Monu Yadav listed everything he had found on the mountain that looms over his house: “Dirt, garbage, clothes, stones and goats…dead goats.” Yadav is 11 years old. He lives in Bhalswa, an area in North Delhi best known for a landfill spread over 40 acres, where garbage has piled up 164 feet.
On October 20, the mountain caught fire. It took four days to bring it under control. Ten days later, smoke continued to rise from the garbage mound, contributing to the worsening air quality in the area. Delhi is currently the world’s most polluted city, with levels of particulate matter reaching alarming rates – PM 2.5 levels touched 217, and PM 10 touched 368 on November 1, far exceeding the permissible limits of 40 and 60.
Fires are a regular occurrence in Bhalswa. They are caused by an accretion and leakage of methane gas from the landfill. “Sometimes when we light a match on the landfill, big flames come out of it,” said Yadav. “In school, my teacher asked me how I live here. I told her I am used to it.”
Toxic air is just one of the hazards that the 40,000 residents of Bhalswa live with. The narrow lanes of the jhuggi-jhopdi or slum cluster are bordered with open drains, which see a constant flow of leachate that seeps out from the landfill.
Children run around playing barefoot, while women sit outside their homes working to make shower heads, safety pins and colourful Diwali decorations, among other things.
“Every evening at 5 pm, trucks come in with garbage,” said Paras Nath, 36, a vegetable vendor who lives just yards away from the slope of the landfill. “They come at such high speed, releasing dust, we have to lock our doors and windows. The dumping goes on till late at night. If the wind is too much, then the garbage topples and falls right into our house.”
All that separates his house from the dump is a three-foot high wall painted with graffiti and slogans about the right to clean air and clean toilets.
Kamla Devi, 54, is a community health worker who has lived in Bhalswa since 1972. Since garbage began to be dumped here in 1986, she says the health of residents deteriorated. “There is not a single person here who has not suffered from tuberculosis,” said Devi. “In the last month, I was admitted to the hospital twice for respiratory issues and I paid a bill of Rs 40,000.”
Pravin Kumar, 26, said he was born and brought up in this neighbourhood and contracted tuberculosis for the first time when he was 12 years old. “The landfill grew as I grew older,” said Kumar, who works as a supervisor at the Delhi Jal Board.
His son was born with haemophilia, a bleeding disorder that impairs the body’s ability to form blood clots. “On this day last year, my son was in the hospital because he could not breathe,” he said. “He was just six months [old] then.” This year, his daughter is unwell. “My daughter is suffering from infections and constantly coughs,” he added. “My salary goes in paying for our medical bills.”
The entrance to the government dispensary at Bhalswa is littered with garbage. Its doctors said on a regular week day, with a six-hour shift, they attend to an average of 250 patients. Skin infections are common. But the maximum number of patients come with respiratory ailments and cases of tuberculosis.
“The survival rate of patients in tuberculosis in this area is very low,” said Dr Chandra Shekhar. At least seven of his patients had a drug resistant strain, which is common in areas with weak tuberculosis control programmes.
Dr Neeraj Kumar, who oversees the tuberculosis programme in the area, blamed the landfill for the high prevalence of the disease. “The biggest factor that causes tuberculosis is impurity of air and water,” he said. “There is a fire here almost every day. The people that live here are very poor. Children here are weak. No improvement will take place till the dumping stops.”
Residents said the landfill did not just damage their health, but also affected the way they were perceived by people outside Bhalswa.
Devi said that marriages in the cluster were rare since residents living outside the area did not want to associate with them. “No one wants to marry their daughters into families living in the cluster,” she said. “If we marry our daughter outside the cluster, relatives make comments. They say, ‘Gandh se utha ke laye hain’. [We have picked her up from the dirt].”
Children who live in the cluster said they often hike up to the landfill and play there. “No one stops us,” said Mahfooz Ali, 14, who studies in Class 8. “During demonetisation, we found a big bundle of old notes. Sometimes you can also find gold or silver.”
For all the games they have invented around the landfill, the children are clear that they do not like living near it. “We can’t breathe properly,” said Ali.
Mohammed Danish, 15, a student of Class 9, stared at the landfill. “We feel very insulted when we tell people that we live next to a landfill...We studied in class about pollution, but look at this.”
All photographs by Aabid Shafi.