Bhalswa tales: Fetching water in the shadow of a landfill

"Haath tut jaate hai paani bharte bharte", say women dependent on tankers, thanks to toxic groundwater in the vicinity of the Bhalswa dump.

Paro, 26, a resident of Shraddhanand colony in Bhalswa, and her friends wait patiently for the water tanker, surrounded by buckets and barrels – a routine that repeats twice weekly. “We pause all our tasks to ensure we secure enough water. It’s only available twice,” Paro remarks.

For years, Paro and her fellow colony dwellers have relied on water tankers. The local groundwater, tainted by the adjacent Bhalswa landfill in northwest Delhi since 1994, makes it a necessity. Meena, 36, standing alongside Paro, succinctly notes, “Khate (landfill) ki wajah se pani achha nahi hai.” [The water quality is poor because of the landfill.]

Meena’s reference to groundwater contamination can be traced back to the haphazard dampness that engulfed Bhalswa in 1994. The unplanned dumping site lacked the necessary channels to control the flow of leachate and rainwater, allowing the latter to permeate the waste. Consequently, leachate found its way into the groundwater, tarnishing both ground and surface water.

According to a Delhi Pollution Control Board committee, water quality assessments near the Bhalswa landfill and its surroundings revealed elevated levels of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), magnesium, lead, sulphur, and various other metals. Consumption of such polluted water poses severe health risks, one of the far-reaching consequences of the unchecked contamination.

Paro’s mother reflects on three and a half decades in Bhalswa, a time predating the landfill. “When we first bought this land from the developer, the dump didn’t exist. Water wasn’t a concern back then; the groundwater was pure. But now, with the arrival of the dumping site, our lives revolve around chasing water tankers.”

Leachate and toxic runoff gets collected at the base of the landfill.
Due to lack of drainage network and sewage systems, the leachate and toxic runoff gets collected at the base of the landfill. File pic: Sukriti Thukral

Similarly, Meena installed a hand pump approximately seven years ago, only to find it unused due to foul-smelling and pale water. 

Kulsum Begum, 70, residing closer to the ‘khata’, works as a waste segregator. Sharing her experience, she says, “We drilled a borewell 5-6 years ago, but the water is useless. Even at a depth of 120 feet, it’s saline.” Their accounts echo the profound impact the landfill has had on the once abundant and clean water sources in Bhalswa.

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

Lives revolving around water access

Despite certain areas in Bhalswa having piped water supply (albeit irregular), most households still depend on water tankers due to the inconsistency in the supply. This heavy reliance places a disproportionate burden on women: it increases the time they spend on unpaid domestic care work and contributes to heightened time poverty among women in the community. The irregular water supply exacerbates the challenges faced by women in managing essential household tasks.

Women in these colonies not only bear the burden of care work but are also actively engaged in waste segregation at home or collect waste from the dumping site.

Segregated waste from the landfill stored by the houses of the women.
Many women collect and segregate waste collected from the mixed dump. Pic: Anuj Behal

Additionally, many women in the nearby Shraddhanand colony, whose households are not directly involved in waste management, find employment in home-based work: specifically, packaging ‘chuna’ powder in small bottles for a nearby tobacco factory. But the demands of water collection make it only more challenging for these women to pursue these means of earning.

Read more: Ecological damage, land lost: The cost of Delhi’s toxic landfills

This struggle underlines the multifaceted impact that water scarcity has on their daily lives. Apsara Khatoon, who collects waste from the landfill and then segregates it, says, “I come running from the landfill when I see the water tanker arriving at the colony. Even my children have to help me with water.” This repetitive cycle of fetching water requires them to take frequent unproductive breaks from paid work, leaving them in a state of restlessness, always on the lookout for water.

According to Paro and the other women in the colony, the quality and quantity of water supplied by the tanker may not be an immediate concern. But it is nevertheless an enduring struggle to fill water. As Paro poignantly puts it, “Haath tut jaate hai paani bharte bharte” (Our hands nearly give way, thanks to the repeated exercise of filling water).

Note: The author is one of six selected Fellows for the Citizen Matters – Urban Environmental Reporting Fellowship 2023 focusing on the Delhi-NCR region. This short piece was produced as part of his work under the Fellowship.

Also read:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Similar Story

Vote for clean air, water security and nature conservation: Environment and civil society groups

The youth of the country will bear the brunt of climate change impact in the absence of government action, say voluntary groups.

The country is going to the polls in one of the most keenly watched elections of all time, and a collective of 70 environment and civil society organisations have appealed to voters to assess the threat to the environment and ecology when they cast their votes in the Lok Sabha 2024 elections. Here is what the organisations have said in a joint statement: As Indians prepare to vote in the Lok Sabha elections this year, it is very important to think of the future of our democracy, especially the youth and their right to clean air and water security in…

Similar Story

Sanjay Van saga: Forest or park, what does Delhi need?

Rich in biodiversity, Sanjay Van in Delhi is a notified reserved forest. Here's why environmentalists fear it may soon be a thing of the past.

The Delhi Forest Department has officially notified the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) about reported tree cutting activities at Sanjay Van. The forest department's south division has verified the claim, citing an infringement of the Delhi Preservation of Trees Act (DPTA) 1994, due to the unauthorised felling of trees in Sanjay Van, Mehrauli, New Delhi. According to officials, the alleged incident came to light through the vigilance of environmental activists. The accusations stemmed from a volunteer organisation called "There is No Earth B," which conducts regular cleanup campaigns at Sanjay Van. With a volunteer base exceeding 1,500 individuals, the group engages…