After another day off on our trip to catch up on sleep, shopping, and sightseeing, we turned into the final stretch of our three-week tour of sustainable development issues here in India.
Today's topic was waste management, and understandably, we were in for a long day. One of the first things that you notice in Delhi is that in virtually every gutter, behind every fence, and in every vacant lot, you will find heaps of garbage strewn about by nearby homes and the casual litterer.
As we drove south through Delhi, the morning fog lifted enough to reveal the faint outline of a hill in the distance, reminiscent of the skyline you may see as you drive west across the Colorado border towards the Rockies. As we soon found out, this small mountain was in fact the Okhla landfill.
Due to a combination of Delhi's rapid urban growth, rising incomes, and poor planning, the landfill grew much more quickly than expected. It began in 1994 as a 32-acre site, located between a rail yard and a hospital. The site was forced to close down in 2004 after only 10 years of operation. In this time, the landfill accumulated enough waste to rise nearly 100 feet above its surroundings.
The engineer of the landfill was kind enough to allow us to tour the facility, and we began our trek to the top of Garbage Mountain! Despite the landfill being closed for nearly 10 years, there appeared to be no efforts to cap the landfill, and what became of the trash remained open to the elements and our senses. The trash and construction waste mixed to create a mixture of a soul-sucking grayish-brown color. At the top of the mountain, a 2-inch crack near the edge of the ridge suggested that the shifting waste would produce a landslide in the near future. Behind another mound of garbage, a large hole revealed an outlet for a steady stream of flaming methane gas, a byproduct of the anaerobic conditions in which the solid waste decomposes.
One of the last things we observed upon exiting the landfill was steady stream of black liquid flowing from the property (despite no rain in Delhi for months). In the US, there are strict regulations on the management of this toxic waste; here, the stream ran along a brick wall before disappearing beneath the adjacent highway. Out of sight, out of mind, which is more than can be said for the landfill itself.
After our visit to the landfill, we visited a nearby community of the so-called "rag-pickers", most of who moved to the city in search of better livelihoods than their villages could provide. Of all the informal settlements we have seen across India, this slum was certainly among the more crudely-constructed slums, with most dwellings consisting of a patchwork of tarps and plastic sheeting.
The settlement was currently working with Chintan, an organization whose focus is to ensure that rag-pickers are able to maintain their livelihood in the face of growing corporatization of waste. Through cooperation with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Chintan is advocating for policies that give these resourceful workers the opportunity to become upwardly mobile in their trade, secure access to waste material, and improve their working conditions. According to Chintan, of the 40,000-100,000 rag-pickers in Delhi, nearly 15% are children. Chintan is working toward eliminating child labor from this industry by providing schooling, and organizing laborers to secure a better future for children and their families. The shift from the informal sector to the formal, private sector commonly results in lower incomes for rag-pickers for a population with few alternative options. Given the nature of the industry, it is not uncommon for families to pull their children from school to earn additional income as their need arises.
As we headed toward lunch, I took a new perspective on trash. From one side, it is important for a multitude of reasons to find ways to manage waste in the most efficient way possible. From another side, I have a much better appreciation for the conditions migrants must have endured in their home villages to seek rag-picking as a better option. Should waste management move too quickly away from the current informal management structure, what will become of the men, women, and children who make a living from this difficult work each day?