Delhi’s waste mountain is pushing up child mortality, but does anyone really care?

On the night of November 24th, a fire broke out at the Ghazipur landfill site in the capital, choking an already severely polluted city.

On the night of November 24th, a fire broke out at the Ghazipur landfill site in the capital, burning for over 24 hours till it could be brought under control and choking an already severely polluted city. As citizens coughed and struggled to breathe, we called Dr Ajay Nagpure, Head, Air Quality and Sustainable Urbanisation, World Resources Institute Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities, and this is what he said:

The air pollution caused by gases emitted from the landfill affects the birth weight of children born to those residing in the vicinity of the landfill. Even child mortality will be very high because of the polluted air they breathe in, as also other fallouts of the landfill which impacts the hygienic condition of the residential areas in the vicinity. Waste burning at the landfill is more hazardous and this fire will worsen the environment in the area.

On August 19th, Citizen Matters  had carried a report on the Ghazipur dump site. This spoke of Principal Scientific Advisor to the government, Professor K Vijay Raghavan, who  advises the Prime Minister through a Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (PM – STIAC), being given the responsibility of resolving the “two challenges” of the site: removal and valorisation (recycling or composting wastes) at the open landfill site, and management and treatment of the daily flow of fresh waste. 

“The most ambitious expected outcome is zero landfill,” says a government document, setting an 18-month time frame for a pilot project in land adjoining the Ghazipur landfill.

The Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India under the aegis of PM – STIAC has identified “Waste to Wealth” as one of the nine priority missions with the aim to identify, develop and deploy technologies to treat waste. A committee, under the aegis of Ministry of Science and Technology and the office of the Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) is supposed to monitor progress. 

However, given the spontaneous fire at Ghazipur landfill on Nov 25th which worsened the already bad Delhi Air Quality index, this committee seems to have made little progress. Repeated emails to the concerned officials failed to elicit any response on the issue.

First came stubble burning. Then the fire at the mountainous Ghazipur landfill which took over a day to bring under control. Plus all the other continuing sources of pollution in the national capital—vehicular and industrial emissions, construction, haphazard waste dumping and burning, to name a few.

Not surprisingly, air quality levels in different parts of Delhi continue to range from poor to severe. At the time of the November 25th landfill fire, air quality in the capital was already in the severe zone. The fire only worsened matters, especially for residents of East Delhi. Air quality monitoring stations close to the landfill showed a major spike in pollution levels. At Patparganj, the levels were 423 and at Anand Vihar, the average AQI reading shot up to 445 soon after the fire.

AQI levels remain at more or less the same levels even at present.

 “The stench has become terrible and the stink emanating from trucks that come to dump garbage at the landfill becomes unbearable,” says sports journalist Vijay Lokapally, a resident in a journalists’ colony in East Delhi, barely a stone’s throw from the landfill. “This fire has made matters worse.”

“Because the fire is on a landfill where several flammable items have been dumped, it took us some time to control it,” said a Delhi Fire Service (DFS) official. Though the fire did not spread, the fire service does not rule out spontaneous combustion happening in the landfill at any time.

Knee jerk response

Over 140 lakh tonnes of waste collected since 1984 lie in the Ghazipur landfill leading to hazardous living conditions with toxic air, contaminated water for people living in nearby areas like Kaushambi, Khoda, Gharoli, Kalyanpuri, Ghazipur and Kondli.

“This government has a half-hearted approach towards tackling such issues and nobody wants to shoulder responsibility,” said Dr T K Joshi, Director, Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) at Maulana Azad Medical College. “There is also illegal burning of garbage and this illegal activity goes on before our eyes and nothing is being done to check it.”

A DFS official admitted that garbage collectors dumped garbage in different locations and set it on fire. “DFS had informed authorities about this practice of garbage collectors several times,” said the official. “But the garbage collectors keep burning waste and putting the lives of nearby residents at risk, causing pollution levels to spike in the city.”

Another aspect highlighted by Dr Joshi was the shortage of scientists working on tackling pollution. Dr Joshi was part of a TERI delegation a few years back that visited California to study how pollution is checked there. “We found 2000 scientists in that state working specifically on the issue of pollution whereas in this country there are not enough scientists working on it and also the decisions on such issues are taken by bureaucrats.”

Taking note of the situation, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has, in a note to the Delhi Pollution Central Committee (DPCC) and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC), asked for the “matter to be investigated and ensure adequate monitoring mechanism and preventive measures for controlling such incidents in future.”

A senior EDMC official said the fire had erupted early in the morning and had spread over a large area. “Landfill fires are caused by wet waste rotting and decomposing materials,” said the official. “This leads to methane formation, which is a greenhouse gas and flammable and often leads to fires”.

When bureaucrats, not scientists, decide

Inevitably, soon after the outbreak, political blame game erupted over the fire with AAP and BJP blaming each other. The Delhi Police has registered an FIR against unidentified people in connection with the fire.

But no one is talking about finding a solution to the problem. “The Delhi government does not have any clear vision of how to control pollution,” says Dr Joshi. “I had told the government about six, seven years ago about mandating vehicles to switch off engines at traffic signals. Switching off engines even for 15 seconds helps in controlling pollution.” 

Meanwhile, the Environment Committee of Delhi Assembly, headed by Atishi, AAP MLA from Kalkaji in South Delhi, had scheduled a meeting with officials of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC) which is responsible for the landfill to know the reason behind the poor waste management and why garbage continues to be dumped on the landfill and who is responsible for the fire.

The Committee was also scheduled to visit the site to study the prevailing situation first hand. But, the meeting was cancelled said her office staff, though no reason was given for the cancellation.

On deaf ears

Delhi environment minister Gopal Rai’s office did not respond to queries of whether any action was being initiated to prevent such fires in the future, while the East Delhi MP cricketer-turned-politician Gautam Gambhir too remained incommunicado.

Across town, a small number of government environment officials sit in large office blocks surrounded by stacks of files and complain of being overburdened with paperwork. For a sprawling metropolis of 18 million, there are only 40 field staff to enforce environmental standards.

At a webinar earlier this month, M P George, a scientist at the government’s Delhi Pollution Control Committee, said that though the capital’s air monitoring systems were superior to some other heavily-polluted cities, “there is a staff crunch.” The Delhi government has now advertised for about 60 environmental scientists to strengthen its field staff, but recruitment is typically a slow process due to lack of resources.

Delhi’s fight against pollution has always been ad hoc and based on quick fixes. When air quality plummets, as happened soon after Diwali, the city administration despatched fire trucks to spray water on the streets to stop dust from flying. Next, it hired contract workers and volunteers to stand at hundreds of traffic intersections bolding placards to persuade drivers to shut off their engines. But few drivers bothered.

Environmentalists and medical professionals may shout themselves hoarse about the impacts of such callousness, but it’s clear that not many are listening.

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