How I faced my fear and privilege by visiting a landfill

Things you should know even if you don’t visit a landfill

Numbers can only help you scratch the surface before you visit a landfill site. They can shock you but that’s all. They won’t help you experience it’s human and environmental impact. This is something I learnt after my visit to a landfill site.

But before I went there, I dug out facts and figures about waste in my city.

I live in New Delhi, the capital of India. The entire urban area of Delhi has expanded over the years to include NCR (National Capital Region). NCR covers entire Delhi (new and old) and urban areas surrounding it – Gurgaon, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Noida.

Delhi NCR is a city of 26 million humans, according to an  estimate by the UN.

How much waste do we produce collectively? Over 9,500 tonnes per day (TPD) of garbage is generated in the city, states an article from Down To Earth Magazine. Out of this, around 8,000 TPD of waste is collected and transported to three landfills in the city – Bhalswa, Okhla and Ghazipur.

The Master Plan for Delhi, 2021 states that these three landfill sites exceeded their capacity 10 years ago in 2008. By now, they have contaminated the land and groundwater below and around their location.

Delhi’s waste does get segregated, thanks to about 150,000 rag pickers in Delhi. Rag pickers are women, men and children who segregate waste by hand. They are a part of the informal sector and have no legal rights that a waste worker should have.

“Waste-pickers recycle almost 15-20% of Delhi’s garbage, saving the municipalities at least Rs 1 crore a day. But all they earn is a couple of thousand rupees each a month. There is no compensation for braving the stench, the feral dogs, and a battery of deadly germs without even the basic protection, prompting the National Human Rights Commission to label their living conditions as a violation of human rights”, states a Hindustan Times article.

Out of all the waste the people of Delhi produce, some goes to Bhalswa landfill. By some, I mean – 6,500 tonnes per day.

Though the site at Bhalswa was declared off limits in September 2017 (after the Ghazipur landfill collapsed under its own weight and two people died underneath it), it still gets trashed every day.

“The Bhalswa site was commissioned in 1994, started overflowing in 2003 and has been operating without certification from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for a decade,” explains a news report published in the Indian Express last year.

This 40-acre landfill was on fire for a whole week in 2016, causing an increase in air pollution and health issues for the people who live around it, says the report.

The night before I went to the landfill

The night before I was to go to Bhalswa, I felt pangs of anxiety. Why was I feeling worried?

I had just recovered from a stomach infection that lasted a good three weeks. That’s the longest I’ve ever been ill in my life. I had to take antibiotics after more than a decade. I had managed to recover but on that night, I felt vulnerable.

I was told that the smell at the landfill would be unbearable so much so that it could make one puke. I was instructed to cover myself from head to toe and wear a mask.

I couldn’t sleep for a long time. I toyed with the idea of backing out and postponing my visit. I went down the rabbit hole and even wondered if my zero waste lifestyle would make any dent in the system.

I broke my rule of ‘no devices after 10 PM’ that night and made an Instagram story about how I was feeling. Quite a few people wrote to me. While some encouraged me, others asked me to be careful.

So, I said, “Chalo, let’s go to Bhalswa. Its now or never.”

How I prepared for my visit to the landfill

The next day, I got ready. I wore a full sleeved kurta and leggings which my best friend had recently handed down to me.

I brought out my trekking shoes which were handed down to me 4 years ago. These have been used thoroughly. I lent them twice to friends during their travels. I saw that a shoe’s heel was cracking and a small chunk had come off. I had no time to repair them at the cobbler’s so I wore them. I carried a dupatta, handkerchief and water bottle in my bag.

Before I left my place, I took a photo of  the recyclable and non-recyclable waste I’ve been hoarding since I went zero waste in October 2017. It felt like a drop in the ocean.

visit-a-landfillI walked into a pharmacy and bought myself a grey coloured mask with thin white rubber straps. I had no clue what it was made of but I had no time to think about its sustainability quotient at that moment.

