Nazir Ahmed, a labourer, had bought a house in 1988 in the Achan area of Srinagar as land and home prices in the area were affordable for him then as compared to other areas of Srinagar. “When I shifted my belongings to the new house, I saw vehicles of Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) disposing of garbage in an open area, just a few hundred meters away from my house,” recalls Nazir.
Nazir did not think much of this at the time. But as time passed, the few truckloads of SMC laden with garbage from different areas of Srinagar and dumping them in the area suddenly increased to around 20 vehicles per day. By 2010, more and more garbage was getting dumped at the site. At present, the dumping site, Srinagar’s only landfill, is spread over 600 kanals of land (one kanal=5445 square feet=one eighth of an acre).
Till 1983, Achan was a picturesque wetland where migratory birds would come during winters. It was the then Governor Jagmohan Malhotra who ordered land filling of the wetland and converting it into a waste dumping site.
A major health hazard
At present, residents say that 150 vehicles of SMC arrive daily, to dump garbage in the area. Achan is the only dumping site for the city of 1.5 million people and has become a major health hazard for the 250 households living in the site’s vicinity.
The foul smell emanating from the landfill is, in fact, affecting entire Srinagar district, increasing the patient load on two nearly hospitals — Shere-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Soura and Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital.
Dr Nisar-ul-Hassan, Associate Professor Medicine at SMHS hospital Srinagar and Kashmir’s prominent Influenza expert, told Citizen Matters said that such heaps of garbage provide an excellent breeding ground for many kinds of microbes which can pose serious health hazards.
Data available with Dr Nisar-ul-Hassan shows a sharp surge over the past few years of patients suffering from gastrointestinal problems, stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, typhoid, skin diseases and respiratory allergies over the past few years.
Dr Hassan says that the landfill is the primary reason of diseases among the residents of Achan. “Other reasons may include use of ground water that would surely be contaminated, as the dumping site is spread over a vast area,” he said.
The Achan dumping site is just five kilometres from Lal Chowk, the city centre. Srinagar city currently produces 540 metric tons of garbage daily which is cleared by the SMC and dumped at Achan.
Local residents of Achan and even SMC officials candidly admit that the waste is not treated in any way and both solid and mixed waste is brought to the site and dumped in an unscientific manner.
10 years of futile protests
Foul odour, contaminated ground water and water logging especially after rains have had serious health effects on residents of Achan and beyond. Cough, chest pain, sneezing, skin allergies, nausia, vomiting and loose motion are the common symptoms found among the people of Achan and its adjoining localities. Yet, the government remains apathetic to the plight of the people.
“Achan dumping site emits Methane which displaces oxygen in the air,” explains Dr Nisar-ul-Hassan. “This causes nausea, vomiting, coma and even death can occur.” Dr Hassan added that four out of 10 patients coming to SMHS hospital every day for gastrointestinal problems, vomiting, typhoid, skin diseases and respiratory allergies belong to Achan and its adjoining areas including Saidapora, Eidgah, Soura, Anchar, Ali Jan Road and Ali Masjid areas of the city.
Dr Hassan advocates a study on the patients of these areas by a high level team of medical experts to find out how far the waste dumping site was contributing to these ailments among people. He also said one of the best solutions was to rehabilitate the local population on war-footing to prevent spread of infectious diseases.
Bashir Ahmed, an Achan resident recalls a horrific incident in 2005 when one of his neighbours went after his cow and accidently fell near the dumping site and injured himself. “He developed serious infection and his wound festered and became gangrene,” says Bashir Ahmed. “His limb was amputated but after three months of the operation, he died”.
The death forced residents of Achan to move the J&K High Court in 2006 seeking a stay on dumping waste at the landfill. In 2007, the SMC was served a notice by the court asking it to close the site within 18 months and find a new one. But neither was a new site identified nor was the present one was closed. The case is still before the court. It is also before the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
At least 500 protests have been staged by the Achan’s residents in the past ten years. There was hardly any day when women, children and elderly did not assemble at the Press Colony in Lal Chowk, to protest against the dumping site. But now, protests are banned.
