Before Monday, the only one of us who had ever been anywhere near a landfill was Vijay, our photographer. “The biggest fear is the dogs,” he told me and intern Sameer, as we wolfed down vegetable patties in an Uber on the way to the Bhalswa landfill.
“They roam around in packs at night and may attack strangers,” Vijay warned us as we scarfed our dinner, trying not to contemplate becoming dog food.
The landfill at Bhalswa is a 40-acre mountain of trash, nearly half as tall as the Qutub Minar. The site is one of the most polluted areas in the National Capital Region, and has plumes of toxic smoke arising from it. Possibility: Death by intoxication.
It is also highly flammable, due to emanations of methane gas. Possibility: Death by fire. The biggest danger however is the impending collapse of the entire garbage tower—similar to the one which killed two people in Ghazipur landfill in September last year. And while India geared up to host World Environment Day—with mini marathons, hashtags, and pledges—our editors sent us to a landfill. To spend the night there.
Our Uber driver left us at Shraddhanand Colony, where we were to meet a fixer from the All India Kabadi Majdoor Mahasangh, a ragpicker’s association that advocates for some of the roughly 500,000 people who scratch a living out of the mountains of Delhi’s refuse, including the one looming in front of us. And there it was, inviting us to conquer it. Actually, repulsing us completely.
Our contact suggested he'd take us up the "backside" of the mountain. However, he wanted us to cough up a large sum of money. With not enough cash on hand, or clearance from our editor, we decided to scout out another guide, definitely not being brave enough to make the attempt ourselves. At a nearby chai stall, we met Ashfaq Sheikh, a kabadiwala who agreed to help us climb the trash mountain for Rs. 200.
“I am now immune to to the stench but you should have carried a handkerchief,” Ashfaq told us as he led us through rows of homes and scrap shops to the base of the mountain. We began to climb. With every step, plumes of dust rose up in the air, filling up our mouths and nostrils. This had seemed like a bad idea from the start, but now it was starting to look dangerously foolish.
Ashfaq walked ten paces ahead of us, on a path created by ragpickers to navigate the ascent more easily. We followed him, cutting across heaps of plastics and sacks of garbage: the trash produced by millions of wasteful Delhiites.
Though he’d been nervous about the authorities at first, Ashfaq soon was enthusiastic about inviting three of these foolish, privileged men into his world. “This hill was less than half of what you are seeing right now when I first started working,” he informed us. Ashfaq, who is 25, has been a ragpicker since he was eight. He came to Delhi from Kolkata, and has lived a major part of his life around the this landfill. Having worked the site for most days and nights of his life, he knew his way up the hill like a pro.
“I am quite used to the smell now. It has become a part of me,” Ashfaq said when we made a small stop, feeling tired and dizzy from the trash. “But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me the way it does you guys. I feel sick of all of this. But I don’t really have a choice. I have to work here to earn whatever I can for my family. That’s what everyone over here does.” He pointed to the jhuggis below, which looked tiny in the distant glow of streetlights.
After climbing for around half an hour, we reached a small plateau with a surreal view. There was a tent, two cows and a lot of dogs minding their own business. Looking down from this point, we were awestruck by the beautiful, terrible glow formed by the traffic lights, and the headlights of vehicles moving on the highways on both sides of the darkened hill. Above us were a lot of small methane fires, burning like embers in the night.
“To people like us, death is a part of life over here,” Ashfaq said. “I have seen around 10 to 15 people getting trampled by a truck, or get scorched by one of these incessant fires on the dump.” That quickly cut short our somewhat touristy moment. “The MCD does not care,” he went on. “Their families are not compensated at all. The truck drivers may feel pity on them and give them some money, but that’s it.”
As we tried to get close to one of the garbage fires, the stench grew unbearable. When I almost vomited, we decided to take a walk to the another face of the mountain instead. “Earlier, when the dump was quite small, there used to be electric poles all over the place,” Ashfaq said. “As the waste grew, the poles began disappearing beneath the dump. At times, people have died on the spot by being electrocuted by one of these poles while on their way to work.”
