Irresponsible waste dumping and careless incineration in Darjeeling is posing a serious risk to health, and the fact that it is happening in a designated biodiversity hotspot is appalling and totally unacceptable.
Bengal’s prime and prized tourist destination, and its highest revenue-earner in this sector, is fast losing its sheen. Pockmarked with overflowing garbage whose malodour envelops the city, Darjeeling’s innards are rotting. The city, founded as a sanatorium by the British in 1835, has grown by leaps and bounds in a totally unplanned manner since 1947 and has, thus, become a civic mess. Darjeeling was placed at an embarrassingly low 451 in a list of 471 Indian cities ranked in order of cleanliness in the Swachh Survekshan 2018.
Darjeeling’s estimated 1.35 lakh people live in mostly concrete, box-like structures that are eyesores, erected cheek by jowl in a 10.6 square kilometre area straddling two ridges. From afar, the city looks like an unruly collection of uneven building blocks packed together as in a can of sardines, and presents a stark contrast to the breathtakingly beautiful snow-peaked Kanchendzonga range in the background. The hill station, which once proudly sported the ‘queen of hill stations’ tag, was built for just a fifth of its current population and, after the British departed from India’s shores, none of their successors thought it fit to add to Darjeeling’s infrastructure.
Add to the 1.35 lakh permanent residents of the dirty hill station, seven lakh tourists (each spends an average of two days in the city) who visit Darjeeling annually, and one can well imagine the magnitude of the civic disaster. The most visible manifestation of this disaster is the garbage that litters the entire city and chokes its drains as well as natural streams. Darjeeling, which derives its name from the Tibetan word ‘dorjee’ meaning thunderbolt or the scepter of Indra and ‘ling’ meaning land, generates about 35 tonnes of garbage daily on an average. During the peak tourist season, the figure crosses 50 tonnes. Almost all of it is organic and inorganic waste from households, hotels and restaurants. What’s more, the government and private hospitals also dump their hazardous bio-medical waste in the open.
There is barely any segregation of waste at the source. According to many studies carried out by NGOs working in this area, all the garbage is dumped in open vats, and in the absence of vats, on roadsides, drains, ditches and streams. Even the solid waste dumped in the vats don’t get collected and taken away by municipal workers regularly. According to many surveys, just about 50 per cent of this garbage is actually collected, and that too irregularly, by the civic workers. The Darjeeling Municipality, one of the oldest civic bodies in the country (set up in 1850, it predates even the Mumbai Municipal Corporation), has a barely functional door-to-door garbage collection system that, anyway, partially covers just 15 of the city’s 32 wards. “The civic workers are an extremely lethargic lot and with no supervision by the civic authorities, shirk their duties. As a result, garbage gets collected from the doorsteps barely every alternate day and sometimes even once in three to four days. During the monsoons or at the height of winters, they don’t collect the garbage even for a week at a stretch. We are thus forced to dump waste at the garbage vats,” said Sonam Gurung, an activist who is associated with ‘Save Darjeeling’, an environmental NGO.
The rotting piles of garbage not only emit an overpowering stench that hangs heavy over the hill station, but also pose serious health hazards. “These piles of garbage are breeding grounds for diseases and mosquitoes. There were no mosquitoes in Darjeeling till a few years ago, but now insects (including mosquitoes and flies) are a menace and we even have cases of malaria being reported from Darjeeling!” said Gurung. At greatest risk are the ragpickers - there are an estimated 200 of them in the city and many are young children below the age of 1-0 - who sift through the solid waste lying by the roadside and in vats. According to this study carried out a few years ago, ragpickers were found to be suffering from skin diseases, gastrointestinal ailments, tuberculosis, skin diseases, ulcers and eye ailments.
Many houses, hotels and other commercial establishments in the hill station do not have septic tanks for collecting sewage, which flows into the drains of the city and, ultimately, into the streams and rivers at the lower elevations. “This is a severe problem that poses a serious health hazard, especially to poor families living in slums beside the open drains. Regular outbreaks of diarrhoea, dysentery and other diseases have been reported among this population,” said Gehendra Pradhan, a physician attached to a private hospital in the city. The sewage also contaminates groundwater and ultimately pollutes the streams and rivers, putting many villages that depend on these water sources at severe health risks. “This is why gastroenteric diseases are so common in the hills. Most of the water sources are contaminated by waste and sewage. Dysentery and diarrhoea are very common, especially in villages that depend on streams and rivers. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the population of the (Darjeeling) hills suffer from severe attacks of gastroenteric diseases at least thrice a year,” said physician Pradhan.
The solid waste that is collected by the Darjeeling Municipality is taken away in open trucks and minivans, and simply dumped on a hillside in the outskirts of Darjeeling. “This open and unscientific dumping of waste, including hazardous biomedical waste, has caused severe environmental degradation. Not only is waste not segregated, it is not even processed. The dumping of Darjeeling’s waste on the hillside has caused severe pollution, and studies have shown that it has led to contamination of groundwater and nearby water sources by toxins seeping out of the waste dumping site. The runoff from this site is highly toxic and poisonous and had polluted water sources. The waste in this dumping site, as also the waste that lies for days at a stretch in various parts of Darjeeling without being collected, undergoes various anaerobic reactions to produce harmful greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that are causing tremendous damage to the fragile ecology of this region,” said Subhas Chettri, an environmentalist. The dumping site is very close to a slum cluster inhabited by poor people who have been suffering from the adverse fallouts of the open and unscientific dumping of waste.
The Darjeeling Municipality not only dumps all the waste collected from the city at the dumping site in its outskirts, but also burns the waste openly. The toxic smoke and carcinogenic gases also pose a severe health hazard to the people. A survey carried out in 2010 revealed that 46 per cent of the people living within a 2-km radius of the dumping yard suffer from respiratory diseases. Recent studies show that the incidence of cancer among the residents of Darjeeling has registered a marked increase and physicians feel that the hill station’s highly polluted environment is a highly probable reason.
“This (the dumping of waste and its careless incineration) is totally unacceptable and the fact that this is happening in a designated biodiversity hotspot is appalling. The civic authorities seem to have no idea of how to process and dispose waste. There is also a complete lack of civic awareness among the people of the hills and, unfortunately, the state government and the civic authorities have done nothing to create this awareness. The need to segregate waste, recycle, and dispose the remaining in a scientific manner so that no damage is caused to the environment is urgent and immediate. In Darjeeling, the civic authorities have to be educated on all this first and their shocking lack of awareness on this vital issue is causing immense and irreversible harm to Darjeeling’s environment and its people,” said environmentalist Sunita Lama.
- Reduce use of plastics and non-biodegradable materials
- Recycle and reuse
- Mandatory segregation of waste at source
- Involve private sector in collection and recycling waste, encourage community composting of waste
- Reward households and establishments for recycling waste
- Make construction of septic tanks mandatory, ban disposal of sewage into drains
- Improve and expand the city’s drainage network
- Penalise dumping of waste on roadsides
- Bring entire city under door-to-door garbage collection
- Improve efficiency of waste collection
- Stop open dumping of collected waste