Time bomb: Garbage RDX

Tonnes of toxic garbage pollute our groundwater and air, but turning India into a zero garbage zone is not impossible. It all starts at the source: the dustbin in your 'home sweet home'

Garima Srivastava Delhi   

Each household in a metro like Delhi produces a certain amount of waste every day. This is either taken away by the municipal employees, the 'garbage collector' or thrown in the garbage bins. However, what we consider as the end of domestic garbage is the beginning of someone else's plight.

The garbage produced from our households is taken to landfill sites situated at the outskirts of the cities. Delhi itself produces 8,000 metric tonnes of garbage every day. According to the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB), this might shoot up to 15,000 metric tonnes by 2021. 

Currently, the garbage collected by the Delhi Municipal Corporation (DMC) is taken to the three landfill sites: Okhla in south Delhi, Gazipur in east Delhi and Jehangirpuri in north Delhi. The government is planning to create four new landfill sites around Delhi.

Employees deployed at the Jehangirpuri site told Hardnews: “On an average 450 to 500 trucks filled with garbage arrive every day. One truck contains four tonnes of garbage. The waste that comes here is non-segregated.” Similar is the condition of other landfill sites. An employee at the Gazipur landfill site says, “Sometimes, the garbage also contains corpses of animals that come from the nearby chicken market.”

So what happens to the life of those who have been living this area since years? “Since 1994, our life has become an eternal hell due to this garbage dump. The groundwater of this area is contaminated. We get yellowish, salted water that stinks. Due to the excess traffic of garbage trucks, air pollution is on the rise. Our children are getting prone to asthma and other respiratory diseases, and women are getting skin allergies since for most of their domestic work they have to use this contaminated water. This place has also become a hub for vultures, crows, dogs, pigs and scavengers, which makes it risky to let kids go out in the open and play,” complains Saquil Ahmed, whose house shares the boundary of the Gazipur landfill site.

Monsoon arrives as a nightmare. “During the rains we can't even think of stepping out from our homes as the garbage dumped at these sites floats right up to our doorsteps with the filthy water. It stinks and spreads. And this goes on day after day until the time the rains stop. One day there will be an epidemic. Although this huge 'mountain of waste' is set on fire, this creates more problems. The fumes stay in the air and spread for more than two weeks. Flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and rats make our life miserable. We are fed up,” says frustrated Rajeev Maggo, who has a shop near the Gazipur landfill site. 

This is a core problem across cities and towns in India. For instance, Urali Devachi, a village about 25 km from Pune, the emerging IT hub of the country, has turned into a daily nuisance. Over 1,250 tonnes of garbage, including plastic waste, is dumped everyday at the five-acre dumping site close to the village. Many villagers have been forced to abandon farming because the fields are strewn with polythene bags and waste material the winds bring from the garbage dump. Groundwater has been contaminated. Dengue, malaria, diarrhoea are common ailments. Germs and toxic elements from the garbage leak into the groundwater. There is no clean water to drink. This contaminated water poses a major risk to the cattle as well.

It's a form of condemnation and exile, living with the garbage dump. Relatives don't visit this place. Villagers in the neighbourhood are skeptical about marrying their children to boys and girls in Urali. Many villagers have migrated to other places. The garbage dump has badly affected the social life of an entire village.

The contention is not just about dumping garbage, but also about constructions near the garbage depot. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), MSW rule 2000, the minimum distance of a habitat from the landfill site should be 500 meters. However, as this reporter witnessed, construction work is in progress near the Jehangirpuri site in Delhi where the compound wall of the residents is touching the garbage depot.

How did the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) allow this kind of construction?

According to the CPCB, “The corporations are required to initiate and undertake the segregation, including the community.” Not following the rule can be a violation of the MSW rule 2000. If household waste is segregated at the source, the burden from the landfill sites will reduce. As of now, this seems to be a mirage. 