“I am the person who would start the protest and call other residents to assemble at Achan first where from we would lead towards Press Colony for protests,” says Shabir Ahmed, a local resident. “But I was harassed by the police and some SMC officials. I was thrashed by policemen twice and two FIRs were lodged against me for protesting against the dumping site. There has been tremendous pressure from the police and higher-ups to stop protests. To avoid trouble for ourselves and our family members, we have stopped our protests”.
Residents of Achan are facing another social problem—not being able to get their children married. “I have two sons and both are doing good business but I am not able to marry them as the matchmakers always complain that we live close to a waste dumping site that stinks a lot and produces harmful toxins,” said Ali Muhammad, a resident.
Shafiya Jan, another resident said that at least dozens of matches came for her daughter, who holds a Bachelors in Science. “But every time, the matchmakers said our house is close to Achan waste dumping site and rejected the proposal,” says Safia. She said there are many families like hers in the area who are facing social stigma as nobody is ready to marry their daughters and sons, just because the area produces pungent smell and toxic gas.
Meanwhile, constructions continue…
Locals of Achan say that till 1990, there were 22 houses around the dumping site but within a span of 30 years, the number of residential houses has touched 250. Who gave permissions for constructions remains a mystery. Ali Muhammad Dar, a local resident said that he belonged to a poor family and sold his wife’s jewelry to buy a piece of land at Achan in 2005. (The land is J&K government property and allotted to SMC)
“That particular year, the rate for per malra (272 sq feet) was Rs 2.5 lakh (272 square feet) which has now mounted to Rs 9 to Rs 10 lakh per malra,” says Dar. “But why would one buy land here? Only those who are fed up of their lives would buy homes and land here”.
Asked how come constructions were allowed despite the area being notified as SMC land in 2007 Dar said: “All the residents here are middle class people. Around 90% of residential constructions in and around Achan area are illegal, but who cares?”
Residents of Achan say they have been repeatedly requesting the government to either find an alternative waste dumping site or to rehabilitate all the residents to some other location. “The office of the divisional commissioner Kashmir has already recommended rehabilitating the families to some other locations but nothing is happening,” said Shafiya Jan. She said that a majority of residents are ready to shift to some other location as all of them have developed different ailments.
Parvaiz Qadri, Deputy Mayor Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) admitted that garbage produced by the city reaches the Achan dumping site without any segregation. “SMC faces shortage of manpower and vehicles,” says Qadri. “Otherwise, our plan was to get the waste/garbage segregated right at peoples’ doorsteps”.
Band aid solutions
Parvaiz says that SMC had planned to set up a Waste to Energy plant at Achan to produce 5MW electricity out of the waste. “But the project has been awaiting approval for the past four years and continues to remain stuck in technical glitches”.
All constructions at Achan are illegal as residents have no permission for constructions from the competent authority — SMC, says the Deputy Mayor
Now the SMC has finally got an approval for construction of Cell-Four (A cemented cell 20 feet deep, 100 or 200 meters long, with a cement lid) from the LG Manoj Sinha led administration and the same will constructed soon. “Three Cells (for dumping waste underground) already exist at the site,” says Qadri. “The documentation and other formalities for Cell-Four will be completed soon”.
The Cells are meant to contain the dumped waste underground in a enclosed space with a lid to prevent the foul smell from spreading. A Cell is 111 m x 123 m in area, and costs Rs 20 crore approximately. Such cells have been constructed by the Economic Reconstruction Agency (ERA). As per ERA, one such cell can accommodate 1,22,000 metric tons of waste. The cell is designed like a drain and the ultimate aim is to ensure scientific disposal of the waste which remains a challenge till date.
Athar Amir, SMC Commissioner has forwarded a proposal to the state administration for setting up a Bio-mining plant at Achan. “Once the Cell-Four and bio-mining plant come up, people living around Achan site can live without getting infected from the garbage as the same would get disposed on daily basis,” says Amir.
However, locals says they have been hearing a number of such promises from the previous governments and the SMC but nothing has happened on the ground. “Let’s wait and see how far the fresh claims of SMC officials go,” says a sceptical Achan resident, Riyaz Ahmed.