a condition that residents say is the landfill’s doing.
Lung infections are common in Rehana’s household, as is the case with her neighbours. Several houses away, 60-year-old Manzur spends his days lying on a cot. He often complains of respiratory distress and says his condition worsens when smoke from the landfill enters the colony.
During rains, the stench grows even stronger and leachate from the trash site enters adjacent canals.
Overflowing water from these canals flood streets, often entering houses in the area. “When that happens, I stay home,” says Mohammed Parvez Alam, who runs a small motor workshop in the Muslim-dominated colony.
Rainwater travels all the way down from the mountain of trash. The water, after passing through layers of rotting trash, turns into a black, foul-smelling liquid. I never step out at such times.Mohammed Parvez Alam, Workshop Owner
Stink Leaves Dairy Farmers in the Lurch
Located on the other side of the landfill, the Ghazipur Dairy houses over 100 dairy farms, locally known as tabelas. Here too, the mountain of trash has made life hell for dairy farmers and their livestock.
Workers, mostly migrants from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, say working in the area makes their skin itchy and their muscles sore. The groundwater that is sourced through shallow pumps is so polluted that it is only used for cleaning purposes. It is never consumed.
Cattle aren’t spared either. Some develop sores on their toes, while the unlucky ones, around 10 to 15, die every six months.
Delhi Dithers Over Garbage Management
It’s been over 30 years since the landfill site at Ghazipur first came up. It is managed by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation and holds about 13 million tonnes of rotting, toxic garbage.
Just days after the deadly ‘trashslide’, Anil Baijal, the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, had on 2 September, ordered the closure of the landfill, while asking the EDMC to temporarily dump garbage in Ranikhela instead.
But trucks carrying trash from east Delhi soon returned to Ghazipur after they were blocked by angry residents at Ranikhela.
The EDMC has signed an MoU with the National Highways Authority of India, which is expected to use the garbage accumulated at Ghazipur for the construction of its Delhi-Meerut highway. The NHAI has promised to expedite the process, and is expected to start the process of segregating and processing waste by mid-November.
Existing rules have limited the lifespan of a landfill site to 25 years, but three out of Delhi’s four major garbage dumping sites have already passed this saturation point.
At Ghazipur, however, residents have all but given up hope. “I haven’t been able to go to school because of the collapse,” says 10-year-old Rahul, who lives in Ghazipur Diary. “I just want India to be healthy and clean,” he says, as the open landfill looms over him, threatening to come crashing down again any day now.
Reported & Produced by Anthony Sanu Rozario
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam