The bell rings in the morning. You open the door. It’s the rag picker who has come at seven in the cold freezing morning, when you are still enjoying the warmth of a hot cup of tea. You give away the garbage then close the door. The filthy routine of the rag picker has begun. With no yoga, meditation or morning walks in the parks, but rather with door-to-door service picking garbage and then to public dustbins where the garbage is sorted.
Recently, when we were going towards Ghaziabad, we crossed the monstrous trash mountain of Gazipur landfill; filthy and huge. Hazardous waste, leaching out toxic liquids and emanating noxious fumes with thousands of scavenging birds swarm over them as they grow larger every day.
The Ghazipur landfill area is one of the biggest and oldest landfill areas of Delhi. The municipal solid waste is indiscriminately disposed there since the last 30 years. Scavenging at the Ghazipur dump yard begins early. By 6.30 am there are hundreds of waste pickers who gather up whatever they can without using masks, gloves or any other form of protection. Some even tie a magnet to a long stick to pull out metal objects. The men sift through the waste for almost 12 hours a day with the womenfolk and children pitching in.
Delhi produces over 9,000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste every day. The three present sites at Ghazipur, Bhalaswa and Okhla are already overflowing and have reached saturation point, the situation becomes scarier with the daily release of garbage expected to jump to 18,000 tonnes by 2021. The sites’ peripheries are getting illegally enlarged, posing serious health hazards for residents in the vicinity.
Studies have shown possible increased risks of certain types of cancer, including bladder, brain and leukaemia among people who live near landfills. A recent study found that living near a landfill could expose residents to chemicals that can reduce immune system function and lead to an increased risk of infections.
There is smoke all around these landfills as the waste often catches fire due to the heat generated from decomposition of wastes. Delhi’s landfills are creating a health crisis because most waste workers who go there contract asthma, TB and skin diseases or are bitten by stray dogs; some get burnt in fire.
For rag pickers, rubbish is a resource and a survival strategy. Even under unhealthy conditions, their work earns them enough to support their families. In the absence of a municipal recycling system and segregation of waste at source, such as people’s homes, they play a key part in the city’s waste management.
So long as we remain a society addicted to chlorine and other toxic-creating technologies, our discards will be toxic, and the places where we bury them will be hazardous to health for a long time to come.
A city like Delhi must plan aggressively towards a “zero” garbage and waste status whereby all solid waste is properly segregated and then recycled and reused. Otherwise, the city would soon be known more for its garbage hills than its architectural attractions or its natural ridge.