 “The garbage that is dumped at the sites contains 51 per cent degradable waste, 31 per cent plastic, one per cent toxic component and 0.1 per cent highly toxic components. This 0.1 per cent of highly toxic components emits dioxin, which is so hazardous that a little intake of this gas can cause a number of diseases like asthma, cancer, and other respiratory ailments. It can also create impurities in the body, including in the nervous system. The percentage might seem trivial on paper, but when we are talking about 0.1 percent of 8,000 metric tones, it becomes phenomenal,” says Professor IS Thakur from the School of Environmental Sciences, JNU.

He explains, “A huge chunk of garbage that is dumped at the landfill sites contains plastic. This contains a compound called phthalate. The burning of this component fumes out dioxin, which is hazardous. To reduce the heaps, it is set on fire; so we can imagine the plight of residents living around the sites. The 0.1 per cent of toxic garbage contains heavy metals like chromium, iron, copper, mercury and some organic components like phinolics. During the monsoon, these heavy metals leak and mixes with the groundwater. Intake of this water can be very dangerous. It acts as slow poison on the human body.”

Environmental scientist Arupendra Mullick: “We are sitting on the RDX of garbage. The quantum of waste will rise with the rising population and if we don't put a check on this, it's going to be very dangerous. This kind of pollution is not an immediate threat to society as bio-waste is, so generally, people and the government take it lightly. However, we can't turn our faces away from the problem which is likely to increase and ultimately affect the society at large.” 

A study conducted by the School of Environmental Sciences, JNU, revealed that the eatables found around the landfill sites contain hazardous components. Says Thakur: “Recently, we conducted a comparative study of eatables from the city with those available near the landfill sites. We collected food samples from the residential areas of Okhla and Gazipur landfill sites in Delhi and grinded everything in a mixer. We did the same with the food samples from the city area. We studied the components in the food samples. The results were shocking. The eatables found around the landfill sites had higher amount of phinolics; this was probably because of the water that was being used to cook the food.”

Most experts agree that “garbage should be segregated at the source itself”. That means every household should keep two dustbins: one for dry waste and another for wet waste.

“Just dumping the garbage at the sites cannot solve the problem. If we start segregating the waste at the source itself and 'vermicompost' it in a collective basis, the municipal corporations will be left with non-degradable waste. Moreover, there are specific mechanisms that can degrade some of the non-degradable material. We have developed the bacteria that can dissolve chromium and phinolics. Mercury, which is a toxic compound, can be observed by a certain kind of bacteria. There are mechanisms through which we can lessen the amount of garbage that we produce. At the current stage, I won't say that we can do away with landfills; but we can definitely reduce the pressure on the sites and make living better for those who live around such areas,” says Thakur. 

Mullick argues that public sector participation and entrepreneurship is crucial. It's not a “one-time thing”. The government needs to advertise this aggressively. “In the Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu, poultry waste mixed with biodegradable waste is being used to generate electricity. We have developed this technology and are planning to set up a thermal plant. The district produces 1,500 tones of poultry waste every day. With the help of the local governing body, we make the citizens aware that if they segregate the garbage it can be used for generating electricity. And to our astonishment, people are actually segregating their waste. I am sure with their help we can spread the awareness programme in other parts of the city also,” says Mullick.

Dr Akolkar, an environmental scientist working with CPCB offers another solution: “A huge chunk of waste dumped at the landfill site contains plastic which can be used for road construction.”

Apart from technical mechanisms, public awareness is a crying need. Mullick, who also runs an NGO, Development Alternatives, held awareness programmes for school children. He explains: “We are running community-based awareness programmes in 78 cities across the country. Under the 'Clean India' campaign, we train school children and ask them to go for awareness and clean-up drives. The message is conveyed to hundreds of households and they pass on the message to the neighborhood and community.”

Indeed, not just developed countries, many developing countries have also found a way out of how to utilise, recycle and destroy their waste. Turning India into a zero garbage zone is not impossible. But this can only happen when citizens, communities and neighbourhoods become more responsible, active and sensitive, and the government is willing to adopt new technologies, while utilising/recycling waste as a resource. A collective problem can only have a collective solution.