A big fire at the Bhalsawa landfill near Delhi has led to the emergence of a highly hazardous situation. Government sources attribute the fire to the release of methane gas (formed during decomposition) a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its effect on global heating, as well as a long spell of dry and hot weather conditions.

The many authorities in Delhi have been exchanging blame as they usually do, and a technical team is being dispatched to Mumbai to find ways of capturing the gas and reducing high risks. However questions arise as to why these and other solutions could not be found much earlier, as the risk of fires as well as other serious hazards has remained at high levels for some years at the Bhalsawa landfill as well as at other landfill sites of the city like Ghazipur.

An important question that needs to be raised is why these landfills have been allowed to become such huge monster type threats of the capital of India, while simple community based solutions like waste segregation and decentralized waste disposal could have contributed much to sorting out the mess.

We need to remember also that a large number of people kept poor live quite close to the Bhalsawa landfill, and we need to be more caring about the chronic impact on their lives. In addition of course they are the most affected at the time of an escalation like the recent fire. As I read reports about the recent aggravation I was reminded of what people living near Bhalsawa told me on my earlier visits here.

“It stings our throats and eyes worse than chilli when the wind blows from the landfill towards us. The stench does not allow us to eat our food as one feels like vomiting.” These words of Lalwati were more or less repeated time and again by other people living in a lane of Shradhanand Colony located very close to the Bhalaswa landfill.

Suman Devi added, “The groundwater has been so badly polluted that only coal-like black water pours from the few taps and hand pumps that exist here. No one uses this water even for scrubbing floor. Water for all purposes, not just drinking, has to be obtained from water tankers. The polluted water also enters home at the time of rains.”

Pushpa, coordinator of the Bhalaswa Lok Shakti Manch pointed to puddles of this black water which flows in from the sides of the landfill. “Look, this water is so badly polluted that even mosquitoes do not like to come near it.” Sure enough, mosquitoes hover all around us but cannot be seen in the water puddle. A woman called out from her doorstep, “I cannot sleep at night because of these wretched mosquitoes.”

People here reported an excess of health problems including problems relating to stomach, eyes, throat, skin and fevers. They have grown skeptical of people who visit them, make promises and yet do not help them. They mentioned only one improvement in recent years, that most of them now have toilets within their own houses. In the absence of sewerage facilities the excreta accumulates in a ditch in the ground below each house. When this fills up it has to be cleared by summoning a machine which flushes out the dirt for a payment of Rs 1200 or so. The later day possibility of linkage to any sewerage facilities is not at all assured at present, they said.

They mentioned water as their biggest problem as water for all purposes has to be obtained from water tankers which are sent to this colony by the government. Houses all along the entire lane have water cans stacked in front of them and there is a rush to fill them when the water tanker comes. When the need is excessive and supply limited, obviously some are left out in terms of obtaining only a small share of their water needs. This affects their overall health and hygiene. While some people said the tanker water is fit for drinking others said it is not, and they have to purchase water at the rate of Rs 15 for a 15 litre can.

Households who do not have strong adults to rough it out for obtaining water and carrying the heavy cans back home are unable to obtain adequate water and unable to meet their sanitation needs properly. Polluted black water from the landfill fills the lane when it rains and finds its way into houses located at a lower level. Even if households construct small street drains on their own, like they constructed toilets, there is no outlet to which they can link it.

Suman Devi related how, “Black water giving terrible smell entered my house . My husband is injured after an accident. Still he joined me in standing in the polluted water and throwing out bucketfuls. After this exhausting effort both of us fell ill. Now we do not have the strength to bring the three water cans from the roadside.”

While Suman and some of her neighbors regret that they settled at a place where a landfill was set up later, Shakuntla who lives in Bhalaswa resettlement colony about a kilometre away had absolutely no choice regarding her place of home. She like 20,000 residents of her colony was shifted here by the government after her previous house was demolished as a part of various slum demolition and resettlement drives in Delhi around the year 2002. By this time the highly polluting impact of the landfill was well established.

What Shankuntla Devi and several other people in the resettlement colony cannot understand is why they were moved here so close to a huge landfill when the highly polluting impact of this garbage hill was well known to the authorities. The effort should have been to avoid any big increase in the population density of the area close to the landfill, say around a radius of 2 km or so. But the decision to bring in about 20,000 people settled in different parts of the city here in a highly polluting zone is certainly difficult to explain or justify.

This is further compounded by the fact that the entire colony is located in a low lying area and there are no drainage outlets from here. Hence waterlogging has remained a persistent problem of this colony. Pushpa Devi explained that the groundwater contamination caused by the landfill extends to a much wider area and certainly up to this colony, as was confirmed by a water survey in 2002 which revealed serious contamination and related health problems.

After this the use of groundwater here was banned. Several water tanker points were identified at which, it was stated, water tankers would deliver water. But there have been many scuffles and disputes over the distribution of tank water.

In November 2017 an officer from the local municipal corporation visited the colony and announced that the existing system of a contractor who charged fees for use of a public toilet is unjust and so the municipal authorities would provide a free toilet. Instead the system broke down and most people had to resort to open defecation.

Later on some families have constructed toilets in their houses. However there is a serious question that when the size of the plot allotted is only 12.5 square meters or 18.5 square meters how practical it is to have a toilet, bathroom and kitchen within this house. Then there is the problem of non-provision of sewerage.

Another survey carried out in 2012 specifically asked people if their water situation is worse than or better than compared to their previous living place from where they were evicted and brought to this resettlement colony. As many as 99% said that the situation was reasonably satisfactory earlier, and 88% said that the water situation was not satisfactory at the new resettlement site.

19% were found to be purchasing water and spending on average Rs 346 per month on water purchase. No expenditure on water was reported at the previous living places. In the case of sanitation the survey found that the public toilets were dirty and inadequate and 52% of people were paying for use of these facilities. The average expenditure on toilet use was Rs 151 per family while it was only Rs 17 per family at the previous living place.

In the survey 81% people reported diarrhoea and stomach problems in recent times, 26% reported typhoid and 36% reported skin ailments.

Clearly people have very serious health, environmental and social problems due to living near a huge landfill and these are compounded by the fact that people do not have access to essential facilities including water and sanitation in particular. Public authorities should take urgent steps to reduce the health hazards and improve water and sanitation in these areas.

Then there is the additional risk and pollution hazard when fires break out. In fact some of the smaller ones may not even be reported but nevertheless have an adverse impact on the health of the people living close by. The recent big fire at Bhalsawa should prompt the authorities to take safety measures of course, but in addition they should not forget that much more needs to be done to provide relief to the people living nearby in very unhealthy, risky and distressed conditions.