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Why are India’s garbage dumpsites burning?



V Nivedita |

Chennai, April 28

Updated on:

Apr 29, 2022

Implement the rules to solve the waste problem in India, says top scientist  

Indian cities have a new pollution problem this extremely hot summer. The giant garbage dumps the size of multiple football fields from Delhi to Chennai are beginning to burn.

The massive fire at New Delhi’s Bhalswa garbage dumpsite site has grabbed national and international headlines. Fires are raging for the third straight day on Thursday and officials said that it would take at least another day to put them out. The Delhi government even imposed a paltry fine of ₹50 lakh on the North Municipal Corporation of Delhi for its negligence. 

The fire broke out on Tuesday and several reports detailed the smoke from the fire turning the sky hazy grey. The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. 

This is the fourth major garbage dumpsite fire in Delhi in the last month, with the Ghazipur landfill alone reporting three. Not just in Delhi, such incidents are being reported from several parts of India, including in the Chennai Perungudi dumpsite, not far from the city’s IT corridor. 

What caused the fire? 

The waste that is dumped in landfills is of two types — organic (kitchen waste and green waste such as flowers, vegetables, fruits and leaves) and inorganic (recyclable waste such as glasses and paper; inert waste such as construction debris, and hazardous and toxic waste like e-waste, and fluorescent tube lights). 

A fire at the Perungudi dumping yard, in Chennai- Photo: Ravindran R/The Hindu.

Fire tenders from five stations across Chennai reached the Perungudi dumpyard to put out the fire which started on April 27.

The Perungudi dumpyard has about 3.63 million cubic metres of legacy waste lying across 125 acres. Another 200 acres is used for waste processing and daily waste dumping.

Chennai’s Perungudi landfill sees over 2000 tonnes of wet waste being dumped at the site on a daily basis.

Fire trucks attempt to put out the fire as smoke billows from burning garbage at the Bhalswa landfill site in New Delhi.

Four fire tenders are working at the Delhi Bhalswa landfill to put out the fire.

Fire officials say that it will take another day to put out the fire at the Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi.

The National Capital Region has seen daytime temperatures over 42 degrees Celsius this past week.

While no cause of the fire has been determined, officials say that rising temperature among solid waste leads to the formation of methane gas which is flammable.

Three landfill fire incidents have been reported at the Ghazipur landfill site this year .

Residents around the Bhalswa landfill have complained of issues like sore throat, itchy eyes and breathing problems.

The Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) has slapped a fine of ₹
50 lakh on the North Delhi Municipal Corporation for negligence to prevent the fire at the Bhalswa dumpyard.

About 70-75 per cent of all waste is organic and can be converted to manure or biogas. “Unfortunately, we have a weak management mechanism. That is where the problem is,” said TV Ramachandra, Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, adding, “When we dump too much organic material in the landfills, methane will get generated.”  

“Methene is produced due to high temperature and pressure. It is inflammable. This along with combustible material such as plastic can lead to fires,” he said.  

A 2021 report by the United Nations Environment Programme shows that most human-caused methane emissions come from just three sectors — fossil fuels, waste, and agriculture. It goes on to say that landfills and wastewater make up about 20 per cent of emissions. “If you take out the organic waste, you are will be solving the problem,” Ramachandra said. 

When waste burns, harmful gases are emitted. “If you burn plastics, paper and wood, there will be many dioxins, which can be highly toxic and can cause several serious health issues, including cancer. Heavy metals and nitrates can seep into the water and cause kidney failures,” Ramachandra explained. 

The solutions 

The best way to deal with waste is to segregate it at the source itself — that is in our homes. “Incentivise segregating at the source. Give the people who segregate at home some monetary benefits because they are lowering the burden. Penalise those who don’t. If this is done, management becomes easier and people will also take part in it,” Ramachandra explains.  

Decentralised and scientific waste management is needed to ensure that landfills do not grow in size. “There is no point in taking the wastes 30-40 km and sending them to a landfill, (if we do that) then it is just a dumping site,” Ramachandra observed. Sanitary landfills — where there is no seepage of wastes into the land or water — are the need of the hour. However, even in these landfills, management is a problem, he said.  

The effective solution could lie in setting up an independent authority to oversee waste management in the country. The Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016 detail how waste should be handled, but these rules are rarely followed. “Implement the rules in the true spirit, that will solve the problem,” he said.  

Published on

April 28, 2022

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