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As Delhi Recovers From Landfill Fire, How to Stop Breathing and Eating Our Trash

Every time a landfill in Delhi catches fire, dramatic photographs are followed by collective gasps of public horror.

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
As Delhi Recovers From Landfill Fire, How to Stop Breathing and Eating Our Trash
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(This story was first published on 4 April 2022 and has been republished in light of another fire breaking out on Saturday, 9 April, in Delhi's Ghazipur landfill.)

Delhi’s burning landfills have become a source of infotainment. Every time a landfill catches fire, dramatic photographs are followed by collective gasps of public horror. Then Delhi lapses back into overloading the landfills with mixed waste, till the next episode.

At the end of 2021, my colleagues at Chintan - Shruti Sinha, Alpha Toppo, and Balmukund Kumar - analysed landfill fires in the media. They learned that between 2017 and 2021, 11 landfill fires were reported. With the Ghazipur fire of 28 March, 2022, we are at Season 6, Episode 1. It is also the 12th fire in the capital.

Like all other fires, it has followed the cycle of horror, blame, self-flagellation and resignation that this is municipal incompetence.

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Why Do Landfills Catch Fire?

When fires take place, the first priority is to extinguish them. A second priority doesn't exist. It should be to prevent these devastating fires. To do this, the science is key.

Any landfill catches fires when organic (or kitchen, or green or wet waste) is dumped into it and begins putrefying. This produces methane, which combusts, leading to a sort of ‘hot, transparent fire’.

If you walk on a landfill, you can sometimes see the thick, glass-like moving plume above the surface. This puts small bits of plastics, paper and other inflammables on fire, and that’s often the white-grey smoke from landfills. Occasionally, especially at night, a landfill might look like a mountain decorated with erratically lit lanterns. These are the many fires ablaze, sometimes for days on end, when a cycle begins.

The damage is enormous but not well-studied for its nuances. While the deleterious impact on air quality is obvious, the shock load is not well-measured and nor are the specific pollutants from this source. We know key to what is released is what is burned. This can vary, but some chemical emissions are typically likely.

Dioxins, one of the most toxic human-made chemical, is one. Depending on what catches fire, heavy metals, acids and volatile organic compounds can all be released, poisoning people living nearby and along the wind flow, then and later.

No Protocol to Safeguard Public Health in Such Events

In the absence of a science-based approach to toxic catastrophes like this, there is no protocol to safeguard public health. Local communities, especially vulnerable children and the elderly, are not evacuated, nor are they given any protocols. In fact, 80 percent of the communities of wastepickers interviewed by Chintan identified landfill fires as their biggest livelihood and health challenge.

Many are unable to pick waste near the landfill or on it, for days. Residential areas of Ghazipur, for example, both the wastepickers’ slums and pucca apartments, struggled with the acrid smoke for three days. They too, took in a huge puff of poison.

Delhi is Breathing and Eating its Trash

Ghazipur is also home to a poultry market and a dairy. Fires and the consequent contamination render these foods unfit to eat. In the absence of regulation, the dairy farmers continue to send milk into the city, just like the fish and chicken mandi nearby continues to feed people.

Since dioxin is lipophilic, it is more easily found in fat-rich foods like milk and chicken. Not only is Delhi breathing its trash, it is likely eating it too. In many parts of the world, food is tested for dioxin contamination, banned if it doesn't meet the standards. One such high-profile episode took place as long ago as 1999, in the European Union.

India’s food safety standards don't take into account these. So no process to prevent people from eating this exists. The Delhi government would be wise to develop such protocols, given the frequency of such fires. Some immediate steps even now can be to analyse milk samples, hold consultations with the dairy farmers and mandi shops to identify the first steps during future episodes including possible compensation.

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Birds Around Ghazipur Landfill Too Disturbed by the Fire?

If you’re looking for a landfill, look up at the sky. The congregation of birds is a marker. Birds forage on our trash. From the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork to the majestic Bald Eagle, I’ve seen the greatest populations on landfills, feeding on what’s available between plastic bags and polyester rags.

