Few Indians realise how much of their trash they breathe back into their lungs and blood. In both urban and rural India, household, industrial, construction and demolition and electronic waste, all contribute to air pollution. Larger cities, under pressure from increasingly informed citizens and the Swachh Bharat Mission, have largely ceased to burn waste locally. But most of urban India continues to send it to fenced dumps, even landfills, where a vicious cycle unfolds. Wet waste emits methane, which self-combusts and sets into motion fires that spread, burning plastics and paper. Researchers warn of the pollutants. A Delhi study by CSIR-National Physical Laboratory Campus, by Dr Agarwal et al, underscores the chemical toxicity of emissions from burning landfills in Delhi. Another study by the Sardar Patel University, by Dr Dave et al, showed high levels of volatile organic compounds, VOCs, emitted from another landfill. VOCs cause acute respiratory distress, accumulating in the body with long-term consequences.
In a 2016 survey, Chintan estimated that from November to February, Delhi, frequently listed as the world’s most polluted city, experienced about 30,000 daily fires. Most were lit by security guards to keep warm. This is the norm across North India, with crushingly cold winters and low regulatory oversight. In various studies across western Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, we found burning waste the standard practice for disposing of waste from small-scale industrial operations—both in manufacturing and refurbishing. In rural India, burning is a standard way to get rid of waste that is not tipped off mountainsides or into rivers.