[Les coulisses de nos reportages] Nightmare at New Delhi Garbage Mountain

For this series, The duty takes you behind the scenes of major reporting by its reporters in 2022. In the Indian capital, around its landfill are slums where those Indians call waste pickers live. Powerless in the face of the failure of the management of the country’s waste, Sandrine Vieira gave them the floor, to better understand the extent of the disaster.

Barely two days after the Quebec elections, in October, I flew to India for my first journalistic mission abroad. The country on the way to becoming the most populous in the world seemed to me the perfect place for reporting on environmental issues. In fact, I was confronted with the ecological disaster as soon as I arrived in New Delhi, the capital of 32 million inhabitants.

Here, it is almost impossible to arrive on time for appointments. The streets are chaotic and constantly congested with traffic. In the rickshaws, commonly called « tuk-tuk », wearing a mask is imperative to protect yourself from air pollution. Despite the precautions, I developed a cough within a few days.

Outside, waste is omnipresent: it lies everywhere in the streets, in the rivers and even in large “green” spaces. It is not uncommon to see Indians throwing their packaging on the ground or to surprise cows chewing plastic bottles in alleys.

I share these observations with experts during my first interviews. They suggest I go see the Ghazipur landfill, in the suburbs of New Delhi. This 65-meter tall mountain of rubbish is the perfect example of the Indian capital’s failure to manage its waste, they say.

The landfill was opened in 1984 and reached saturation point in 2002, the year it was to close. But in the absence of an effective waste management system and a shortage of land for new landfills, the mountain of waste continued to grow and take on monstrous proportions. Today, it is almost the height of the famous Taj Mahal.

I go there with Adil Boukind, photographer of the Homework, and our fixer Manoj. The latter had warned us that it would not be possible to go to the summit, since special access from the government was necessary. But you don’t need to climb the mountain to grasp the extent of the disaster, he said. He was right.

One rickshaw leads us there. Smells take us by the throat long before we reach our destination. We quickly put on our masks to try to hide the putrid smell that invades the place. Already sick since the start of the trip, I have to breathe through my mouth to avoid nausea.

The silhouette of the landfill stands out for miles around. In the distance, the mountain seems to be made of earth, but once at the foot, we understand, despite ourselves, that it is indeed a giant dump. Dozens of cranes and trucks circulate there to deposit new waste. These vehicles seem tiny compared to its vastness.

“It feels like a post-apocalyptic film,” said Adil, once on the scene. The smell is nauseating. Hundreds of raptors hover in a circle above the mountain. Flies blur our fields of vision. All the animals here are visibly sick, if not already dead.

Around the landfill are small shantytowns where live what the Indians call the ragpickers, waste pickers who climb the mountain every day in the hope of finding salvageable materials. They then resell them for a few dollars to recycling plants.

Tons of waste sent to landfill are not sorted. The mountain is therefore made of garbage of all kinds of materials, such as plastic and cardboard, but also metal and glass. The dangerous and unsanitary conditions, however, do not stop waste pickers from venturing there, as it is their only source of income.

We meet Shanoosh and Azizul, two ragpickers in their thirties residing in a slum at the foot of the dump. « What can I do about it? » This mountain is the only way to support my family”, says Shanoosh, from the first exchanges. I try to fight the gagging to pay attention to what she tells me. A swarm of children stand by his side.

The Indian government claims that the mountain will be “cleansed” by December 2024, but no one believes it, an expert tells me. With a population of 1.3 billion, India generates 62 million tonnes of waste every year. The challenge is colossal.

I regularly think of this difficult passage in Ghazipur, which not only made me aware of the problem of waste, but also confronted with the extreme inequalities between social classes in India. Despite a great feeling of helplessness, I left the mountain promising myself to tell the story of those who are not lucky enough to escape it.

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