The National Geographic says birds are burnt when they fly into the invisible heat from landfill fires. We have no data for India, but no reason why this should not have been the case at Ghazipur. Kites, pigeons, sparrows, mynas are all seen there, in varying numbers.

Worse still, as Delhi birders Yogesh Parashar and Nitu Sethi pointed out to me, this is the breeding season for many birds, including some of those found on Ghazipur. They are likely to have been disturbed too, and some of them might have given up for this breeding season.

One might reasonably ask why Delhi’s landfills keep catching fire. The simple answer is the irresponsible citizens whose waste reaches here. Indian law allows only for inert waste to be dumped at landfills. But when citizens don’t segregate or compost, then decentralised systems can’t be put into place.

All the waste hits the landfills. Working with the East Delhi Municipal Corporation for the last quarter has underscored how hard it is to put this on the plate of the RWAs and other waste generators. Even the subsidy of INR 25,000 for composting for a housing society hasn’t motivated most.

Why Are Delhi's Citizens Allowed to Flout Civic Laws?

On the other hand, campuses like IIT Delhi are almost entirely zero waste, sending less than 10 percent of their waste to landfills. So are very modest areas of Palam area, where home composting and segregation leave little to be dumped. Why are Delhi's citizens allowed to flout civic laws and poison hundreds of thousands of other citizens?

Delhi is the most (air) polluted city in the world. Landfill fires have to be ended as a single-minded pursuit. The long and the short of this is that less than 20 percent of the waste should leave the ward in which it is generated.

Leaves to organic waste are to be managed by neighbourhoods, with subsidy based on their property tax rate. Wealthier areas get less subsidy, but also benefit from a sliding tax if they meet high levels of decentralisation collectively. Unrecognised slums should be part of this too.

A third category that requires support is the informal sector-wastepickers, waste aggregators, and itinerant buys who buy waste from the doorstep on their cycles. They require social security, recognition and space for safe work, so their contribution to reducing waste at landfills is not their own cost.

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Waste Segregation is the Way Forward

Recently, I came home to a massive, smoky fire. Dry leaves from the many parks in my posh locality were on fire. The residents were quick to blame the South Delhi Municipal Corporation for not collecting this on time. We are a top Delhi colony, they told each other. Such self-entitlement must end. There’s no reason not to fine those whose actions endanger the lives and health of others. When we sternly fine those not following traffic rules. Why ignore those violating waste management rules?

While compost infra subsidies are important, markets remain a bane. Not every locality can absorb all that it composts. Government buy-back at fixed rates and pre-agreed quantities can go a long way to encourage composting of both leaves and organic waste. Our vegetable and fruit mandis in particular need help to close the loop by strengthening existing linkages with gaushalas and via composting.

Similarly, plastic and even paper must be reduced, with the refill economy kicking in. Apart from veering us to the circular economy, it also ensures less flammable waste is likely to reach the landfill. Too often, waste-to-energy (WTE) plants are presented as a cleaner alternative to landfills. This isn’t the case at all, for WTE is also intensely polluting and unsafe.

Delhi’s Okhla WTE plant has been fined every now and then for flouting standards-indicating the dangers this poses to human health. Infact, centralisation isn’t the response at all. With two exceptions: bio-remediation of landfills and upgrading existing ones. Bioremediation creates more space while upgradation, such as robust methane and leachate management, reduces the chances of fires and pollution.

Municipalities in Delhi have demonstrated they can’t do this alone. They are frequently stuffed with boastful, arrogant know-alls without the vision or the skills. Many councillors bully commissioners and placate their voters.

The occasional good leader leaves in a year or two, with little opportunity for institutional change. Most still flog the efficient segregation and collection model as an ideal. Even worse, they’re genuinely poor at managing partners. It is not possible for most skilled NGOs and others to invest in a municipality where letters go missing in action, and actions that should take a few days stretch out to months.

It is easier for potential partners to step out to other states, with more welcoming and engaged local bodies. This must change if the landfill fires have to end in Delhi. The capital city needs joint, transparent strategic planning for systemic change, train its elected representatives, learn to hold communities and other waste generators responsible, along with investing in decentralised waste management with zest. Bring it all on!

(Bharati Chaturvedi is the Founder and Director of NGO Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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