I took the metro and travelled for an hour to get to the Jahangirpuri metro station.

Why go on a ‘landfill pilgrimage’?

At Jahangirpuri, I met a group of 14 other young women and men who had gathered to go on a ‘landfill pilgrimage’. I was greeted by Shashank from Youth Alliance, who has been visiting landfill sites across India for an year now.

Anisha Gupta, a team member at Youth Alliance explained why they called the visit a ‘pilgrimage’. She said, “The idea of pilgrimage comes from going to a place of significance to find something. We believe a landfill visit is a deeper journey to find and understand our choices. Hence, we call it a ‘pilgrimage’ as it pushes us to live with more awareness and responsibility.”

It’s not a hill, it’s a landfill

I shared an electronic rickshaw ride with three others to reach the road next to the landfill site. As I looked out of the moving e-rickshaw, I saw a dark barren hill from a distance. That was the landfill.

After getting down at the nearest point, we crossed a bridge that went over what used to be an irrigation canal. Today its a toxic stream.

I covered my head with my dupatta (scarf), donned my mask and trekked uphill on a dusty road with everybody else.

Municipal trucks painted yellow and green, carrying a few tons of waste each, hurtled up and down the road, leaving behind clouds of dust. We covered our eyes and faces to protect ourselves.

On my left were piles of old trash as high as a multi storey building that had acquired a dark brown grayish colour. Looking down on my right, I saw a residential area – several unpainted brick houses which all looked the same. Devotional songs from the local temple’s loudspeaker could be heard all the way up.

As I neared the entrance, the foulest smell ever entered my nostrils. The mask felt useless.

To run away or to go in

visit-a-landfillI imagine that the first thing any person who stood at the periphery of a landfill would think is that they need to get the hell out of here – turn around and run for the road.

And here was literally a mountain load of trash looming over my head ready to explode into a raging fire or collapse like a pack of cards at any given moment (This is no exaggeration, both these incidents have happened in the landfill sites of Delhi).

I had been wanting to observe a landfill up, close and personal ever since I went zero waste. It seemed like a tough task especially after my journalist friend told me that you can’t just walk in there. But somehow I had managed to do it.

Now that I had reached inside, I watched everything closely. The ground below my feet was covered in every type of imaginable waste – shreds of plastic bags, soiled diapers, belts, old school bags, blankets, surgical gloves, wrappers of snacks, packets of milk, you name it – it was there.

Most parts of the landfill were shrouded in smoke which came from an internal invisible fire – caused by methane combustion from rotting organic waste.

I saw a woman perched on the side of the hill. She was wearing a sari. Her head was covered in a bandana like scarf. She was wearing some kind of footwear. But her face, arms and hands were bare. Ishan, a member of the group pointed out that she had a magnet with which she was foraging metal from the trash pile.

Later, I saw a boy with a huge sack filled with stuff he had salvaged up on the hill. He was not even a teenager. He said it contained milk packets and other plastics which he planned to resell.

visit-a-landfillAfter walking a bit further, I saw a thin and steady stream of black horrible smelling water flowing through the rocky area at the bottom of the landfill. This was leachate. When fires here are doused with water by the fire brigade, all the toxins dissolve into the water and run down, eventually to be absorbed by the ground.

From one edge of the landfill, I could see the waste treatment plant. There were a couple of JCBs lifting heavy loads of waste and moving them. However, it looked as bad as the landfill. The only thing that differentiated it was a building, machines and the fact that nothing was on fire.

Taking a few steps backwards, I saw trees below. They looked like they had been planted there. I also saw a pack of dogs and pigs rummaging through the filth looking for food. A few minutes later, Ishan spotted a puppy whose poop was red which meant that it was sick.

What happens to humans who work here and the people who live next door in Bhalswa village? Media reports show that they have respiratory and skin diseases. A woman in aYouTube video says, “No one wants to marry their children to ours because of where we live.”

