Living on a Landfill in Varanasi

Saraiyya basti has been doubling up as a garbage dumping ground for the last ten years.

Swachch Bharat ka iraada, iraada kar liya humne.

It’s a catchy tune, almost as catchy as the deadline set for a clean rural India: December 2018. This date has been pushed ahead by a year already, and if the Saraiyya basti in Varanasi is any indicator, the Swachh Bharat Mission’s rural chapter’s deadline will probably move to 2019. Except that’s election year.

Located on the banks of the Varuna river, a tributary of the Ganga, is Saraiyya basti, a colony of predominantly Muslim inhabitants that could also pass as a landfill quite easily. This neighbourhood, with an estimated population of about 10,000, has been doubling up as a dumping ground for the last ten years, and the municipal bodies have even termed it as such.

Mumtaz Ahmed, a local shopkeeper, tells us of the trucks that line up day after day, dumping giant garbage heaps right outside their homes. As a result, serious epidemics and outbreaks – from cholera to respiratory problems and skin rashes – have become a way of life here.

Mohammad Asif, a nine-year-old boy from the basti, points to his face and makes this link almost matter-of-factly “This is because of the kooda (trash) around. It itches as well.” Ahmed recounts the measures that the basti dwellers have employed over the years as forms of protest, “Oh, there have been chakka jams here so many times! But it has all fallen on deaf ears as the authorities have never lifted even a finger to do anything about the situation.” The chakka jams came after two straight years of petitions. Ahmed adds, “They tell us this is government land, and that we don’t own this space. So they can do as they please. If it means using it as a garbage dump, so be it. Of course, the government just owns all the property, right?”

As per official protocol, households settled around landfills are meant to be be rehabilitated to safer localities. But in Saraiyya basti, government intervention in the matter has been slim to negligent. Rajkumar, a local paan seller, speaks of a few officials who have visited the basti over the past two or three years, saying, “They come and do their examinations, and leave. We hear nothing of what is decided.”

Haji Okaad Ansari, a local councillor, says, “The government speaks of ‘Clean Ganga’, but look at the reality. All the garbage is being thrown right at the banks of the Ganga and the Varuna.” Ansari talks about what’s behind the diseases, “The gases emanating from the heaps of garbage are toxic and they have gradually settled into the atmosphere here. So basically, we are breathing this poisonous air. Secondly, there has been a direct rise in the population and breeding of mosquitoes in this area – it has affected not just Saraiyya, but the adjoining areas such as Madaiyya and Jalalipura, among others. So malaria and dengue have become so common here – you’ll find a patient suffering from one of these diseases in almost every household.”

As the locally-elected representative, Ansari says he’s doing his best. He has a long list of grievances relating to the garbage-dumping problem and is currently prioritising them. Since the monsoons are nearing, he wants pesticide to be sprayed to deal with what he terms “machharon ka prakop (mosquito outbreak)”. But he is not hopeful, “They’ve told me that when the number for Ward 90 comes up, then they will send in the machines.”

When we ask additional commissioner Motilal Singh about the status, he tells us that the waiting time period is on, “When the time comes for a routine check, it will be done. And then, if something amiss is noted, it will be checked.”

Meanwhile, just as the Varuna flows along, the Saraiyya basti continues to live amidst dirt and disease.

“People are slowly dying,” says Ansari. What else is there to take note of?