India's huge landfills go up in flames amid record-breaking temperatures

The fire was still smouldering on May 5 when ST visited the spot. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA
Waste pickers Ghiasuddin Sheikh (left) and Mahibbar Haldar standing at the spot where their shanties once stood. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA
The landfill at Bhalswa, Delhi's second-biggest at over 70 acres, caught fire on April 26. ST PHOTO: DEBARSHI DASGUPTA

NEW DELHI - It was searing hot on the afternoon of April 26, with temperatures exceeding 40 deg C. Waste picker Ghiasuddin Sheikh was on top of the Bhalswa landfill in north Delhi - an over 50m-high monstrosity visible to passers-by from even a kilometre away.

The 36-year-old was collecting plastic and other recyclables from this garbage mountain when he saw a smoking patch at a distant spot on the landfill. He dismissed it as a small fire set off by another picker melting the plastic coating on wires to retrieve metal such as copper inside them.

But he figured something was wrong when more spots started blazing furiously with leaping flames. Mr Sheikh knew landfills in Delhi are a notorious fire hazard in the summer, when flammable methane gas builds up from decomposing organic matter and, at times, ignites spontaneously.

Three large-scale fires had been reported in Delhi's largest landfill in Ghazipur in March and April this year alone, amid an early onset of summer that has shattered 122-year-old temperature records in the country and turned its landfills into municipal powder kegs.

By the time Mr Sheikh raced down to his shanty abutting the landfill, flames were lapping at his home made up of wooden poles, tarpaulin and cloth.

"I tried to save as much as I could using a pipe," he said. "But I could save nothing of our clothes or food meant for my children. Some of the scrap I had collected over days also got burnt," he added. The fire set him back by around 30,000 rupees (S$540), approximately the amount he earns in two months.

When The Straits Times visited Bhalswa last Thursday (May 5), the fire was still smouldering.

"With all this smoke still rising, we cannot work. Will we breathe or work?" Mr Sheikh said.

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Each day's work forgone is chalked up to a loss for this daily wage earner.

Since April, landfills in other parts of the country including Chandigarh and Chennai have also caught fire - a flaming indictment of India's poor waste segregation and inadequate processing capabilities.

India generates around 62 million tonnes of waste every day - a figure expected to rise to about 150 million tonnes by 2030 with growing population and consumption. But only about 43 million tonnes of this daily waste is collected and less than a third of it treated.

Much of this untreated and mixed waste ends up in landfills on the edge of India's cities, in violation of the government's Solid Waste Management Rules that state only non-recyclable, non-biodegradable and non-combustible waste should go to a dumpsite.

Over the years, this untreated waste in major cities such as Delhi has piled up into towering heaps, infamously compared in the media with some of India's best known tall landmarks such as the Qutub Minar, a 72.5m minaret built in the 13th century.

Mr Sheikh and others living around these landfills face health hazards from leachate contaminating the groundwater with toxic carcinogens such as cadmium, as well as fumes from recurring fires that pollute the air. Bhalswa alone reported 280 fire incidents between 2017 and 2020.

At times, disasters here can be fatal - such as in 2017 when a section of the Ghazipur landfill in Delhi collapsed, killing two people.

The city of Delhi, which has three major landfills, has the capacity to process only about 5,497 tonnes of municipal solid waste a day, less than half the city's daily waste generation of 11,144 tonnes. This daily dose of untreated waste adds on to refuse that has accumulated over the years at its landfills.

Delhi is estimated to have more than 28 million tonnes of this "legacy waste", with Bhalswa accounting for around eight million.

A senior official of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), who did not wish to be named, said waste at Bhalswa is being cleared by extracting usable and revenue-generating material, such as inert mud used for highway construction and refuse-derived fuel for the cement industry.

This has since 2019 reduced the quantum of waste by around 2.5 million tonnes, slow progress for a stiff December 2023 deadline by when the Bhalswa landfill is supposed to achieve "100 per cent remediation".

Areas under the NDMC also generate around 4,500 tonnes of waste daily. Around 2,500 tonnes of combustible waste from this is sent to a plant that incinerates it to produce electricity. "The plant was set up in 2009 but gradually, (waste) generation has increased. Around 2,000 tonnes more waste is being generated now," he said.

With scarce land availability and public opposition holding up the creation of another landfill site, this excess waste is currently dumped at Bhalswa. There are plans to set up a second waste-to-energy plant in a year's time. Methane extraction at the landfill, a way to reduce fire occurrences, has also been stopped because of the dumping of fresh waste.

Ms Shruti Sinha, manager for policy and outreach at Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, said measures such as waste incineration, which has accompanying problems of air pollution, is not the ideal solution.

"What we really need is a decentralised system through which wet waste is properly segregated at source and is easily composted at household levels, even at larger bulk levels," she said. "One way it can be done within a larger system is to actually incentivise composting and wet waste collection... This simple act of segregating and composting wet waste can go a long way in preventing landfill fires."

The organisation runs two "material recovery facilities" in Delhi, where wet waste is composted on site and recyclables recovered. "The idea is to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill," added Ms Sinha.

The NDMC has also set up decentralised composting plants - five that have a one-tonne capacity each and another four with a five-tonne capacity each. Setting up new ones has been challenging though.

"The main problem is that when you set out to do anything related to garbage, the public resists it, whether there is generation of foul smell or not," said the official. "They don't allow us to set up plants anywhere."

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