Manju Devi, 45, coughs day and night. Her condition has become so bad that even the neighbours have started to complain. But their complaint is only for the noise she makes while coughing. They are not worried that she is coughing because almost everyone in the Kabadi Basti area in the vicinity of Bhalswa landfill yard in North Delhi has been suffering from the same health hazard.
Recently the sole of Manju’s palm swelled up and lumps appeared that later started bleeding. She had to get it covered with a band-aid.
“I don’t know how it happened but it happened only after I started developing a severe cough,” she says.
Breathing issues, cough, fever, skin rashes, tuberculosis (TB), upset stomach, diarrhoea are some of the issues that the residents near Bhalswa landfill yard have been witnessing on a daily basis.
According to Manju, there have been days when she has been down with fever along with a number of people in the area. Not because of Covid but because of the fire that erupted in the Bhalswa landfill which has become a recurrent phenomenon now.
Routine fire, respiratory hazards
“The fire is a routine thing for us. It keeps burning gradually but becomes news only when it spreads into a large area,” adds Manju, who has been living in the area for the last 20 years.
Manju’s neighbour Pramod says that the landfill has expanded vastly in the last 2 years after the outbreak of the corona pandemic.
“Earlier, the area around the landfill was green but now it has been eaten up by the garbage that is dumped here. The garbage has even reached up to the the front door of the school where I work,” says Pramod.
Pramod works at the Gyan Sarovar School which had to be shut when the massive fire erupted in the month of May and raged for over 20 hours.
“Many people fell ill when the fire took place. A number of people collapsed and had to be admitted to Ambedkar and Burari hospitals,” he adds.
Pramod says that people keep falling sick has become a commonplace site. “Many a time, people are seen collapsing after a heavy intake of toxic gases into their bodies,” he says.
“I too had skin issues for a long time because I worked as a rag picker for 15 years and my hands had become like that of a leprosy patient. The chemicals and toxins released from the landfill are that much dangerous,” says 30 year-old Pramod.
Pramod now works at the Gyan Sarovar School which is being run by Deepti Foundation, an NGO working for the upliftment of the underprivileged. The school is right next to the landfill site.
Pramod adds that even the groundwater has turned black in the area and they have been buying water bottles for drinking purposes. “Many are also buying water to wash their hair as the tap water has turned black,” he says.
Other employees of the Gyan Sarovar School too complain of developing several health issues because of the health hazards posed the landfill site. Nayana Cherian, community organiser of the school, says that she has fallen sick a number of times because of the toxic smokes emitting from the landfill which has literally come up to their backyard now.
She adds that till 2020, the landfill site was far away from the school and it is only after 2020, when the garbage began to be piled up in front of the school windows.
“We opened this school six years ago for the under-privileged children of the area. Then, it was somewhat a green land,” she adds.
She said that the effect of smoke was so intense on lungs that her doctor asked if she was a chain smoker. “When a young person like me can develop severe respiratory issues, I cannot even imagine the kind of impact the pollution must be having on the children studying with us,” wonders Nayana.
Meanwhile, speaking with the Morning Standard, an MCD official stated that he does not understand why the NGO has opened the school in the area knowing very well that it was an agricultural land and was about to turn into a dump yard.
“Even those who are living there are living in unauthorised colonies, what can we do about it? We do not have space in the city to dump the garbage. We cannot always think on humanitarian grounds,” adds the MCD official.
He adds that the corporation has been setting up health camps for the locals of the area, but such steps are not adequate.
A breeding ground for chronic diseases
According to Dr Prem Nayyar, Consultant Medicine at Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital, the patients visiting his hospital have mostly come up with respiratory issues, cough, breathlessness and repeated chest infections.
“What we have observed is that most of the people who have fever also have TB. The cough, allergy and asthma issues have become perennial and we have such patients from Bhalswa throughout the year,” Dr Nayyar adds.
He says that the cough has become a chronic problem among the residents of the area.
“Not only smoke, but the chemical reactions happening in the landfill are very dangerous which impacts the water, air and the soil of the area,” says Dr Nayyar.
According to Dr Shweta Gupta, a Pulmnologist working with Ambedkar Hospital, the impact of a dump yard or drainage is terrible on children living nearby.
“Be it children from the weaker section of the society or those living in high societies near a dump yard or a drainage, the gases emerging out of it can leave the children with long term effects such as allergies, asthma, skin issues, gastro infections and various other stomach issues,” she says.
She adds that wherever there is a landfill, there is accumulation of garbage, microorganisms and toxic gases and they all lead to a large number of issues.
Nayana says the problems become unbearable in the area in summers and monsoon.
“The garbage has increased to such an extent that even the roads get choked. During the fire which went on for 10 days, we had to shut the school. The temperatures were higher than the rest of the city and our staff which has been living in the area would call us narrating their ordeal,” she adds.
“In monsoon, dengue and malaria become a norm and the children studying in our school are badly affected,” she adds.
In the same boat
The situation is similar near Ghazipur and Okhla landfill sites where people have been falling ill on a regular basis.
According to Ranveer Kumar, a tractor driver living in the Rajbir Colony opposite the landfill, the constant toxins and gases emerging from the landfill site has made people very weak and he has often heard that people keep collapsing in his colony due to the effect of the smoke.
