June 13, 2015
Yesterday was our first full day in Delhi. We checked some sights and to-do’s off our list: exploring Humayun’s Tomb, wandering through the old bazaar into the Red Fort, getting barked off buy a dog in the Majnu ka Tilla Tibetan colony, smoking biris. It was hot, of course, and we returned as tired tourists.
Today we decided check out a different sector of this buzzing human hive. The Ghazipur landfill is one of Delhi’s three sites for waste collection, and we thought it would provide a thought-provoking contrast to the more manicured Hauz Khas area where we were staying. I had read a little about Delhi’s Himalayas, the truly looming environmental health crisis posed by unfettered dumping, and the rocky but hopeful road to sustainability. I don’t know if it was morbid curiosity, boredom with Lonely Planet’s suggestions, or some warped sense of obligation as a consumer of things “Made in India,” but I felt the need to see it for myself.
We took the yellow line north to Rajiv Chowk, transferred to the east-bound blue line and stood in the clean, delightfully air-conditioned subway car until we reached Anand Vitar-SBT. From there we asked an auto-rickshaw driver to take us to Ghazipur. We drew the outline of a big mountain in the air with our index-fingers. He took us to the mall. We asked people who responded in one-word English, then averaged the direction of hands waved, picked a direction and started walking.
The road was big and busy. We poked our way around cows, carts, people and puddles of what I choose to believe was just muddy water. Someone had said the landfill wasn’t far, but the horizon remained grey and unmountained as we walked. Then it darkened, the wind picked up and the dust pushed us to find cover in the shop of some mechanics, who smiled as we introduced ourselves in a foreigner’s language. The storm didn’t immediately subside, so we soon found ourselves pointing at things, saying their English descriptor and hyper-gesturing for them to tell us the Hindi translation. It started to rain.
We had learned the word for Sit from a young man we had met yesterday after he asked to take a selfie with him on his smartphone. We used it now – Berna? Yes yes, here, they motioned, bringing us under a real roof with a bench and a table. Now point, Cow. Hindi? Gai. Now point, Door. Hindi? Darbaza. Now point, T-Shirt. Hindi? Banyan. By the time we said goodbye, we could say Walk – Dotna. See – Degna. Big – Bari. Trash – Pindi. I may have written them down wrong, but we were just about fluent.
The rain didn’t stop, but lightened, and it was warm, so we didn’t mind walking. In the distance came a highway, and behind that, a gray plateau. The landfill was on the far side of the freeway, so we crossed and wandered down a dirt road and past a construction site. The inhabitants of the slum community at bottom of the bluff, who make their living sorting through the waste for recyclables, watched us as we shuffled up to the wall of carbon.
We didn’t climb it, or do much at all. We left shortly, feeling like we had wandered into someone else’s home and turned it into an expose.
And that is an accurate description of what I’m doing now. I don’t have much more to say about our field day, partially because I don’t know that much about Ghazipur’s past, present or future. I did read that the construction site we walked through is a future waste recycling plant. When operational, the plant will begin to turn Delhi’s waste into energy. While there is an obvious need to curb the urban refuse problem, the plant’s construction has generated controversy, as it will push Ghazipur’s human recyclers out of a job. Fortunately Delhi has some dedicated community organizers who are preparing the slum community for the transition to a more sustainable future by retraining residents for vocational and artisanal jobs.
There’s not really much culmination to this story. I fulfilled my odd fantasy to put Delhi’s urban development in some sort of perspective, and left confident that there’s a lot of trash out there. I’m sure other cities around the world are dealing with similar problems posed by population growth, rapid industrialization, mushrooming consumption of goods and related production of waste. As we rise to the challenge of treating the side-effects of our modern economy, may we be careful not to cut out those communities that have grown to rely on them.