Achan, lone waste dumping ground of Srinagar, is located 3 kilometers from the prime health facility of SKIMS (the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences) in Soura, Srinagar. Every morning municipal workers march through the city and its towns to collect garbage from the bins and containers placed throughout the city along with the suburban and bordering areas, where municipal garbage-collecting vehicles make an early morning run with their mounted loudspeakers ousting a melody that encourages listeners to keep their surroundings clean. With the garbage bins empty and the city homes clean, tons of garbage, waste of all kinds, makes a march, in all sizes of load carriers, to the neighborhood of Achan, which to its ill fate also happens to be an entry point to the world renowned freshwater lake, Anchaar.

“Nobody wants to live here as it is always suffocating, the air feels plagued, and every time we inhale we feel a part of us decaying,” says a resident of Achan who is an undergraduate at the Amar Singh College in Srinagar. “We are basically from Chadoora, and due to some unfortunate incidents we had no other choice but to helplessly shift to this unbearable part of the city.”

Before him, barely 200 meters away stands the huge plateau of dumped garbage, which would look like a landscape to someone observing from afar. As he narrates the unfortunate reality surrounding the residents of Achan, a flock of municipality vehicles rushes outward from the main gate of the dumping ground, allvehicles emptied. His eyes follow them as they disappear and now will only return next morning.

The houses around the dumping site are all demarcated by tin sheets, all high, as the residents have made sure the garbage hill is not even slightly visible. The tin sheets are mostly used ones and perhaps collected from near the dumping site itself, a few have aged and small holes have perforated through them, a few have a thick layer of set cement with small pebbles hinged in it, which was perhaps used as a protective base from the soil so the cement and sand could be mixed at the time of construction. The houses are humbly made, most of them share a wall, and the house we visited had another docked with it, like the same house separated by a single layer of wall. Most houses are unroofed, and the water tank, small in size and visible, on the roof is covered with some old sheet of torn linen, rolled round the tank multiple times to make it like a thick blanket, so the water inside won’t freeze as the temperature in winter goes sub-zero.

“We have no problem with the koodha aur kachra, it has been here since before I was born,” says a girl from one of the three newly constructed houses. Her house is separated by a distance of a mere 20 feet from the western embankment of the dumping site, and while she is saying this, an elderly person inside is coughing horribly, as the fumes and gases that rise from the rotten pile of waste have gulped the entire town of Achan. “I don’t stay here much now, my family has arranged a place for me to stay at one of our relatives’ far from here. My father works at the dumping site, so my mother and he have no other place to be.”

The town of Achan, which is merely some 7 kilometers from the city center, feels like an othered one; the name of the place, Achan, is disappearing and the place is only referred by the name of the dumping ground. The residents have a cloak of depravity over them, they feel less dignified, and with all the effort that they want to rehabilitate from the dumping site, they are hardly able to move and feel helpless in saving their ancestral possessions. The elderly of the town still reminisce of the picturesque beauty that was once Achan. Achan, being one of the gateways to ferry in the Anchaar once, where the land and waters were rich in flora and fauna and the landscape was a destination for migratory birds in winter, now looks like a gateway to nowhere, and that is how it is perceived in the minds of the people who are separated by the imaginary, yet not, wall that parts those who live in Achan from the rest of Srinagar, for them Achan is a no-go, and land’s end.

“The land can explode any minute, it also feels like that now,” says an elderly woman of Achan, as she washes clothes in a washing space which they have precisely constructed for their cattle. “The land has been bearing all the waste for the last 3 decades, the legal permission for which was only 17 years. This part of the land is choking from the bio-gas that has been releasing all those years and now can explode any moment. Our cattle have no grazing land, all the soil that surrounds us is infected, if we let our cattle out, they don’t return and die somewhere. What could be worse than this?” she says, trying not to shout or sound irritated, as is the look on her face from all those years of carrying documents from one government office to another to settle the dispute of rehabilitation.

“We were promised that we would be given the land and a house in exchange, or will be remunerated, nothing has happened in 30 years. The foundation stone that was laid at the entry to the site had engraved on it that the dumping site would be shipped to another place within 17 years, the lease is over and so is our hope,” the lady says, tilting her face to get a sense of the query she is answering, and gives a mocking smile when asked about registering a legal case against the authority. She says, “the city’s prime hospital is visible from here (she gestures towards SKIMS), they are wards 4 and 5 of the SKIMS hospital, go there and see for yourself how difficult it is to breathe inside those wards because of this place. They, the SKIMS, have already won several cases against the authority but hardly anything is being done. What would our case do?”

The few new houses that have been constructed have a small front yard, the atmosphere of the entire locality churns your stomach and both your hands, as you involuntarily cover your mouth and nose and immediately feel sick of the worst smell possible, that engulfs you. Irrespective of all this the small yards are made to look alive, with evergreen trees and rose shrubs, “this is our home and we only ask for a home in return otherwise we choose this hell,” the lady says as she tries to settle with her agony. In other house across the street, the college student throws some grain for a small number of poultry he has managed to domesticate, the yard has some pine shrubs, a rose shrub and a small house structure which they have made for birds to nest, as though a miniature replica of their own house.

In one of the memoirs by a resident of Chernobyl, the author had wrote, “Home, however radioactive, is still our home.”

“The area is surrounded by CCTV and you are not allowed to take any pictures,” says the official observing things inside the dumping ground. “You need to get the permission, a letter head, from the commissioner of the municipality in Srinagar”.

The pile of waste, stands like a mountain, and one wonders what is on the other side, just like one wonders what is on the other side of the mountain. Waste of all kinds, everything, for someone from the other side of the ‘imaginary’ wall, the visual would be like no less than a movie scene. But for the residents it’s a haunting reality which they wake up to every morning, they breathe every time they inhale and with every truck of garbage emptying before them, they feel being buried.

“Our kids don’t go out to play, we have to seal our doors and windows to make breathing bearable inside. Hardly any suitor comes here to seek a union and as far our sons go we are not even able to seek any union, it’s impossible that any parent would let their daughter end up in a place like this,” says the elderly woman. “Every now and then, our children and even adults, complain of stomach pain and chest pains, due to this smell, which is 10 times more in summer than it is now.” Have conditions always been like this? “They used to provide us with phenyl and mosquito repellents but all that has stopped for the last seven years. The dumping site is full of corrupt people and the crores that are sanctioned, so they could filter the waste and spray chemicals on the waste, goes into their pockets. They have made a mafia out of the waste they dump here.”

Achan, now the synonym of the dumping site, feels like another world, to whom the rest of the world which lives here has become blind to their miseries and deaf to their three-decade long helping linger. The elderly lady points to the vegetables she tries to grow in the front yard of her house, “all the vegetables I grow are infected as the soil here is poisonous, what could be worse than this? Where the effort of making bread is no less than making poison for oneself?”

She points to her husband’s ancestral home, “I was married here 37 years ago, and there was not even a proper road to connect us to the other part of the city. The first road was made to make it to the burial ground, our Makbhara, and then the road was extended only when they declared this as the dumping ground. People wanted roads back then and rejoiced that it was going to be constructed, little did they think of what was to come with it.”

Haroon Rashid is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.