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Occupational hazard? 88.3% waste pickers aren't equipped to deal with landfill burns

Bhalaswa landfill site
By Our Representative 
The extreme rise in heat in the National Capital has led to yet another climate induced disaster. This time it was the Bhalaswa landfill. A massive fire broke out on April 26, 2022 afternoon between 1 and 2 pm. Yet this was not an isolated incident. This was the 4th major fire in Delhi-NCR. According to data by Delhi Fire Service, there have been four fire incidents in Ghazipur, three in Bhalaswa and two in Okhla this year.
Consequences on waste pickers of such disasters haven’t yet been gauged. In December 2021, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group conducted a survey on climate induced disasters with the waste picker communities. As many as 80.9% waste pickers said that they faced occupational hazard during landfill fires as well as health issues.
A media monitoring exercise by Chintan, known to be an elite non-profit NGO, claiming to work in the field of sustainability and environmental justice for the past 20 years, indicated landfill fires to be a regular disaster: 80% waste pickers stated it to be the most commonly occurring disaster.
The Chintan study says, as summer arrives with great intensity, higher temperatures cause organic matter present in the waste to decompose more rapidly, thereby emitting greater quantities of methane. 
Apart from putting landfill workers and those residing around it at direct risk of losing life, income and property, such waste-dump fires, also worsens Delhi’s air quality. The smog and toxic fumes have both short-term and long-term impacts on the respiratory system and has carcinogenic elements.
Fires at landfill sites reported by waste pickers
The respondents from the Chintan survey reported that toxic fumes lead to difficulty in breathing. Emissions from the landfill not only pose a threat to the health of those who live and work around the landfill but are a huge contributor to climate change.
According to the “Chintan Report on Disasters Faced by Waste Pickers, 2021”, an actionable solution is diverting wastes from landfills and reducing the dump. Segregation of waste is key to achieving this. Organic waste can be segregated from dry waste and composted. Not only will this reduce the waste going to landfill, it will also be a driving source of manure to nourish plants and crops.
Balmukund Kumar, coordinator of the Safai Sena, a waste-pickers' collective in Delhi, says, “Six jhuggis (informal settlements) of waste pickers along with their collected recyclable materials, ration, clothes, and other household materials have become ashes. Only documents could be saved. Waste-pickers who work at the landfill have lost a month's worth of segregated recyclables.”
Adds Kumar, “More than 170 waste-picker families have suffered a loss of income. One woman waste picker got minor injuries last night while trying to save her segregated waste. The fire was still rampant on Wednesday morning, and families living at the base of the landfill in kachha jhuggies (informal settlements) are at the risk of catching fire. People are scared and are splashing water since Tuesday night to save their homes..”
Workers equipped to deal with landfill fires
Believes Shruti Sinha, manager, Policy and Outreach, Chintan, which won the US Innovation Award by the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the United Nations Climate Solutions Award in 2015, and the FICCI Women Icon Award by the President of India in 2018, “This is climate change and its only going to get worse. And who gets impacted the most? Waste pickers working on the landfill. Children living the informal settlements around the landfill. Women on whom the burden of injury, loss of home and incomes fall.”
She adds, “These are frontline communities. We are experiencing one of the hottest summers in Delhi. When heat and heaps of mixed wastes come together- such a disaster become common. Solution? Segregate waste, compost your wet waste and divert wastes from landfills.”
Sinha further states, “Landfill fires aren’t the only disaster. Parts of landfill also collapse regularly. Chintan survey reports that 56.4% waste pickers have been impacted by such collapses. Do they feel equipped to deal with such disasters? 88.3% of them report that they feel in-equipped to deal with such occurrences. So, segregation is key, and so is disaster management training for at risk workers apart from responsive policy measures that can prevent such disaster from occurring and reducing its impact”.



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