08/26/2022, 11.13
INDIAN MANDALA
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Indian waste dumps pollute as much as heavy traffic

by Alessandra De Poli

Some as tall as 15-storey buildings, they are powerful sources of methane, which heats the air 84 times more than carbon dioxide. The Modi government has launched a campaign to clean up at least 600 of them in several cities by 2026. Need to re-evaluate the work of India's Safai Saathis, the informal waste collectors, who almost always belong to the lowest castes.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Garbage dumps in South Asia are potent sources of methane, a gas that in the first 20 years of its release into the atmosphere has an 84-fold warming capacity compared to carbon dioxide. According to some studies, almost a quarter of global emissions come from India.

On 22 March, the Ghazipur landfill on the outskirts of Delhi emitted about 2.17 tonnes of methane per hour, an impact that if maintained for a year would correspond to the annual emissions of 350,000 American cars.

The 15 story tall landfill in Ghazipur is one of the largest and most dangerous in the world, because of the ease with which fires break out and through which diseases such as tuberculosis can be spread: according to some witnesses, the population around the landfill is no more than 50 years old.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has launched the 'Clean India' campaign, which plans to clean up at least 600 landfills in several cities by 2026. India generates 62 million tonnes of waste per year, half of which is collected in landfills. According to predictions of rapid urbanisation and population growth, the country could generate 165 million tonnes of waste by 2030.

Under current rules, Indian households are required to separate biodegradable waste from dry waste and hazardous household waste. However, in the absence of controls, the latter often end up in landfills along with most organic waste.

With an annual growth rate of 7%, the waste collection economy is expected to be worth around billion by 2025. In 2017, India for the first time required municipalities and local authorities to include informal waste pickers (called Safai Saathis) in the waste management process. These are at least 4 million people who sort and sort recyclable waste in landfills, which they then sell to recycling companies. Ninety per cent are women forced into this work due to lack of alternatives, but children, migrants and members of the lower castes also engage in this activity.

Thanks to this informal chain, India has one of the best recycling rates in the world: for example, 70% of plastic bottles are recycled compared to 31% in the United States. However, these 'scavengers' are not only deprived of any kind of social protection, but are also harassed and accused by the police of theft when they are stopped with bags full of rubbish. Many suffer from chronic illnesses such as coughs and musculoskeletal malformations due to the heavy loads they are forced to carry. Yet their work has a very high economic and environmental value.

However, the road to formalising their work is still a long one, and the construction of waste-to-energy plants, for example, although it could help India reduce emissions, would deprive these workers of their only source of income. According to a recent survey based on a sample of 9,000 Safai Saathis from 14 Indian cities, only 20 per cent had a bank account linked to the Jan Dhan Yojana, the government's financial inclusion programme, while half of the respondents said they owned and used a ration card. The first step to include Indian street sweepers in the government's welfare system would be to issue identity cards certifying that they are municipal workers who must then be guaranteed a minimum wage.

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