When it comes to pollution in Delhi, it seems slum dwellers are being held accountable while the affluent escape scrutiny for their lifestyles which create it
In a recent order, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of 48,000 slum dwellings located in safety zones, around 140 km of railway tracks, of Delhi. The order was passed in the MC Mehta case — a landmark case that brought environmental protection into the constitutional framework.
The MC Mehta case was filed after the infamous oleum gas leak incident from Shriram Food and Fertilisers Ltd, in which one person died and hundreds of people were hospitalised in Delhi. The case has been on a long journey since then and is credited for laying down “principles of absolute liability” and “concept of deep pockets”.
The order led to a debate — as in a time of a global pandemic — threat of eviction can create another humanitarian crisis after the exodus of migrant labourers brought on by the lockdown.
The order was passed to ensure proper solid waste management as the Railways — while responding to Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority’s criticism about Railways’ failure in complying with Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 — said that the predominant presence of the jhuggi jhonpris along 140-km track in NCR is the major hindrance in dealing with garbage, solid waste and plastic waste. Some experts inferred that Railways made the slum dwellers a scapegoat for its inability to deal with solid waste.
However, looking at this argument in response to EPCA’s report, a question arises: When slum dwellers are not creating a significant chunk of solid waste, why should they have to pay the price?
In Delhi, more than 8,700 tonnes per day (tpd) of garbage is generated and 8,000 tpd of waste is transported to three landfill sites at Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur. Unpaid and unorganised labourers manage this solid waste. As per estimates, there are around 1,50,000 ragpickers in Delhi, who are dealing with this hazardous waste and risking their lives on a daily basis to make a living. That means that these informal workers are a critical cog in the wheel, and they do not form a major part of the population of waste generators. People living in formal settlements do.
Not just this, if we look at pollution — water, air, and noise — slum dwellers are in fact victims rather than the culprits.
The river Yamuna is described by professor CR Babu as being “ecologically dead” and it has been condemned to this fate by the discharge of untreated domestic and industrial effluents which form 85% of waste. The water quality is not fit for bathing, underwater life or domestic supply. These effluents are discharged into the Yamuna mainly from formal settlements and big industries.
The water table in Delhi is also decreasing day by day. A report by Niti Ayog said that 21 cities including Delhi will run out of groundwater by 2020. It is interesting to note here that more than 5,000 borewells are functioning within Delhi, most of which are located on private land. So the poor mostly use water from either government supply or a single borewell serving a community cluster. While wastage of water in residential areas is one of the major causes of the water table going down (which is a problem for everyone), the rich have purifiers in their houses while the poor aren’t getting clean water to drink.
Delhi has been a water-scarce city and there were a significant number of traditional water conservation structures like baolis (stepwells) here. Most of these baolis have now been destroyed due to encroachment. One example is the Agrasen Ki Baoli, near Hailey Road, Connaught Place. It is surrounded by various structures and it can’t be revived without demolishing them. Encroachment is mainly by big shops, buildings while informal workers and vendors form a very small part of the ecosystem.
When we talk about air pollution, as per the April 2019 analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think tank, transportation is the biggest source of air pollution in Delhi. It forms 18-39% of the city’s pollution.
Road dust is the second-largest source (18-38%), followed by industries (2-29%) then come power plants with the fifth largest source being construction (8%).
How then are poor people responsible for Delhi’s deteriorating air?
As per 2018-19, economic survey of Delhi, the number of vehicles by March 2018 stood at 1.09 crore that includes around 70,00,000 two-wheelers and 32,46,637 cars and jeeps. Vehicular pollution is responsible for not just air but noise pollution as well. Air pollution causes multiple ailments including deteriorating lung immunity and premature birth. Those who have less resources pay the price for that.
In Delhi, residents are often assaulted by incessant noises of traffic, construction work and loudspeakers. In 2017, a ranking of the world hearing index ranked Delhi as the second most noisiest city in the world. The noises created by construction work, traffic and even loudspeakers come mainly from activities undertaken by people living in formal settlements, while people living on roadsides are paying the price — WHO guidelines say noise higher than 50 dB(A) to 55 dB(A) is unhealthy, it can trigger annoyance.
That is why it can be deduced that slum dwellers living in informal settlements, taking up the work of building the city are not the polluters of Delhi. They may be posing some hindrance in “solid waste management” but they are not the biggest contributors when it comes to the creation of solid waste, in fact, they are critical in its management. Similarly, when we look at air, water or noise pollution the affluent seem to be bigger contributors than the poor.