India moves to eliminate thousands of massive garbage piles

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, Oct 29 (EFE).- About 20 men in a landfill in the Indian capital rummage through mountains of garbage, searching for a piece of plastic or glass bottle that could be re-sold.

It is one of over 3,000 large landfills dotting Indian cities, which the Indian government pledged earlier this month to eliminate and replace with waste treatment plants with an investment of 1.4 trillion rupees (about $18.9 billion).

Lachiram collects garbage from all across the capital’s posh south Delhi area up to four times a day, cautiously unloading it from his truck into the Okhla landfill, standing as tall as a 16-floor building.

Twenty-five years of accumulated garbage dominate the ruins of the sprawling 14th-century Tughlaqabad fort, a hospital located adjacent to the site and a nearby slum area.

“We receive between 300 and 500 trucks a day,” the junior engineer at the landfill, Ravi Kumar, told EFE from his office set up among the garbage piles.

The trucks climb to the top of the garbage heaps and pour tons of trash there.

Some 20 ragpickers then try to find some piece of plastic amid the unloaded piles although Kumar claims that they are technically forbidden from landfills under an order by an Indian environmental court.

The ragpickers, between 1.5 and 4 million and among the lowest in the informal sector, collect and segregate garbage without any type of protection in many cases and make a living by reselling the plastic, metal, glass, and cardboard they find amid the trash.

“The reason why we have not already drowned under our own garbage is this informal workforce that basically makes a living by collecting trash,” Atin Biswas, program director (municipal solid waste), Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), told EFE.

The CSE noted in a recent report that most of the ragpickers, who are stigmatized for working with garbage, are Dalits from the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy.

“Few dispute the ubiquity of filth that is unique to India,” a society that “stigmatizes sanitation work as unclean and sanitation workers as untouchable,” writes academic Anand Teltumbde in “Republic of Caste”.

Although about 70 percent of the Indian population still lives in rural areas, according to the last national census in 2011, there has been an urban explosion in recent decades in this country of 1.21 billion inhabitants.

The amount of garbage generated each day has also grown accordingly.

According to a recent CSE report on the informal garbage sector, the Asian country generates 62 million tons of garbage annually.

Only 19 percent of this is treated in waste management plants while the rest ends up in one of the 3,159 landfills which, according to the Indian government, already have more than 800 million tons of garbage.

“If you have to focus on the origin of all problems, it is because of very poor level of waste segregation,” Biswas says.

Despite the laws in place, Indian households and large waste generating sectors such as the hotel industry and offices frequently mix organic waste with recyclable items.

According to the expert, “once food waste is mixed with any other stream of waste like plastic or paper or metal or glass the value of both of them is kind of lost, and it makes it is extremely challenging to recover or recycle either of the waste.”

The Indian government claims that the country “processes” 70 percent of the garbage generated but Biswas says that this is a much broader term than segregation, whose data the government stopped releasing since last year.

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