The ever-increasing garbage problems of our cities have led to the growing mountains of landfill sites. These have become a major concern as the size of many landfills has exceeded the required norms and the original plans. Most of the time proper and adequate attention is not given to an important human aspect of the garbage problem – the problems of people who have no option but to live close to a landfill site. What are their concerns? How has the mounting landfill impacted their lives? What can be done to reduce their problems?

Suman Devi lives in a lane of Shraddhanand Colony which is very close to the huge Bhalaswa landfill site in North Delhi. She says that the bad smell and polluted air from the landfill sting the throat and eyes like chilli powder. Rainwater which percolates through the spongy landfill site pollutes groundwater so badly that only black water comes in the few taps or hand-pumps that the lane has. So, she and her neighbours are entirely dependent on water tankers but it is quite a battle to take your share of the water from the tanker, she says.

Rainwater which flows down the garbage mountain into the lane is incredibly dirty and smells awful. It is this water which often flows into her house and she and her injured husband have to work hard to pour it out with buckets. It is due to standing in this highly polluted water and handling it for a long time after the recent rains that both of them fell ill.

Suman adds that when a relative came to meet them all the way from Bihar, he wanted to leave as early as possible as he just could not tolerate the stench. Sometimes the stench is so overpowering that one cannot eat. She concludes, “Here my life is such that I cannot experience any happiness. I may be surviving somehow but of what use is this life.”

Her family as well as several families in this and the next lane had purchased land here before the landfill came up and so were not aware of the problems that they would have to face here. As mostly it is the very poor who live here, they are not in a position to find alternate homes.

Chatarma says that problems become acute when strong winds blow and garbage is blown towards the colony, or when a fire starts in the landfill due to gas accumulation. Then it is very scary, she says.

This lane is located very close to the Bhalaswa landfill. But when we went to another colony located about one kilometre away, people there said they also experience the ill-effects of the landfill to a considerable extent. Their groundwater has also got badly polluted.

Pushpa, coordinator of the Bhalaswa Lok Shakti Manch, says, “A survey of the groundwater of the area in 2012 revealed it to be highly contaminated so use of groundwater was banned. Although some steps have been taken to improve the drinking water situation, on the whole the situation is still very difficult. The groundwater pollution is not confined just to the landfill site but is spread over a much wider area. Similarly, other health problems are also spread over a wider area and certainly affect the nearly 20,000 people living in this resettlement colony as well.”

Shakuntla, a resident of this colony says, “People living in different parts of Delhi were shifted here around 2002 when the pollution caused by the landfill had already become a serious problem. Once it was known that pollution here was a serious problem and is increasing with the mounting landfill, why were so many people brought here from different parts of the city so that more people became exposed to this health hazard? So much is talked about pollution in Delhi, but why is there so little concern for the pollution suffered by poor people? Why were we not resettled at a better place instead of being sent to live near a mountain of garbage?”

Rajesh, a socially active resident adds, “It was ignored that the land allotted was low-lying and no drainage outlets exist. Hence the health hazards related to the landfill site are compounded by these factors which lead to persistent water-logging in and around the colony.” Clearly serious mistakes were made and at least now sustained efforts should be made to ensure that people are protected as much as possible from severe health hazards, risks and pollution.

Manmohan is a young, public-spirited lawyer who has been running from one agency to another to sort out some of these problems. He points to thick files of his correspondence with various agencies and their replies. It is an uphill struggle, he says. A lot of effort has to be put in to get some small gain.

Nevertheless, the efforts should continue, he adds. Officials can help by giving more attention to the human side of the garbage problem. Special care should be taken to protect health and meet the basic requirements of people forced to endure the hardships of living near a landfill.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.