‘Living Here Is Such a Disaster’: Indian Locals Lament Yet Another Massive Landfill Fire

Boys are silhouetted against the smoke billowing from a fire that broke out at the Ghazipu

Residents near the site of the gargantuan Ghazipur landfill in Delhi, India, described burning sensations in their eyes, difficulty breathing, and other health issues in interviews on Sunday and Monday as the landfill experienced a massive fire.

The locals lamented that the landfill, one of the largest on the planet, catches fire with some regularity as a result of the flammable methane gas created by the decomposition of the garbage there.

One resident speaking to the Times of India described fleeing plumes of noxious gas as a “normal” part of living near the landfill.

Authorities reported a fire beginning at the landfill on Sunday and rapidly spreading throughout the site, filling the local vicinity with toxic fumes. Firefighting officials lamented that combatting the flames was difficult as fires of this kind do not have a clear origin site and driving water-carrying vehicles across the expanse of the landfill is risky.

“There is every possibility that the vehicles will sink into a heap of garbage,” the Times of India noted in its coverage of the “mountain of shame” on Tuesday.

Local officials have not attributed the fire to arson, but multiple reports indicated on Monday that police had arrested “unknown persons” in connection with the fire. The reports did not indicate the exact nature of the arrests. The Hindu reported that those in question were booked on charges of “making atmosphere noxious to health” and an “act endangering life of personal safety of others.”

The fire engulfed much of the site of the landfill overnight Sunday into Monday. As of late Monday night, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi reported that the fire had been “90 percent” extinguished, but toxic fumes continued to cover the neighborhoods around the landfill. The extinguishing of “90 percent” of the first still reportedly left “40-50 small isolated flames” burning, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI).

India is one of the world’s most polluted countries. According to a report published by the Swiss technology company IQAir in March, parts of India logged levels of soot and other polluting particle matter ten times the upper limit of what the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) identifies as safe. A 2022 report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) found that residents of Delhi lose as much as ten years of their life to illness caused by air pollution.

 Shelly Oberoi MCD Mayor visited the fire site at Gazipur Landfill area in the morning on April 22, 2024 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

“Fire at Ghazipur during the summer months is as normal as air pollution during the winter in Delhi-NCR. Despite this being a recurring issue, no one takes any action on the ground. Either way, we are suffering,” local resident Varun Joshi told the Times of India on Monday.

“Living here has been such a disaster,” another local resident, Manish Verma, lamented to the newspaper, noting that he suffered from a heart condition and was “suffocated” by the fumes from the fire.

Residents speaking to NDTV similarly complained of decades of similar incidents, deteriorating their health and quality of life.

“This has been happening for 20 years now, even before this an accident had happened a small part of landfill had busted and lead to a lot of loss and casualties,” one man told NDTV. “In my opinion, this should be moved from here.”

Another local described “difficulty in breathing, people are falling sick, they are rushing to the hospital. People are abandoning the colony and running away.”

“Data from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi shows that only one major fire was reported at the Ghazipur landfill last year, but there were five such blazes in 2022, eight in 2021 and 2020 each, and 48 such cases in 2019,” the Hindustan Times observed on Tuesday. “Such landfill fires lead to toxic fumes emitting greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and polluting gases such as hydrogen sulphide, dioxins, and furans.”

The local Delhi government is under the control of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). India is currently in the midst of its legislative elections – the largest of their kind in the world – and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi rapidly moved to blame the AAP for the disaster.

“Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had promised that the landfill site would be cleared by December 2023. This burning dump is an example of the AAP’s corruption,” the local BJP chief Virendra Sachdeva said during a visit to the landfill on Monday. “Forget about clearing it … a new landfill site has been created instead.”

Sachdeva accused the AAP of “criminal negligence” and promised, “the garbage at the site will be removed within a year if the BJP comes to power in Delhi.”

Officials have vowed an investigation into the origin of the fire. Environment Minister Gopal Rai ordered his office to produce a “detailed report” on the matter in two days, recalling that he had previously “issued various directions to prevent such incidents in the future” that had apparently gone unheeded.

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