Story of a flawed urban system

Bhalswa slum beside a landfill is waiting for the government and civic agencies to help them live a life with a cleaner surrounding and safe drinking water, writes Sayantan Ghosh

A narrow lane from the main road reaches the Bhalaswa slum in north Delhi. The lane flooded with stinking drain water had Farida Bibi, a 37-year-old woman standing in front of her burnt house, the remains of which were submerged in the filthy water. Farida touches the broken door of the house letting old memories take over for a while. She comes to visit her old house every day as now she has shifted to the next lane staying in a rented house. Her house was burnt in the fire a year ago on the day of Diwali in due to a short circuit owing to the stagnant water on the floor which soaked inside the electric lines of the house.
This is a story of Bhalswa Diary urban slum. It is a slum with zero drainage system. Bhalaswa Diary is adjacent to the biggest landfill of Delhi under the same name.
Occupation of people:
The life of people in this slum is based on the landfill. Most of the residents are rag pickers working in the landfill. According to media reports, from near ITO and Nizamuddin, Dakshinpuri and Rohini, and eight other prime locations in the Capital, slum dwellers have evicted nearly 12 years ago and dropped off at Bhalswa. They were promised resettlement at a location that would have all modern amenities, but to their dismay, the dispossessed found the promised land was only a myth.
The land on which the Bhalswa Resettlement Colony was propped up stood on a slush-ridden wasteland and precariously bordered a landfill that poisoned the groundwater they would eventually drink with no other option.
The people here are mostly migrants from the villages of neighbouring states and refugees from Bengal. The slum also has a good number of manual scavengers.
Drainage problems
The drainage system in the slum is a major problem. "When we came here the place had some open drains. In monsoon the garbage from the landfill comes to the slum thereafter the drains are all chocked," said Nazma, a member of Bhalswa Lok Shakti Manch (BLSM). The whole place stays submerged under the overflowing drain water throughout the year.
The landfill continued to grow as the city has very less place to dump garbage. During the monsoon, the Bhalswa landfill acts like a sponge, rainwater gets soaked within the garbage dump and releases a highly toxic water which flows to the village and gets stagnant there causing high contamination of the groundwater. "Every year nearly 50-100 people die due to Dengue, Chikungunya and other water-borne diseases," said Nazma.
The members of BLSM have approached the civic agencies and the government but very less has been done. "We have cleared the drains ourselves and also made new drains by hiring machines and people. But, nothing worked properly as we do not know the civic plans and the random attempts worsened the situation," she said.
The residents explained that the non-communication between the Delhi government and the civic agencies have made the situation worse. "Constructing drains come under the corportation but the construction of roads come under the Delhi government. The local counsellor and the MLA are not ready to sit together even after many requests," said Nazma. Both the officials were unavailable for comments.
Problem of drinking water
The contamination of groundwater leads to the crisis of drinking water. The residents said that the water of Delhi Jal Board which is supplied here twice a day is very poor in quality. The tube-wells do not work properly and the water is highly polluted. "The water which we get here is red and yellow in colour. We cannot drink this water, so we use it for domestic purposes," said Keshav Singh, a resident.
Most of the slum dwellers buy packaged drinking water which costs nearly Rs 20 per container. In the winter the crisis of water increases as the DJB water supply becomes irregular. "Water supply has become really bad, as in the evening the Jal Board water does not come regularly. Every year this happens in the winter," said Nazma Begum, adding that water tankers do not come regularly in the winter and come twice a week only after repeated requests to DJB.
While DJB officials refused to comment on the issue, officials of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) said that the problem is more than a year old. A survey conducted in 2012 by Bhalswa Lok Shakti Manch (BLSM), noted the leachate from Bhalaswa landfill was found to be high in concentration of chlorides, as well as DOC, COD.
"The study was undertaken to determine the likely concentrations of principal contaminants in the groundwater over a period of time due to the discharge of such contaminants from landfill leachates to the underlying groundwater. The observed concentration of chlorides in the groundwater within 75m of the radius of landfill facility was found to be in consonance with the simulated concentration of chloride in groundwater considering one-dimensional transport model, with the finite mass of contaminant source," observed the survey. Urgent attention, therefore, needs to be paid to the groundwater supply from this region.
The research also noted that high concentrations of other heavy metals (nickel, copper, zinc) were observed, which is hazardous for health. The major anthropogenic source of iron and other iron-containing alloys in groundwater is steel industry waste, which is dumped in the landfill without prior treatment. The steel industry generally dumps their effluents in nearby landfills that contain high concentrations of iron; over time, the iron seeps into groundwater from landfills with rainwater in monsoon.
The BLM members have submitted all reports to the government and the concerned agencies but they have not received much response.
Delhi government's plans
The AAP-led Delhi government has taken various initiatives on different occasions but not much has happened yet. The Delhi government along with the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Trust (DUSIB) have built up two public toilets at the place but that has not solved the problem of the residence.
According to reports, an RTI query revealed that over Rs 5 crore was sanctioned for this work. The residents have also pitched in, since then, by not dumping waste on the streets. But the paving is a work in progress. Just last year, residents here had to wade through knee-deep water for over a month after levels in surrounding water-bodies swelled during the rains and overran the colony.
However, the Delhi government will finish development of all the unauthorised colonies in the Capital within two years, asserted Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in a program after inaugurating the development works in west Delhi's Mundka area.
"Unauthorised colonies are our priority now. I promise that we will finish development of all these colonies within two years," said Kejriwal.
He added that the government will first make proper roads in every unauthorised colony. "The next time when I visit your colony I will walk through proper roads and this is my promise," he said. The Chief Minister also slammed the erstwhile Congress government, alleging that they have failed to give proper facilities to slum-dwellers.
Meanwhile, the officials of DUSIB said that the government has plans to start work in the area soon and they have categorised the development works in phase basis. The first phase of works in the targeted slums have already started and the others will also start soon, said the officials.
Amid the blames and counter blames, promises and the reality, Farida Bibi still hopes that she will build up her house and the roads flooded with the stinking waters will be repaired. The slum beside the landfill is waiting for the government and civic agencies to help them live a life with a cleaner surrounding and safe drinking water.
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