Bhalswa and beyond: Why has Delhi failed to put an end to waste dump fires?

Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill has been on fire for over 10 days now. Waste management expert Swati Singh Sambyal explains why such episodes keep recurring.

Even as we write this, the blaze at Delhi’s Bhalswa waste dump — a colossal mountain of unsorted and unsegregated waste in the national capital — continues to thwart the efforts of the Delhi Fire Services personnel as they fight the flames raging since April 26th.

Of course, such fires at waste dump sites are not uncommon; this is already the third such incident this summer after earlier outbreaks at the Ghazipur landfill site. Methane gas emissions during decomposition of the dumped waste in unaerobic conditions, combined with high air temperatures, make these sites veritable tinderboxes. Sometimes, reckless or deliberate human behaviour also lead to such fires.

Whatever the cause, the huge cost to the environment and the grave threats to human health posed by such dump sites are well known. The threat is not just from the toxic emissions that make Delhi’s severely polluted air even more unbreathable, but also due to the leachate from these sites that contaminate groundwater in the area.

A waste picker living in Shraddhanand Colony adjoining the Bhalswa landfill was cited in an earlier Citizen Matters report saying, “In the last 1-2 years, the water from hand pumps has turned from yellow to green…feels like petrol, it smells and is sticky”. She also mentioned that stomach, skin and eye problems are very common in the community. Fires just make their already fragile existence even worse.

Read more: Unearthing invisible layers of life near Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill

The thing is none of this is new. What defies reason is that even after years of deliberations around how to remediate these sites — constitution of committees, request for tech proposals, various rules and bye-laws for waste management, proposals for biomethanation and WTE plants — there has been absolutely no progress in terms of eradicating, or even reducing the extent of, the problems that sites like Bhalswa, Ghazipur and Okhla pose.

Is it just attributable to administrative lapses? Or is it all simply political? Do we, as citizens, have no share of the blame at all?

Expert speak

Swati Singh Sambyal, Waste Management Expert, UN-Habitat India
Swati Singh Sambyal

As despondency rises and the problem seems to assume unmanageable proportions, we spoke to Swati Singh Sambyal, eminent waste management expert, to go deep into the roots of the issue. Swati provides a detailed and comprehensive explanation of this complete failure to manage the municipal solid waste in the capital, the role of authorities and citizens, and the lessons to be learnt from other towns and smaller cities if Delhi is to remain livable at all.

Watch the conversation below:

Swati Singh Sambyal is presently associated as Waste Management Specialist with UN-Habitat India. She has worked in South Asia and Global South on development issues concerning integrated waste management and circular economy for over 11 years.

Swati has contributed significantly to India’s Waste Management Rules, 2016 especially on solid, plastic and e-waste and has been a part of several high-level committees constituted on waste management in the country. She has worked as the Head of a programme on Waste Management at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, for over 9 years.

Swati is trained at Swedish EPA, Stockholm and Norwegian EPA, Oslo on Environmental Governance and Planning and is a graduate in energy and environmental engineering.

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