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Delhi’s curse: A hill as high as Qutub Minar

The Ghazipur landfill becomes a burning hell in summer, as frequent fires lead to more harmful emissions.
Who will save us from this monstrosity?

What if we told you that to search for a mountain you do not have to go to Shimla or Nainital? There is one right in the heart of East Delhi. This is not, however, the kind of mountain whose beauty you rave about. Rather, you cover your nose and try to get as far away as possible from it.

This is the 213-ft high Ghazipur landfill, also referred to as the ‘mountain of garbage’ on Google maps. At this height, the landfill is just 17-ft short of the height of Qutub Minar, the city’s tallest monument. Started in 1984, this 35-year-old landfill is the oldest dumping yard in the city, and if it continues to grow at such an alarming rate, it will eclipse the height of the 800-year old monument soon enough.

The site should have been closed down 17 years ago, when it crossed its maximum capacity. Spread across 70 acres, the current height of the dump yard, stands 65 metres tall now, more than double the permissible limit of 25 metres.

Even before you reach the mountain, you can smell it from a mile away, and when you reach there, you are greeted to this huge mass of filth, with vultures and eagles swirling around it. It’s a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno: the seven stages of hell.

The stench becomes fouler when you go around to the other side of the mountain near the canal, where the garbage flows into the Hindon River. It stinks so much that you want to throw up. Right next to this garbage dump are fish and meat markets, and also the Ghazipur dairy area. The mixed stench of garbage, fish and cow dung add up to make it even more unbearable.

According to data retrieved from the EDMC, the mountain holds 1.4 crore tonnes of garbage currently. The waste keeps arriving, brought in by more than 500 trucks across three shifts in one day — unloading over 3,000 tonnes of garbage every day.

Brijeshwar, who has been coming to this site with his truck for over 30 years, has seen the dump yard grow from a pit to the humongous hill it is today. “Earlier, there used to be a deep pit here, where we used to dump the garbage. After a point of time the pit filled up and gradually as more and more garbage started accumulating, it grew to this huge filth mountain you are seeing today,” he says.

Another garbage truck driver, Rakesh Kumar, has been traversing the mountain up and down for the past 12 years. “I take 10 rounds of the mountain every day,” he says with a boastful smile. But this journey for him is nothing short of a health hazard. “Upar itni badbu aati hai ki saans lena mushkil ho jaata hai (It stinks so much that it becomes difficult to breathe),” he says. “You can imagine what I go through on an everyday basis; when I go home, my wife tends to stay away from me,” he says jokingly.

“I’ve developed a persistent cough and my doctors say that there is a chance that I have contracted tuberculosis,” says Kumar, explaining how the overexposure to the different gases at the site affects them.

But the situation worsens when parts of the dump yard catch fire. There is smoke everywhere and our trucks get stranded, and the foul stench increases 100 times,” says Kumar. Fire is a frequent phenomenon in the garbage mound, occurring almost twice every month.

Yeh Ghazipur humare liye ek shraap jaisa hia, jisse hum nikal nahin sakte (Ghazipur is like a curse for firefighters, which we can’t get rid of),” says Frances Brown, District Officer of the East Division of Delhi Fire Services.

According to Brown, the garbage dump catches fire as often as, “once in ten days”. “During summers, due to the high temperature, the site frequently catches fire, and we get a lot of distress calls, sometimes more than once a day,” he adds.

“A recurring problem for us is getting our heavy trucks up to the spot that has caught fire,” says Brown. “Our trucks are extremely heavy and cannot go up the mound of garbage, which is brittle.”

While extinguishing the fire, a lot of fire fighters tend to fall down from the mound that is extremely unstable as it is made up of garbage and there is nothing solid that can hold it. “Humare bahut logon ke haath pair toote hain upar se gir ke (A lot of us have suffered fractures as a result of falling from a great height),” he says.

At times the fire spreads to an extent that it takes multiple days to totally extinguish it. He also says that their safety equipment proves ineffective as it is not designed to fight fire in garbage dumps.

“In the last 12 years that I have been associated with the fire service, I have gone to the Ghazipur landfill more than 1,000 times,” claims Brown. “Usually around six trucks are enough for an average fire, but this one time we had 40 trucks at the site, and they travelled from the site to the station at least 10 times for refilling. So, around 400 tankers of water were used to extinguish the fire,” he claims.

However, contrary to Brown’s statement, EDMC chief engineer, Pradeep Khandelwal says that they have taken strict measures now that there have been no instances of fire in a very long time. But as recently as March 31, a part of the landfill once again caught fire, which lasted for 10 hours.

So, what ignites this fire, apart from combustible material? The most common cause of underground landfill fires is an increase in the oxygen content of the landfill, which in turn raises the bacterial activity and temperatures (aerobic decomposition). These so-called hotspots can come in contact with pockets of methane and result in a fire. Surface fires are the products of incomplete combustion.

