In India’s national Capital, toxicity presents itself in many forms. It is in the smog that hangs thick in the air every winter, in the dirty waters of the Yamuna and in the mountains of garbage that fill up its three landfills all year round. These dumping sites have repeatedly proven to be a safety hazard for residents, most recently this month, when North Delhi’s Bhalswa landfill caught fire on October 20. It took four days for the blaze to be brought under control, but on October 29, smoke was still emanating from the dumping ground, as these photos by Sajjad Hussain for international news agency AFP show. The fumes, the overflowing garbage and the smog together paint a worrying picture of the state of Delhi and its neighbouring towns and cities.

Ragpickers carry bags with usable items collected from a garbage dump at the Bhalswa landfill site in New Delhi on October 29. (Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).

A Delhi Fire Service official told the media last week that such fires are caused because of the constant discharge of methane gas at the landfill. These blazes only worsen the air quality in Delhi, which is already at an alarmingly poor level because of many reasons, including vehicular pollution and crop burning in the nearby northern states. For instance, after the Bhalswa fire last week, air quality in Delhi fell from “poor” to “very poor”, according to data from the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research or SAFAR. On Tuesday evening, the Air Quality Index according to SAFAR was 410, which is categorised as “severe”. An Air Quality Index between 301-400 is categorised as “very poor”, 201-300 is “poor”, 101-200 is “moderate” and below 100 is “good”.

Cows walk past smoke rising from the Bhalswa landfill on October 29. (Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).

Such landfill fires are a frequent occurrence in Delhi. According to government data, Delhi generates about 10,000 metric tonnes of garbage each day, the bulk of which goes to the city’s three main landfills at Okhla, Bhalswa and Ghazipur, all of which have long exceeded their lifespan and capacity.

In 2016, the Bhalswa landfill was on fire for about a week. In October 2017, a fire broke out at the Ghazipur landfill, just a little over a month after a part of the huge garbage mound there had collapsed on September 1, killing two people. The Ghazipur dump is the biggest and oldest of the three landfills. Earlier this year, a Parliamentary committee noted that the garbage at Ghazipur had piled up so high that at 65 metres it was inching close to the height of Delhi’s Qutub Minar.

Ragpickers sort through the mountain of garbage at Bhalswa for usable material. (Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee has said that the three landfills are not authorised by them and that they do not comply with the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000. But “municipal bodies have informed they have no other option but to use these sites for disposal of MSW [Municipal Solid Waste] as land is not available in Delhi”, the body had said in 2016.

Scenes from the Bhalswa landfill. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

There has for years been talk of closing down the landfills, setting up new ones and insisting on waste segregation to tackle the capital’s solid waste management crisis, but little progress has been made on this. Part of the crisis stems from the tussle between the Centre and the Delhi government. While the Aam Aadmi Party is in power in Delhi, three civic bodies – the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, South Delhi Municipal Corporation and East Delhi Municipal Corporation – are under the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is also in power at the Centre. The BJP and AAP have frequently passed the buck to each other over the mismanagement of civic issues.

A ragpicker looks for usable scrap from the Bhalswa landfill. (Photo credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).

The Capital also has two other civic bodies, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, which is under the Centre, and the Delhi Cantonment Board, which is under the Ministry of Defence.

The Supreme Court has routinely pulled up the administration in Delhi – both the Aam Aadmi Party government and Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, a Union government appointee – for the garbage disposal crisis in the city. In August, the apex court asked Baijal to set up an expert committee on solid waste management. In July, it had rapped the Lieutenant Governor for not fixing the garbage problem despite having the power to resolve it, as Baijal had told the court that the civic bodies reported to him. Baijal told the Supreme Court in August that plans are afoot to set up new landfills and stop dumping of untreated waste by 2020.

Smoke rises from the garbage at the Bhalswa landfill site. (Photo Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP).