Ghazipur is here to stay

Rihan Najib | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on November 30, 2018

Past the tipping point: Despite reaching the saturation point in 2002, dumping in the landfill continues unabated even today   -  KAMAL NARANG

Delhi’s oldest and largest landfill — long oversaturated — is a source of endless strife for the residents of the area

“Where are the trees?”

It was a simple, yet loaded, question directed at Shah Alam, a resident of the slum settlements adjoining the Ghazipur landfill. The query is from Mohammed Shahid, a dairy farmer in the same area. About 200m away, Delhi’s oldest and largest landfill looms over the surroundings, only eight metres shorter than the Qutb Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret. The air is thick with ash and dust from the nearby power plant. Sickly-looking cattle graze idly through heaps of garbage.

“Trees, grass, parking lot — what are you even talking about?” Shahid continues, his eyes narrowing in anger. People leaving after the Friday afternoon prayers from a nearby mosque begin to gather around the two men, blocking the road.

Alarmed by the sudden turn of events, Alam points vaguely towards a section of the landfill, where the municipal administration had initiated a beautification drive that was subsequently discontinued. The crowd, many of them dairy farmers like Shahid, begins to chide Alam, a former ragpicker, for presenting a rosy picture where none exists.

It was never about the trees; rather, it was about who got to tell the story of the landfill and what it did to them.

Landfill as livelihood

Commissioned in 1984, the Ghazipur site in east Delhi is one of the capital’s three existing landfills — the others being Okhla in the south, and Bhalswa in the north. Ghazipur alone receives over 2,500 tonnes of solid waste a day, and the landfill oversaturated in 2002. Surrounding the landfill are dairy farms, abattoirs, a flower market, as well as a wholesale market for fruits and vegetables. Once thought to be out of sight on the outskirts of Delhi, the city has quickly closed around the Ghazipur landfill.

Currently with a height of 65m, spread across 29 acres, the landfill registers its presence from well over five km away. But it makes itself felt in less visible but more alarming ways, through the rampant pollution of the surrounding environment.

For the residents of the slum clusters situated close to the landfill, the Ghazipur site signifies a livelihood. They would go to the landfill to collect waste that would be later sifted for scraps of metal, glass and plastic as well as anything else that could be sold. The population surrounding the landfill is predominantly Muslim — most of them migrants from Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, living in unauthorised slum settlements. Others are long-time residents who are dairy farmers, abattoir workers and vegetable vendors. What unifies them is the sense of helplessness they experience about living on the foothills of a landfill.


Without respite: Slum settlements and dairy farms adjoining the landfill bear the brunt of air and groundwater pollution   -  KAMAL NARANG


In 2017, a section of the landfill collapsed, killing two people. The East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), in whose purview the landfill falls, imposed a ban on the entry of people as well as further dumping of waste. Ragpickers could no longer access the waste, but many of them found employment in the adjoining waste-to-energy plant operated by the IL&FS corporation.

Alam, a 36-year-old father of three who hails from West Bengal, is among those who transitioned from ragpicking to working in a power plant. He lives in a single-room shanty that is flanked by open sewers on the front and the back, choked with garbage and clouds of flies. Community bathrooms are situated far away from the newer shanties, so the residents, especially women, are forced to relieve themselves in the open rather than risk making the trip at night. A new water pipeline that was laid in 2016 for the slum cluster does not have enough pressure to supply water to his house. “We put in a smaller pipe but the water frequently gets mixed with sewage,” he says.

It is no surprise then that the ailments commonly afflicting the residents of the area are predominantly gastritis, diarrhoea, and vector-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria. “These are common enough diseases but because we don’t have a doctor or a dispensary close by, even a fever is dangerous,” Alam says. His daughter, Simran, who looks too small and frail for a child of 10, was diagnosed with dengue three years ago. After the doctor they had consulted said she wouldn’t survive, Simran was treated at home with goat’s milk, the juice of papaya leaves and kiwi fruit. Home remedies such as these, Alam says, are the only recourse for most in the colony.

However, Alam has no quarrel with the landfill. It has given him a job and an income, both of which are still out of reach for so many.

Competing narratives

Situated on the same premises as the slums are the dairy farms of Ghazipur. Though they seem to be less farm and more clusters of cattle standing in pools of muddy, greenish sludge, the owners of the farms present a competing narrative to that of the slums.