Right alongside constant death was love, Ashfaq told us. “A lot of love stories have taken place over here. If ladies and gents work together, it is going to happen. At times, someone would fall in love, and then run away from here. They would get married and come back and settle here.”
Suddenly, a pack of about 10 dogs began barking, alarmed at the intruders. With Vijay’s words from earlier this evening echoing in my ears, I decided we should climb down. The dogs followed us, then settled for growling from a safe distance.
We discovered the descent was far scarier than the climb. While Vijay did well thanks to his sturdy, sports shoes, us two sneaker-wearing reporters slipped a number of times on the steep path, holding each other’s hands for safety.
We emerged into another area of Shraddhanand Colony. As we left the trash mountain behind, two figures emerged from the dark, walking our way. “It’s the cops,” Ashfaq said, and ran into a lane. We decided to stand our ground.
The policemen were in charge of patrolling the landfill. They had seen four figures and camera flashes on the trash mountain and waited for us to come down. When we told them we were journalists trying to do a story on garbage accumulation in the city, they expressions became friendlier.
“It’s not safe here,” said one of them—a young handsome cop. “We have to come here frequently on calls, sometimes for petty crimes, sometimes for something worse. It’s a spot favoured by criminals to dump dead bodies after they murder them. Rapes are also pretty common here,” he smirked.
“It is awful for the cops who are on duty here,” he added. “These people can climb the hill just like that—we have to struggle to get up there. By the time you come back, even you begin to smell just as horribly as the dump.” They bid us goodnight.
We found Ashfaq at the chai stall were we first met him. He was relieved to see us without handcuffs. As we were now sweating profusely and stinking of garbage just like them, the locals were more open to talking to us.
Most of the people who had gathered at Ram Milan’s stall were men who had migrated from West Bengal and Bihar, whose big city dreams had slowly crumbled as the trash heap grew taller. Almost everyone there was a part of the economy which thrived on the Bhalswa dump. Their relationship with it was a complex one—hating it for its ugliness while being dependent on it for their survival.
“We obviously don’t like living near a landfill, but we don’t hate it as it's our source of livelihood.” said Mohammed Hasan, a scrap dealer. “Most of the people here sort the garbage, pick out plastic and other material, and sell it. There is dust and stench, then you get used to it. But the kids keep getting ill.” He earns Rs. 10,000 per month and has been living here for the last 12 years. He fears an inevitable garbage landslide, and tells his kids to stay far away from the mountain.
Mohammad Akbar, also originally from West Bengal, said he was worried only about the mosquitoes, who don’t let him sleep at night. His friend, Mohammad Anis, was tired of irregular water and electric supply. “The water tanker comes in the neighbouring colonies but not here. Sometimes the stench and pollution is too much. I can’t tolerate this place any longer.” He told us he was looking for an apartment in Narela. “Who would want to eat amid the dust and stench?” An elderly bearded man, who was wearing a skullcap, said “It’s really difficult for us to be clean for praying during Ramadan.”
Ashfaq also told us he was thinking of moving back to Kolkata, where his family is. “It is a much better life over there. I don’t want my kid to grow in front of a dump, and later on work here just like I did. This is no way to live.”
As crowd began to thin, and the shops began to close their shutters, we figured it was time to either face a night on a bench with the stench pervading our nightmares, or return to our cozy homes and lifestyles. At around 1:30 AM, with a last look at the mountain, we set off for our AC rooms and showers with running water.
Tomorrow, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would plant trees, address representatives of the United Nations on the year’s theme—“Beat Plastic Pollution”, and visit an exhibition on the pristine lawns of Rajpath. Earnest citizens would post pictures of their clean-up drives, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar would tweet unironically about the environment, and politicians would squeeze in the photo-ops. Back in Bhalswa, the fires would still be burning.