According to Toxics Link, a Delhi-based NGO, the toxic gases emitted during landfill fires  include dioxins, furans, carbon monoxide, methane and carbon dioxide.

The smoke from the landfill fires generally contain particulate matter (the products of incomplete combustion of the fuel source), which may aggravate pre-existing pulmonary conditions or cause respiratory distress. Furthermore, carbon monoxide is harmful because it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen, which can cause permanent damage or death. Exposure to high levels of dioxins has been linked to cancer, liver damage, skin rashes, and reproductive and developmental disorders as well. These gases can have an adverse effect on the workers and also on the residents of the area.

The toxic gases from the fires are one of the several problems the residents of the area have been living with. They have almost become immune to the pungent smell by now. “You will definitely throw up if you are not used to it,” says one local sitting outside his house with the huge landfill in the background.

Those living in nearby settlements have no choice but to keep their windows and doors closed at most times. This is not just to avoid the stench, but also to keep away mosquitoes and several other insects that breed near the dump yard.

“Our children are often down with one disease or the other. We cannot afford to breathe freely. The authorities pay no heed to our issues,” said Inder Kumar, who has been staying in the area for over 30 years now. The situation worsens when it rains, with mud and filth all around, points out another resident.

However, the one incident that the residents can clearly recall took place in September 2017 — when after heavy rainfall, the Ghazipur landfill collapsed, claiming the lives of two people and injuring several others. After the incident, LG Anil Baijal had ordered to shut down the landfill, and to relocate the garbage to Ranikhela. The residents of Ranikhela protested against it and the very next day, the garbage dumping at Ghazipur resumed.

According to reports, the amount of garbage that collapsed from the entire mound was only 1% of the total volume of waste.

Out of the 1.4 crore tonne of waste 80% is inert — waste which is not chemically or biologically reactive and does not decompose. A part of this comprises of toxic wastes which includes non-recyclable plastic, packaging materials (multi-layered), ash, rubber, battery, chemical cleaners, pesticides, light bulbs, paint, oil and lubricants. Apart from this, e-waste and bio-medical waste is also often dumped in the landfill, which is against the law.

According to experts, only 10% of household waste generated should be dumped at the landfill, yet the situation on the ground is far from this. Almost 80% of the waste is unloaded at the dump yards and this is due to the lack of segregation of waste at source.

The Solid Waste Management Act 2016 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests states that waste generators would now have to segregate waste into three streams — biodegradables, dry (plastic, paper, metal, wood) and domestic hazardous waste (diapers, napkins, mosquito repellents, cleaning agents) before handing it over to the collector. According to Pradeep Khandelwal, this is not done at the Ghazipur site because, “The rules came into effect in 2016, and our site exists since 1984.”

There have also been reports of the land violating the norms set by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC). When asked about the same, Khandelwal denies this by saying that they had been given clearance way back in 1984 when the land was built and now they send yearly reports to the DPCC.

Khandelwal reveals, “In fact, post the accident we have stopped people from going to the top of the mountain, and we have set up electronic fences and CCTV cameras for security.” Even the trucks don’t go to the top of the mountain, he says, as now they dump their garbage in a pit that the EDMC has dug out within the mountain.

As a measure to clear part of the landfill, the NGT had advised the National Highway Authorities of India (NHAI) in 2017 to use some part of the mountain, “80% of which has been turned into rubble and dust,” according to Khandelwal, to build the 96-km long Delhi Meerut Expressway. But Khandelwal says that they have not received any further enquiries from the NHAI, and the deal is at a standstill.

Recently, EDMC has shortlisted two plots of land — one in Gonda Gujran and one in Sonia Vihar — to set up two new garbage dumps, “so that there is no further pressure on the Ghazipur dump.” He adds that the DDA has sanctioned the land, after a period of tussle between the two organisations, and they will begin the work on those lands as soon as the ongoing Lok Sabha polls get over. However, the waste from Ghazipur will not be relocated and the mountain will remain as it is.

This move has been challenged by Vimlendu Jha, co-founder of Sweccha, who started an online petition wherein he opposed the building of a landfill on the banks of the Yamuna river, violating environmental norms, as the toxic wastes will pollute the water of the already endangered river. The petition has garnered over one lakh signatures till now.

While EDMC has already proposed a new area for another dumping site, finding new landfills is not a clear solution, it would just relocate the problem. Jha points out a few steps that are extremely critical to have a better waste management regime. Segregation of waste at source, a decentralised waste management system that has to follow norms to prevent soil acidification, which pollutes both surface and ground water, needs to be put in place, instead of sending garbage to the other end of the city and sanitary landfills.

“The current landfills are all expired and saturated landfills. These are not supposed to be in operation since over a decade, and are more hills than fills,” Jha concludes.