Aug 8, 2023 5 min read

Chipping away at the mountain of trash in India’s capital

Chipping away at the mountain of trash in India’s capital
Every day, hundreds of waste collectors toil through the Ghazipur dump site in New Delhi, making a living by collecting recyclable materials from the garbage. Photo: Abhishek Singh

Ghazipur dump site in India’s capital New Delhi – where women and children eke out a living collecting recyclable materials from the mountain of garbage – stands as a towering symbol of the waste crisis. While the capital city continues to generate tonnes of waste every day, government’s recycling effort is a small step towards sustainable waste management. 

In the eastern outskirts of New Delhi looms a mountain, casting a shadow over the surrounding landscape. As one approaches, a pungent stench fills the air, serving as a grim reminder of the bitter truth: this mountain is no natural wonder, but an enormous heap of garbage known as the Ghazipur dumping yard.

The sight on the outskirts of India’s capital is intriguing, for amidst the mounds of refuse, a delicate balance of life unfolds. Scores of birds and stray animals find their place, unwittingly consuming hazardous substances.

Hundreds of waste collectors have made their home at the base of the landfill, forging a livelihood out of the discarded waste. Curiously, it is the women and children who dominate this ragtag workforce, outnumbering their male counterparts.

The most vulnerable people are experiencing the detrimental effects of improper waste management. Dump yards like Ghazipur contribute to soil, water and air pollution, posing significant health risks for humans as well as the environment. Rainfall and natural elements interact with the waste, causing toxic substances to seep into the soil and nearby water bodies. This contamination not only affects the quality of drinking water but also disrupts aquatic ecosystems, threatening biodiversity.

In 2017, I embarked on my first visit to this grim site, drawn by a strange mix of fascination and compassion. Over the years, as I returned time and again, I was not only captivated by the human element but also witnessed a glimmer of hope amidst the despair. A series of initiatives had taken root, aimed at tackling the overwhelming amount of waste that the city produces on a daily basis.

The transformation was astounding. The towering mountain, once projected to surpass even the Qutub Minar – the tallest sandstone tower in India built in the 13th century and measuring 72.5m – in height, began to recede. The acrid smoke of garbage fires was replaced by the steady hum of massive machines, deployed by the local municipal corporation as part of an ambitious bio mining and bio remediation project. Finally, redemption was within reach for the Ghazipur dumping yard.

Today, the site is a hive of activities. Twenty backhoes and excavators, accompanied by 15 waste separators and sieves, tirelessly toil across five segregation sites throughout the day. It is a far cry from the desolate landscape I encountered during my initial visit. This grand endeavor seeks to not only segregate the waste but also reintroduce it back into the functioning economy. The economic benefits are evident, as numerous industries depend on the steady supply of materials such as plastics, metals, fabric, polythene and glass. Even tiles, manure and fuel for power plants find their origin within this once-dreaded landfill.

As the project marches on at the Ghazipur dumping yard – once a symbol of environmental degradation and human suffering – its goals extend beyond mere functionality. The administration’s vision is to transform the area into a beautiful ecological park, capable of welcoming visitors from all walks of life. In its scale and rapid progress, the project becomes an example of successful intervention by the local municipal body.

Despite working amidst the stench of the piles of garbage, the waste collectors have moments of fun, as depicted by this laughing girl. Photo: Abhishek Singh
With the waste providing them food, the dump site has become a feeding spot for black kites. Photo: Abhishek Singh
A man carrying a bag full of recyclable waste crosses the expansive dump site. Photo: Abhishek Singh
In a display of communal solidarity, resident workers at the dump site take turns preparing meals for their fellow workers. Photo: Abhishek Singh
It is the women and children who dominate this ragtag workforce, outnumbering their male counterparts. Photo: Abhishek Singh
From his post atop the towering mound of waste, a guard from a private security agency maintains a vigil over the recycling operations. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Navigating the treacherous terrain of the garbage mountain – with the residential areas of New Delhi appearing dwarfed in the background – is a daunting task. Photo: Abhishek Singh
A fleet of tractors tirelessly ascends and descends the garbage heap, ceaselessly depositing waste at its peak. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Kebal Singh has dedicated his entire youth to the yard, working here for nearly three decades now. As a truck driver, he considers himself luckier than most other contract workers. Photo: Abhishek Singh
A worker cleans one of the five trommel screens, which act as sieves to segregate waste in the recycling setup. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Life finds a way even on this immense garbage pile, as evidenced by these puupies. Photo: Abhishek Singh
The animals bear the brunt of the landfill's hazards, unknowingly consuming harmful substances. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Not all views from the window are picturesque, a reminder of the stark realities surrounding the yard. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Following safety protocols is essential to protect hands from potential damage, as seen here without gloves. Photo: Abhishek Singh
A recycling plant worker doubles up as a cook, preparing a meal for his fellow workers. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Water sprinklers are deployed to reduce the health hazards caused by the suspended dust in the air. Photo: Abhishek Singh
Clothes hang on a line outside a container house, embracing a semblance of everyday life. Photo: Abhishek Singh
The canal that runs between the yard and the nearby residential area acts as a natural moat, separating the two sides. Photo: Abhishek Singh

Abhishek Singh
Abhishek Singh
Abhishek is a photographer from New Delhi, India.
Saurabh Goyal
Saurabh Goyal
Writer based in Delhi, India.
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