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Bhalswa landfill

On a recent trip driving past North Delhi towards Haryana, I noticed what looked like a mountain range in the distance. This was a pleasant surprise as I was not aware that there were any hills in the region. As I came closer, I realised it was not a range but a single peak. came still closer and to my horror, realised that this was no natural mountain range. This was a mountain yes, but a mountain of trash! From the side that I was approaching, it looked like one long thin strip of a natural mountain. And then when the road curved along the length and we began driving along what was the narrower portion, the truth was revealed. It looked the same from this side – meaning that the narrower width now appeared to be the longer side. What I was looking at, was in fact one huge plateau, equal in width and length – and it was far, far larger than initially appeared.

Inside the dump

This mountain of trash was formed by layers and layers of plastic bags filled with all kinds of mixed waste, namely paper, cans, food and putrid stinking matter from the kitchens of homes just like yours and mine, as well as the waste from offices and industries – nothing but ‘pure’, undiluted municipal solid waste! The mess includes batteries, lightbulbs and other kinds of e-waste, leaching poisons into the ground. It contains thousands and thousands of tons of resources that could have been recycled or composted and converted into something useful. Instead, citizens generated and discarded waste in generous measure, and governments decided to take the convenient way out and pile it unceremoniously. And thus the wet waste merged with other substances to form a lethal cocktail of methane and other toxic gases that spontaneously ignites every now and then.

The making of the tragedy

Bhalswa, Ghazipur, Okhla – or closer home (Bengaluru) Mandur and Mavallipura — are all landfills of our making. Every city has these time bombs no longer just ticking away, for they reached explosion point a while back, and continue to explode – while dulled senses no longer register the danger or the enormity of the tragedy we have invited upon ourselves. What is abominable is that the Bhalswa landfill is so high that it has winding roads alongside for giant trucks to reach the top. Huge trucks filled with trash were climbing up to deposit more trash on the top as we passed by.

Ensuring a better future

Solutions to this problem being discussed by governments here and in almost every city are all about working to create WTE (waste to energy) plants and biomethanation plants. WTE plants are known to increase air pollution by releasing toxic gases which have unseen yet huge consequences. They are peddled as a solution even though they are definitely not recommended by environmentalists, if we are to live as sustainable communities. They are at best an irresponsible short-cut, just like incineration, creating more damage to the planet and health of those in the vicinity. Biomethanation plants on the other hand may indeed help convert the wet waste to fuel, if segregated at source and fed directly. But who will sort through the existing mountains of trash to separate what can be used from what cannot? Employing illiterate labour who unknowingly ruin their health is unethical, especially as the risk is known to those who employ them. A nightmare of unimaginable proportions with landfills likely to collapse, burn or result in a huge series of ecological disasters, awaits virtually every city. In the meantime, we continue to live our lives like nothing happened, generating waste like never before because we are not hardwired to worry about what happens to our waste once it leaves our doorstep (often in a plastic bag full of mixed waste). Our waste has never been our responsibility.