The Bhalswa landfill is almost as high as the Qutub Minar. Both lie in the National Capital Territory (NCT), but that’s where the similarity ends.
The iconic architectural landmark and this mini hillock of waste in north Delhi have nothing in common. Here at Bhalswa, garbage of all kinds reaches 62 metres high and covers roughly 78 acres of land, according to this report by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). It was declared an exhausted landfill in 2006. It is rarely visited by government officials.
When the landfill caught fire on April 25, 2022, waste pickers, waste collectors and garbage truck drivers who live in and around the landfill were immediately impacted by the toxic fumes of burning plastic and other forms of waste.
“We lived in the smoke, we ate in the smoke. All our children fell sick,” says Sunita Devi, a waste picker who has lived around the landfill for the last 25 years. The 45-year-old stays with her two sons, daughters-in-law and their children. “The news said it [the fire] was for four days. But it took more than a month to put it out.”
When her grandchildren fell ill, Sunita took them to Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Hospital, the nearest government hospital roughly five kilometres away. The doctor there prescribed long-term treatment with medicines which the family could not afford. The children had to recover on their own.
“I cannot see anything due to the smoke around,” says Alkun Bibi, a waste picker who has worked here for more than two decades. Her sight has worsened due to the pollution and toxic fumes of the burning garbage.
Alkun a migrant from Kolkata, moved here on advice of her eldest daughter. They hoped to make a better income. She lives in a small hut which is built upon an open sewer in the landfill. Alkun finds that, “No matter what part of the country you come from, it is all the same. Everyone is poor here.” She recently stopped working due to her deteriorating eyesight and health.
Both household and industrial waste collected from localities such as Keshopur and Civil Lines in Delhi are dumped at Bhalswa. “Bhalswa collects a garbage dump of four to five metric tonnes every single day. No activities have been stopped by the government despite the land being declared as exhausted [in 2006],” says Rajendra Kumar, the owner of Ved Enterprises. His private waste collection company employs waste pickers and garbage truck drivers to work in Bhalswa.
Sunder Kumar migrated to Bhalswa from his village in Uttar Pradesh 20 years ago. He works as a garbage truck driver at the landfill. “When I go to sleep every night, my head hurts because of the bad odour and air here. I have breathing issues that make it difficult to fall asleep,” he says, explaining that he cannot afford to access healthcare and address his concerns.
Most residents here are migrants and say they have nowhere else to go. Sunita says she could find no other work nearby so she had to work as a waste picker. Her late husband was the only family member with an Aadhar card. After he died of a heart attack a few years ago, she stopped getting ration. With no legal documents to her name, she is unable to make an Aadhaar card and get a ration card under the central government’s One Nation, One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme.
“There is no ration shop around here,” says Sunder, “We don’t even get water.” The lack of safe drinking water forces residents to source it from outside. “Water tankers come here whenever, it is not regular. They ask for a lot of money and we hardly have any to save,” says Sunder, whose monthly income ranges from Rs. 7,000 to 10,000 depending on the amount of waste he manages to collect.
He says, “Majboori hai, aur kaha rahenge [It is my helplessness. Where else can I live]?”
Sunita’s grandchildren go to the only school in Bhalswa, run by an NGO called Deepti Foundation. It conducts classes till the fourth grade. Most children from the landfill study there. Those who want to continue studying after primary school must travel to the nearest government-run school, Nav Jyoti Public School, two kilometres away. Sunita says, private schools are out of reach – both expensive and far away.
“We just want all the children here to go to school, study and not continue with the same work. We just want hope,” says Sunita.
To return to the PARI homepage, click here.
Navya Asopa is an undergraduate student of political science and sociology at Ashoka University, Sonepat. She says, “Every time I would pass this area, my fellow passengers would put up the windows or look away. This made me think about how people working at the landfill survive, why does the landfill exist and why is no one talking about it?”