Cut & Thrust: The Filthy Indian

It is an abomination of epic proportions and nobody gives a damn about it. A living, breathing and vilely smelling testimony of everything that can go wrong with the clarion call of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign. Located in north west Delhi, the Bhalaswa landfill site is spread over 21 acres and was commissioned in 1994. It receives about 2,700 tonnes of garbage per day. Yes, there are hills in the plains. The Bhalaswa landfill is now a mountain of sizeable height and width. From a distance in the night, you can see trucks loaded with filth scurrying around the hill top looking for a place to deposit the garbage. The headlights flitting about in the darkness of the SPM induced evening haze play tricks with your eyes. Tall claims on Swachh Bharat notwithstanding, Bhalaswa is an eyesore and a grim and foul odoured reminder of how we can’t fix our waste disposal woes. This January, the new Delhi LG Anil Baijal visited the famed tourist spot and spoke about efficient solid waste management disposal techniques. Since then, nothing has changed. The garbage continues to be collected from four zones under the corporation’s jurisdiction — City, Sadar Paharganj, Narela and Karol Bagh — which is then dumped at Bhalaswa.

The landfill, which was supposed to be shut down in 2010 once the trash reached a height of 22m still remains functional at a height of over 44m and has about 9 million tonnes of accumulated waste, polluting groundwater and areas around it. With more than 8,360 tonnes of trash created daily in Delhi, the city has three trash pile sites at Bhalaswa, Ghazipur and Okhla. In these sites technically known as landfills, garbage is buried between layers of earth to build up low-lying lands. A study by Hazard Centre, a Delhi based NGO and Bhalaswa Lok Shakti Manch, indicated high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) way above the maximum permissible limit (BIS) from the hand pumps located in the vicinity of the landfill. They also showed fecal contamination and heavy metal contaminants such as lead and zinc.

The study noted that “about 79 per cent of the residents suffer from a number of illnesses, especially gastro‐intestinal diseases, musculoskeletal pain, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory problems”. There is no regular provisioning of clean drinking water in the colony and the number of public stand posts for drinking water is inadequate. Residents have succeeded after lot of struggle in bringing tanker water supply to the area. Yet, due to the lack of piped water supply, people are often forced to drink groundwater, which is unfit for human consumption.

In their study — Groundwater Contamination due to Bhalaswa Landfill Site in New Delhi — Bharat Jhamnani and SK Singh say that the sampling and analysis of leachate from Bhalaswa landfill and groundwater samples from nearby locations, clearly indicated the likely contamination of groundwater due to landfill leachate. The results of simulation studies carried out for the migration of chloride from landfill shows that the simulation results are in consonance with the observed concentration of chloride in the vicinity of landfill facility.

The solid waste disposal system presently being practiced in Delhi consists of mere dumping of wastes generated without any regard to proper care for the protection of surrounding environment. Bhalaswa landfill site is expected to become cause of serious groundwater pollution in its vicinity. The observed concentration of chlorides in the groundwater within 75m of the radius of landfill facility was found to be in consonance with the simulated concentration of chloride in groundwater considering one dimensional transport model, with finite mass of contaminant source.

Now the moot point here is that every time you drive on the National Highway towards Chandigarh, you are faced with the prospect of viewing Delhi’s own version of Mountain View — but think of the hapless residents of the areas around this monstrosity. And, more importantly, what should have been covered and shut down in 2010 for the Commonwealth games continues to fester seven years later. Nobody seems to care or bother. I have chosen Bhalaswa as a metaphor for the growing menace of filth in the nation’s rajdhani. For large swathes of the city of Delhi now resemble a gigantic slum with waste and garbage strewn all over. Last October, a blaze at Bhalaswa required the corporation to send more than 15 water tankers to extinguish the fire. Now it is a common occurrence. Which brings us to why waste disposal is such a problem in India and why we can’t keep our surroundings clean?

In a remarkable explanation — it is said that Indians are clean but India is dirty. And this statement is so apt and true. Firstpost, a couple of years back, highlighted how in his 1960 exploration of eastern mysticism, The Lotus and the Robot, Arthur Koestler compared the smell of Bombay to that of “a wet smelly diaper” wrapped around his head. Four years later, VS Naipaul was so revulsed about the filth in India that he wrote in an Area of Darkness that “Indians defecate everywhere” — beside the railway tracks, on the beaches, on the hills, on the riverbanks and on the streets. “They never look for cover,” he said with absolute disgust. India was smarter than Koestler and Naipaul — it promptly banned both the books. 

Worse followed when South Asia correspondent of New York Times, Gardiner Harris wrote a scathing piece about an unlivable Delhi sometime in 2015, fulminating — “Foreigners have lived in Delhi for centuries, of course, but the air and the mounting research into its effects have become so frightening that some feel it is unethical for those who have a choice to willingly raise children here. Similar discussions are doubtless underway in Beijing and other Asian megacities, but it is in Delhi — among the most populous, polluted, unsanitary and bacterially unsafe cities on earth — where the new calculus seems most urgent.” Slam dunk, one would have thought. Thank God, he didn’t go and see any of the landfills, particularly Bhalaswa.

The usual public outrage followed, trolls took over, but the real question of why we are so filthy didn’t bring forth any answers. Nobody has an answer, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a colossal failure, the nation’s first city is in an appalling state of disrepair. The state government and the city administration are not on the same page on anything, let alone garbage. Waste disposal is far removed from their minds. Making India garbage proof is an idea that has to come from within, perhaps it is the resident welfare associations which should function as a collective and do whatever is necessary. And even if they do, where does the waste generated go? It heads for the same landfills and Mountain View, New Delhi. Forget the Yamuna and the Ganga, don’t throw good money after bad, concentrate on good waste disposal methodologies and clean the mess that is now called India. For the ugly and argumentative Indian has been replaced by the Filthy Indian.

Sandeep Bamzai