While Safety is First Priority, Serious Problems of the Poor Living Nearby Should Also be Reduced

Landfill Fire

A big fire at the Bhalsawa landfill near  Delhi has led to the emergence of a highly hazardous situation in Delhi. Official sources have attributed this to the release of mehane gas, a GHG many times more more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its impact on climate change, as well as a long spell of dry and hot weather conditions.

The multiple authorities in Delhi have been exchanging blame as they usually do, and a technical team is being dispatched to Mumbai to find ways of capturing the gas and reducing high risks. However questions arise as to why these and other solutions could not be found much earlier, as the risk of fires as well as other serious hazards has continued to remain at high levels for some years at Bhalsawa landfill as well as at other landfill sites of the city like Ghazipur.

An even more important question that needs to be raised is why these landfills have been allowed to become such huge monster type threats of the capital of India, while simple community based solutions like waste segregation and decentralized waste disposal over the recent years could have contributed much to sorting out the mess.

We need to remember also that a large number of  poor people live  quite close to the Bhalsawa landfill, and we need to be the caring about the more chronic impact on their life. In addition of course they are the most affected at the time of an escalation like the recent fire. As I read recent reports about the recent aggravation I was  reminded about what these people told me at the time of my earlier visits here.

“It stings our throats and eyes worse than chilly when the wind blows from the landfill towards us. The stench does not allow us to eat our food as one feels like vomiting.” These words of Lalwati were more or less repeated time and again by other people living in a lane of Shradhanand Colony located very close to Bhalaswa landfill.

Suman Devi added, “ the groundwater has been so badly polluted that only coal-like black water pours from the few taps and hand pumps that exist here. No one uses this water even for scrubbing floor. Water for all purposes, not just drinking, has to be obtained from water tankers. The polluted water also enters home at the time of rains.”

Pushpa , coordinator of Bhalaswa Lok Shakti Manch pointed to puddles of this black water which flows in from the side of the landfill. She said, “Look, this water is so badly polluted that even mosquitoes do not like to come near this water.” Sure enough, mosquitoes hover all around us but cannot be seen in the water puddle. A woman called out from her doorstep , “ I cannot sleep at night because of these wretched mosquitoes.”

People here reported an excess of health problems including problems relating to stomach, eyes, throat, skin and fevers. They have grown skeptical of people who visit them, make promises and yet do not help them. They mentioned only one improvement of recent years that most of them have toilets within their own houses. In the absence of sewerage facilities the excreta accumulates in a ditch in the ground below the house floor. When this fills up this has to be cleared by summoning a machine which flushes out the dirt for a payment of Rs. 1200 or so, people say. The later day possibility of linkage to any sewerage facilities is not at all assured at present, they said.

They mentioned water as their biggest problem as water for all purposes has to be obtained from water tankers which are sent to this colony by the government. Houses all along the entire lane have water cans stacked in front of them and there is a rush to fill them when the water tanker comes. When the need is excessive and supply limited, obviously some are left out in terms of obtaining only a small share of their water needs. This affects overall hygiene. While some people said that the tanker water is fit for drinking  others said that it is not and they have to purchase water at the rate of Rs. 15 for a 15 litre can. Or Re. 1 per litre.

Households who do not have strong adults to rough it out for obtaining water and carrying heavy cans back home are unable to obtain adequate water and unable to meet sanitation needs properly. Polluted black water from the landfill fills the lane at the time of rains and finds its way into houses located at a lower level. Even if households construct small street drains on their own, like they constructed toilets, there is no outlet to which they can link it .

Suman Devi related her recent woes, “ Black water giving terrible smell entered my house . My husband is injured after an accident. Still he joined me in standing in the polluted water and throwing out bucketfuls. After this exhausting effort both of us fell ill . Now we do not have the strength to bring the three water cans from the roadside.”

While Suman and some of her neighbors regret why they settled at a place where a landfill was set up later, Shakuntla who lives in Bhalaswa resettlement colony about a km. away from the landfill site had  absolutely no choice regarding the place where she wanted to settle. She like 20,000 residents of her colony was shifted here by the government after her previous house was demolished as a part of various slum demolition and resettlement drives in Delhi around the year 2002. By this time the highly polluting impact of the landfill was well established.

What she and several other people in the resettlement colony cannot understand is why they were shifted here so close to a huge landfill when the highly polluting impact of this garbage hill was well known to the authorities. The effort should have been to avoid any big increase in the population density of the area close to the landfill, say around a radius of 2 kms. or so. But the decision to bring in about 20,000 people settled in different parts of the city here in a highly polluting zone is certainly difficult to explain or justify.

This is further compounded by the fact that the entire colony is located in a  low lying area and there are no drainage outlets from here. Hence waterlogging has remained a persistent problem of this colony . Pushpa said that the groundwater contamination caused by the landfill extends to a much wider area and certainly up to this colony, as was confirmed by a water survey in 2002 which revealed serious contamination and related health problems. After this groundwater use here was banned . Several water tanker points were identified at which, it was stated, water tankers will deliver water. But there had many scuffles and disputes over the distribution of tank water.

In November 2017 an officer from the Municipal corporation visited the colony and announced that the existing system of a contractor who charged fees for use of public toilet is unjust and so the municipal authorities will provide free toilet. Instead the system broke down and most people had to resort to open defecation.

Later some families have constructed toilets in their houses. However there is a serious question that when the size of the plot allotted is only 12.5 square meters or 18.5 square meters how practical it is to have a toilet, bathroom and kitchen within this house. Then there is the problem of lack of sewerage.

A survey carried out in 2012 specifically asked people if their water situation is worse than or better than compared to their previous living place from where they were evicted and brought to this resettlement colony. As many as 99 per cent said that the situation was reasonably satisfactory earlier while 88 per cent said that the water situation was not satisfactory at the new resettlement site. 19 per cent were found to be purchasing water and spending on average Rs. 346 per month on water purchase. No expenditure on water was reported at the previous living places. In the case of sanitation the survey found that public toilets were dirty and inadequate and 52 per cent of people were paying for use of these facilities. On average, per family expenditure was Rs. 151 per family while it was only Rs. 17 per family at the previous living place. In the survey 81 per cent people complained of diarrhea and stomach problems in recent times, 26 per cent complained of typhoid and 36 per cent complained of skin ailments.

Clearly people have very serious health, environmental and social problems due to living near a huge landfill and these are compounded by the fact that people do not have access to essential facilities including  water and sanitation in particular. The authorities should take urgent steps to reduce the health hazards and improve water and sanitation in these areas.

Then there is the additional risk and pollution hazard when fires break out. In fact some of the smaller ones may not even be reported but nevertheless have an adverse impact on the health of the people living close by. The recent big fire should prompt the authorities to take safety measures of course but in addition they should not forget that much more needs to be done to provide relief to the people living nearby in very unhealthy, risky and distressed conditions.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.


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