A person who was visiting the landfill that day said,”The people have gotten so used to it that they don’t even notice it anymore.”

This is worrisome. Truly scary.

A landfill is not just a landfill, it is a symbol

A landfill is not just a piece of land where garbage is dumped. The landfill is a symbol.

It symbolises:

  • our sense of entitlement and privilege
  • the caste system which is still deeply ingrained in India’s collective conscious where we believe someone else will clean up after us (many don’t even see or touch their waste)
  • the government’s failure to provide a proper waste management system
  • the increasingly material aspirations of our generation and changing consumption patterns
  • companies bombarding us with products and ads (without any sense of business responsibility)
  • the alienation of urban life which causes a complete disconnect with our environment
  • the pressure of survival in a developing country and
  • the inertia of taking individual action

What did I take away from the landfill?

After I had absorbed the sights and stench of the landfill, I walked with others down the hill in complete silence. We stopped at a point and debated whether we should go meet the rag picker community that lived in the village below or sit together to talk about what we’d just experienced.

While we were talking, a woman passed us by. She looked at us and said, “These educated people (itne padhe likhe log)…”

Before I could grasp the rest of her sentence, she was gone. But her sentence stayed with me. I began to ask myself:

  • What is education?
  • Who is truly educated and who isn’t?
  • Is it fair for us to not perform our basic duties like taking responsibility for our own waste and then claim the right to go into a community (affected by our waste) as and when we like and ask questions (that may be perceived intrusive) without establishing trust?
  • What do we do when we go back home?

Instead of going into the community, I decided to walk down towards the road with some other people. I was tired. My feet ached.

However, I did leave something at the landfill…I noticed one of my shoes had broken off from the heel and a big chunk of the sole was missing. I had left a of piece of my shoe in the landfill unconsciously.

visit-a-landfillWe regrouped again and spent the first few minutes in silence contemplating what we had seen and felt at the landfill. As we began to talk one by one, a range of emotions emerged. Here are some of the things that were said:

“I felt disgusted. I kept thinking when will we leave this place.”

“I am still processing it. It was too much.”

“As I walked and looked at the ground, I saw so many items. I realised I have been using all these items throughout my life.”

Why I am glad that I finally visited a landfill 

By visiting the landfill, I came face to face with my personal fear, privilege and the ability to affect change.

I’ve been trying to capture my feelings ever since and it’s been hard writing this. I do acknowledge that a zero waste lifestyle does not take into account all the upstream waste one’s consumption creates. Yet, you can’t deny the fact it reduces a significant amount of waste at an individual level.

I can see three good things that came out of this visit:

  1. It reaffirmed my faith in a zero waste lifestyle
  2. It reminded me of the power of experiential learning, reflection and youth-driven communities
  3. It inspired 14 young people to think about their values and personal actions

Now that I think about all the waste I’ve kept away from the landfill, I’m reminded of what Rumi, the Sufi poet once said:

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

P.S. This post is dedicated to the rag pickers and waste workers of Delhi, people of Bhalswa,  the Youth Alliance team and every single person who wants to say ‘no’ to landfill.

 

About the author

Vandana

Hi there, this blog is my attempt to make plastic-free & zero waste living fun, practical and livable for you by using desi ways from the good old days.

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1 Comment

  • Great efforts ..both in terms of your vision for wastes created and for your own initiative in waste management!The term landfill is actually inappropriate for these sites..they are just dumping sites..not ‘Landfills’ technically! Landfills are meticulously engineered structures where wastes are carefully sorted and discarded according to their composition and time required for degradability. Also biodegradable wastes are not be landfilled..!! so much waste of energy that ca be produced from the organic or biodegradable stuff! plus thats the reason for the fowl smell!
    Nonbiodegradable stuff wouldnt cause so much smell and neither would it cause frequent fires!!

    anyway..i hope you will continue your and our efforts towards the mission of better waste management in India!

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