Indias growing garbage problem needs urgent solutions, if its cities are to be saved from being trashed
Huddled in a stinky, airless room near the centre of Indias capital, Rammurti fumed over the 17-storey-high mountain of trash almost a kilometre from her home.
The 43-year-old mother, who goes by one name, had watched the garbage in her village of Ghazipur pile higher and higher over the years. It wafted a sickening cocktail of airborne particles that infected her neighbours with tuberculosis and dengue fever, singed trees and turned the groundwater a filmy yellow.
But nothing had prepared her for one afternoon in September when a tower of trash broke away from the mass during monsoon rains. It crashed into a nearby canal, which created a surge of sewage that flung motorcyclists into another canal also filled with dirty water.
By the time police arrived, two people were dead. One of them was Rammurtis youngest son, 19-year-old Abhishek Gautam. “The dump killed my son,” she said.
Monuments to crisis
In the metropolitan area of Delhi, which includes the capital New Delhi, trash heaps are towering monuments to Indias growing waste crisis. About 80 billion pounds of trash have accumulated at four official dumping sites, on the fringes of a capital already besieged by polluted air and toxic water, according to the supervisors of the dumps.
The dumps in Delhi and cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata have become some of the largest, least regulated and most hazardous in the world, said Ranjith Annepu, co-founder of be Waste Wise, a non-profit organisation that aims to address waste management problems.
“If this continues to happen, the city will drown in its waste,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, a programme manager at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
Responding to the problem, the Indian government recently vowed to eliminate single-use plastic by 2022.
Driving into Delhi, virtually no trash cans are visible. Refuse piles up in slums, next to government offices and outside luxury condominiums. Shantytowns without sewage systems have mushroomed all over — next to railroad tracks and public parks and behind high-end shopping centres.
In the last two decades, Delhis population has quickly risen to about 19 million from about 12 million and infrastructure and government services have not kept pace.
During roughly the same period, the amount of waste ferried to the dumps has accumulated rapidly, growing from 3.62 million kg to at least 9.07 million kg daily. About half the daily haul is converted to energy or composted. The rest sits and festers, according to P.K. Khandelwal, chief engineer of the East Delhi Municipal Corp., a local government body.
Power in Delhi is shared by the local and national governments, which are controlled by different political parties, leading to bureaucratic gridlock. Even when rules are introduced, enforcement is weak and offenders can often pay a bribe to avoid punishment.
Something as simple as installing trash cans around Delhi has not been done, partly because garbage collection is not guaranteed and many residents are used to simply flinging trash onto the ground.
“You dont know whether the public will even use them,” Annepu said.
The problem with waste build-up has become so severe that the Supreme Court said earlier this year that air traffic control at Delhis international airport eventually would have to steer planes around the dumps because they are so high. The court also instructed lawmakers to find ways to eliminate the piles of garbage.
And a separate court has warned government officials responsible for health projects that they could be charged with homicide if residents continue to die from diseases such as dengue fever, which is spread by mosquitoes breeding in dirty water.
There are some signs of hope.
One of the four dumps in Delhi, which is operated by the government and a private company, has reduced its garbage heap by turning some trash into mulch. A few hundred thousand people earn money from being ragpickers in Delhi.
“There is absolutely no painless way to fix this waste problem,” said Ashutosh Dikshit, chief executive of United Residents Joint Action, a Delhi group that advocates for access to better public services.
“Politicians are not willing to make even one resident unhappy because then that resident will vote for the other party.”
At the Ghazipur dump in Rammurtis village, which opened in 1984, paid employees rattled off horrific health conditions. The translucent, sea-foam-coloured masks that workers wear provide little protection.
Ratan Kumar Barua, a resident who cannot afford to relocate, said he and his neighbours were at loggerheads with the government.
He said he had made written complaints to the local police and government, a court body, a pollution control committee and Modi. They have all gone unanswered.
—New York Times News Service