Shahid, 48, who vehemently disagreed with Alam, owns a dairy farm in the area, and has lived in Ghazipur all his life. “Before the government made this area a landfill, it was a talaab (pond). Cows and buffaloes would go there, we would use the water to clean the cowsheds and bathe the cattle,” he says. The demarcation of the area as landfill in 1984 changed the course of their lives and livelihoods.

The cattle suffered first. They seemed to be constantly ill until Shahid realised it was the water from the pipe that was making them sick. Then, over the years, many people in the compound he lived in were diagnosed with cancer, tuberculosis, and various respiratory ailments. “We don’t use the piped water for anything other than cleaning,” he says, “The water is salty and hard, so we have to buy water from a tanker for our needs.”

The Ghazipur site, being an unengineered landfill which has no protective layer at the bottom to prevent toxic leachates from permeating the soil, is situated on soft alluvial soil that enhances percolation to groundwater aquifers. A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Applied Environmental Sciences confirms high levels of groundwater contamination with toxic effluents as well as microbes, rendering the water unfit for domestic use. Studies conducted on other landfill sites at Delhi such as Bhalswa have revealed similar results.

“The noise and smoke from the power plant is unbearable. We can hardly breathe here,” Shahid says. The open landfill also attracts kites and crows — a further cause of distress for the farmers. “The birds pick the waste from the dump, and drop it on our roofs and water tanks,” he says, “How are we to live?”

Out of sight, out of mind

Ravi Agarwal, director at Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental NGO, says, “What you see at Ghazipur is the extension of a very old system where you take everything and put it out of sight.” According to him, the idea of a scientifically engineered sanitary landfill began making the rounds in Indian policy-making around 30 years ago, but Ghazipur predates that idea. “It is just a low-lying area into which garbage is dumped. It’s not even a landfill in that sense,” he says.

Waste to energy: The IL&FS-operated incineration plant generates electricity from the landfill   -  KAMAL NARANG


Another critical perspective comes from Dunu Roy, who runs the Hazards Centre in Delhi, a research and advocacy group. “In the 1980s, the nature of urban waste was very different from what it is now. The packaging and plastics invasion hadn’t started then,” he says, “What went into the landfill back then was mostly construction debris and road sweeping waste since the kabaadiwallah would have already taken away the recyclables such as newspapers and metal objects, and the household wastes would be composted. This isn’t the case anymore.” The per capita waste generated in Delhi is 500-700g per day, climbing up to a kilo in some areas. Along with the introduction of materials such as sanitary napkins, biomedical wastes, circuit boards, bonded plastics — what is going into the landfill is not meant for it, Roy says.

Since the handling and collection of solid waste is the responsibility of the local municipality, there was no unified understanding or the resources for dealing with urban solid waste apart from collecting and dumping. The little segregation and recycling that would happen existed solely because of the unrecognised efforts of the informal workers in the waste economy — ragpickers and kabaadiwallahs, who would reduce the quantum of waste going into the landfills. As municipalities outsource the collection of waste to private contractors, these workers are being edged out. Since the private contractors are paid by the tonnage of waste they collect and transport to the landfill, more unsegregated waste ends up being dumped in sites such as Ghazipur.

The first policy framework for urban solid waste only came in 2000 with the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules. This was replaced by the updated rules in 2016 which recognised the contributions of informal waste workers and mandated segregation at source. But rules don’t always translate to outcomes. Pradeep Khandelwal, chief engineer at EDMC, says, “Segregation at source would require a complete chain which we don’t have at the moment.”

Despite the ban on dumping waste in Ghazipur in 2017, the municipality continues to transport waste for lack of any other option. Additionally, the municipality has located two new sites — Sonia Vihar and Ghonda Gujran — for new sanitary landfills. “If we take precautions and properly cover the sites, it will be as good as recreation sites,” says Khandelwal.

Roy calls this an “end-of-the-pipe” solution: “They’re saying they’ll take the waste as it comes and deal with it. Unless you go to the head of the pipe and ask some tough questions about what all is going into the pipe in the first place, there will be no change.”

This is seconded by Agarwal, who says, “If you look at other countries, the mantra is to divert waste away from landfills. Landfills are the last resort of waste management. But landfills can only go away when other systems of segregation, recycling and reuse come in.”

With such glacial processes of change, residents of Ghazipur cannot hope for much more than persistent inaction. Alam and Shahid are frozen in their narratives.

For the rest of the city, looking away is no longer an option when the imprint of Ghazipur is in the water we drink and the air we breathe.

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Published on November 30, 2018
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