“Even the water has become polluted and we don’t drink the tap water but buy bottles else we will fall sick,” he adds.
According to a neurologist living right in front of the landfill, says that she has patients from the area coming forward with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, ADHD and OCD issues.
“However, there has been no study or research to corroborate it but the pollution does have a long term impact on a human body,” she adds.
What researches and studies say
According to a study published by the Indian Journal of Clinical Practice, systolic and diastolic blood pressure was found to be significantly higher in people living near the landfill sites. Similarly, the height, weight, BMI, PEFR, SpO2 before and after 6MWT were lower in such people.
“Water samples tested from the landfill sites also showed increased total dissolved solids, hardness and bicarbonate levels indicating groundwater contamination,” the study added.
As per the report, a study from Italy which examined the potential health effects of living near (within 5 km) nine landfills, found respiratory symptoms among residents, both in adults and in children.
“Exposure to hydrogen sulphide, a tracer of air-borne contamination from landfills, was positively associated with lung cancer mortality as well as with mortality and morbidity from respiratory diseases, including hospitalisations, especially acute respiratory infections among children (0-14 years),” the study added further.
The study found reduced peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) in residents living within 2 km of landfill sites compared to those residing beyond 7 km of landfill sites; 315 L/min vs. 398 L/min, respectively.
Last week, the Delhi Commission for Women had announced that it will form an expert committee to ascertain the health impact of landfills on the women and children living in their vicinity. However, the panel is yet to be formed.
Small steps for big changes
While the authorities have not considered the issue from a health perspective, the cleaning and razing of landfills have become a political flashpoint between the BJP-ruled MCD and the ruling AAP.
Last week, the Lt Governor visited the sanitary landfill site at Ghazipur and had directed MCD to constitute a dedicated team of officers to draw out an action plan mentioning a fixed date of completion for the complete razing of the three garbage sites.
Taking due congnizance of the problems faced by the people, the Delhi Assembly issued summons to the newly-appointed commissioner of the unified Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and asked the officer to furnish audit reports, financial contracts and expenditure reports regarding the civic body’s solid waste management by May 30.
In its report, submitted to the L-G Office on June 3, to sort this mega mess, the MCD listed steps such as biomining of legacy waste and setting up of waste-to-energy plants to flatten and shut garbage dumping sites.
“We have deployed trommel machines at the three landfill sites for biomining of legacy waste. Waste-to-energy (WTE) plants are also being set up to enhance the capacity of waste processing,” the official said.
According to officials, the around 10,000 metric tonnes of legacy waste will be biomined.
The 2021-22 Economic Survey of Delhi says that the city generates more than 11,119 metric tonnes of garbage every day.
The three WTE plants at Ghazipur, Okhla and Bawana can consume 4,200-4,500 tonnes and a portion goes to the composting plants. With no alternative site, the rest of the garbage which is around 6,400 tonnes is dumped at the already saturated landfills.
Large shoes to fill in
Atin Biswas, the Program Director at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), says the biomining of legacy waste has already missed a deadline and could be completed in two years. “So how MCD would flatten the landfills with the fresh waste coming every day?” he asks.
He says that even if the MCD makes arrangements to process the 280 lakh tonnes of legacy waste which is lying at the three landfills in the next one-two years, what about the inert materials generated out of this waste. It doesn't have enough space to dump it. Inert waste constitutes 60 percent of the legacy waste.
He says that the problem of the landfills is not being understood by the authorities properly and the biomining of legacy waste alone will not solve the problem.
“There is no proper segregation of waste. From food waste to bio waste to plastic, all kinds of waste is dumped at the landfill sites. We cannot even call it a landfill site because in Delhi no proper disposal of waste happens and these sites are nothing but a dump yard,” he adds.
“It is because of all kinds of waste being dumped at one site, different kinds of toxins and poisonous gases are emerging leading to the locals facing health problems in the area,” he adds.
Atin says that the city authorities need to understand that segregation of waste is a must before bringing the waste to these landfill sites.
“Treating ‘mixed waste’ is challenging. So a significant fraction of waste generated in Delhi is untreatable and ends up in the dumpsite. Segregation at the source is critical to ensure that waste can be diverted to different recycling facilities. Many places in India, including Indore and Kerala, are practicing 4-way segregation to 6-way segregation. For this, a robust communications strategy to bring about behavioural change at the mass-level is essential,” he adds.
He adds that residents of Delhi should be motivated to embrace segregation which should be backed up by a robust monitoring system and enforcement through a series of by-laws by the municipal corporations. This can be achieved by the participation of all stakeholders and good governance.
However, Atin’s solutions were countered by the MCD officials who stated that these the mentioned ones are smaller states and cities as compared to a mega city like Delhi. However, he agreed that no segregation of garbage has been happening on the three landfills.
“People cannot be forced to dispose of garbage. They will act on their own,” adds the MCD official.
Common Health issues of people living near landfill sites
‘Legacy Waste’ at Landfill sites in Delhi
8 million tonnes Bhalswa
5.56 million tonnes Okhla
14 million tonnes Ghazipur
Localities near landfill sites in Delhi are bearing the brunt of ever-rotting garbage and increasing cases of fires. The residents in such localities, including children, have developed respiratory complications and people can be seen coughing. The government is coming up with solutions but they are not sufficient, reports Ankita Upadhyay