Under Delhi’s Mountains of Waste Lie Buried a Grim Social Reality

Three huge landfills on Delhi’s periphery are at once eyesores and markers of unsustainable consumption.
Informal workers risk health hazards to pick waste at Delhi's Ghazipur landfill.
Informal workers risk health hazards to pick waste at Delhi's Ghazipur landfill.FacetsOfNonStickPans/ Credits Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi- Birds of carrion circle over the massive mound that looks more like a hideous hillock. Every now and then, one or two of the birds swoop down, use their talons to pick up objects and, in a flash, they fly back up, their enormous wings flailing.

On the mound, men and children, with hunched shoulders and lowered heads, sift through the filth with bare hands. Several metres below, massive payloader trucks groan as they carry mountains of garbage. Polythene packs, blown from the landfill, cling to tree branches several kilometres away from this gigantic waste dump.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Delhi’s underclass living in acres of slums have made peace with the noxious fumes. Or so one might like to believe.

This is Bhalswa, one of three towering waste landfills that ring the Delhi National Capital Region periphery. The Bhalswa landfill is located right next to National Highway 44 that runs northward to Haryana and beyond.

Fourteen months ago, the Delhi-NCR administration promised to clear out the landfills – the other two are located at Ghazipur and Okhla bordering Uttar Pradesh – but as wastes go, they remain where they have been for years and continue to blight the NCR’s landscape. Delhi produces 11,000 tonnes of municipal waste daily. The city is producing so much waste and garbage that a fourth landfill – at Tehkhand near the city’s border with Haryana – is well on its way to becoming huge.

The deadlines for removing two landfills – Bhalswa (March 2024) and Okhla (December 2023) – have been missed and it appears the date to clear out the Ghazipur mound (December 2024) will also pass by without any action. And now, even as the bureaucracy coins terms such a “legacy waste”, new deadlines have been set to rid the Indian capital of the ‘ugly’ features.

The unsightly landfills are also sites of human angst and anger. While one waste picker said the Bhalswa landfill “keeps running because waste never ends”, the walls around the nearby slums carry angry graffiti – “You progress while we burn”. Mountainous waste, crushing poverty and desperate conditions bring into sharp relief the not-very-latent class distinctions.

These reflections of anxiety encapsulate today’s waste crisis in and around Delhi. Waste is ever-increasing and its effect is visible in the routine fires around the landfills, even as all its attendant crises are borne by the marginalised and lower-caste communities who make a living picking waste.

In Bhalswa – as in Ghazipur and Okhla – the marginalisation of materials, spaces and waste pickers is not by default but by design: after all, the city’s discarded and disposed elements have been pushed to its periphery.

The landfills are like toxic sinks which absorb the city’s waste while imposing and infusing toxicity into the lives of the people living around them.

Waste has been piling up at the three sites for the past 40 years. The oldest of the three landfills is Ghazipur – where a wholesale market for meat, fish and vegetables also operates – which arose from the ground in 1984. Bhalswa, which was already in the making, officially followed in 1994, while the Okhla dumpsite was “commissioned” two years later.

Records maintained by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which undertakes conservancy functions in and around the city, suggest that 28 million tonnes of legacy waste has been dumped at the three sites since July 2019. Half of this was dumped at Ghazipur. While 11.9 million tonnes have been cleared since 2019, there is seemingly no end to more and more waste. Of the 17.2 million tonnes remaining waste, Ghazipur’s share is 8.40 million, while Bhalwa’s is 5.45 million and Okhla’s 3.4 million.

Such is the enormous volume of waste at the three sites that trommels deployed by the municipal corporation have not been able to match the speed with which waste reaches the landfills. Growing urbanisation and gargantuan consumption have disrupted and challenged the municipal authorities’ waste management processes, functions and ecosystem.

Decades of waste dumping, lack of formal recycling facilities and ecologically sustainable infrastructure (both human and technological) has caused visible socio-ecological and anthropocentric crises around the landfills.

The frequent fires and incidence of respiratory diseases, worsening water quality and oozing runoff in the surrounding water bodies is a consequence of the unchecked and unplanned waste dumping. Waste pickers and scrap collectors, mostly from lower-caste communities, and cows, pigs and stray dogs bear the burden of the city’s detritus as they clear the waste by foraging, recycling and repurposing discarded materials.

And yet, the prevailing discussion around waste often revolves around the challenges of waste management and making the problem invisible by pushing it outside the city’s limits.

There are processes that shape Delhi’s waste crisis which, from time to time, lead to responses of the techno-politico infrastructures of waste management that claim to sanitise city spaces.

Over the last 20 years, Delhi’s waste management practices underwent major overhaul. Privatisation started in 2005, changing the dynamics of waste management adopted at that time. This relied basically on recycling by informal waste workers and municipal sweepers. This was undertaken in three phases, much of which continues. That year, private firms were contracted to transport waste to the landfills.The second phase of reforms was marked by the introduction of incinerators in 2011–12. Instead of segregating and recycling the city’s trash, the municipal authorities opted for incineration.

Today, Delhi’s three incinerator facilities at Okhla, Ghazipur and Bawana represent the on-going third phase. This includes collection of household trash via a public-private-partnership model, which involves transporting solid waste to local receptacles, compressing it and then transferring it to either the landfills or incinerators.

The incinerators were designed as waste-to-energy plants to generate electricity – arguably geared towards making a profit, and making the waste disappear. This was, of course, aimed at controlling Delhi’s waste crisis and projecting a clean-and-green image.

However, despite such measures, Delhi continues to wallow in its own waste.

Two consequences flowed from the pursuit of such measures. First, waste-to-energy plants hit informal waste pickers hard, reducing their capacity to earn a living. This sent them deeper into poverty. Second, the plants ended up contributing to making the breathing air noxious with a toxic mix of emissions such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury among many others.

The focus of Delhi’s existing solid waste management policies is not on curtailing ever-increasing consumption and production but making waste invisible for aesthetic purposes or incinerating it for profit.

This leads to one inescapable question about what constitutes ‘sustainable’ waste management infrastructure in a city the size of Delhi. Technological innovations have rendered the human labour (of waste workers) insignificant and devalued.

Given India’s socially segmented – casteist – reality in waste management processes, it would be advisable to ensure that Delhi’s socio-economically marginalised receive the respect they deserve but also provide them with legally-binding contracts to engage in more inclusive and equitable labour participation in the same work field.

- Aparna Agarwal is an Assistant Professor at the School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. A DPhil from the Department of International Development, University of Oxford, Aparna’s thesis is on (Re)moving Waste: Caste, Spaces, and Materials in Delhi.

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