Driving along the Surajkund highway, you can see the dark mounds of the Aravalli mountains, the oldest range of fold mountains in India. Despite centuries of careless plunder, the mountains and their forests remain an ecological treasure trove. However, one of the peaks in the line of sight is not an ancient mountain, but a landfill site that locals say is slowly but steadily killing those who live in the area.
Welcome to Bandhwari, a village 15 kilometres outside Gurugram in Haryana and home to nearly 5,000 inhabitants. In 2009, the municipal corporation of Gurugram identified a site just outside Bandhwari that would be used for waste disposal. It was set up on an abandoned mining pit that was close to one of the last remaining patches of forest native to the Aravallis.
Today, the Bandhwari landfill is spread over 30 acres and stands 40 metres tall. (That makes the landfill bigger than the 38-foot tall statue of Christ the Redeemer that towers over Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.) The landfill site receives 2,000 metric tonnes of fresh waste from Gurugram and Faridabad daily. For residents of Bandhwari, this means contaminated water, widespread disease and no help from the administration despite the MCG assuring the National Green Tribunal that it would stop dumping fresh waste at Bandhwari as part of an “action plan”.
The Bandhwari landfill in Gurugram.
From natural to contaminated
Bandhwari is not a poor village. It has a government school, a cricket academy, and a highway connecting it to the national capital region. Most houses are duplexes, painted with technicolour portraits of Hindu gods and freedom fighters.
Initially, the landfill – or khatta, as locals call it – ensured two square meals for many in the village so no one minded it. For Harish Rawat, 44, it meant good business because two trucks from his truck stand were being regularly hired by the waste treatment plant at the site, which stopped functioning in 2013 after a massive fire.
Today, the khatta is a toxic curse for Rawat, whose home is in the neighbourhood closest to the landfill.
“In the last few years, during summer and monsoon, it is difficult to even sit outside our homes. If the wind blows from the dumpsite to the village, one can’t even breathe,” Rawat said. Growing up in Bandhwari, Rawat remembers living in the lap of nature. “The sound of birds could be heard in the mornings and evenings. There were gursal (myna), daudhakoko (hawk-cuckoo), even peacocks,” he said. “But all that is missing now.”
Of the 30 acres being used as a landfill, 14.86 acres was land that was under the Forest Conservation Act.
Satpal, 52, told Newslaundry, “Since the dumpsite became operational, there are a lot of flies and mosquitoes in the village. They carry diseases. On days when there is no electricity and fans don’t work, we sleep in hell.”
Rawat said the waste has also contaminated the water in the area. “From the dumpsite, it seeps in valleys and abandoned mines and contaminates the groundwater. We can’t even bathe in the water that comes from the village borewells,” he said.
Harish Rawat lives in the part of Bandhwari closest to the dumpsite.
Satpal believes that the abundance of mosquitoes has increased illnesses in Bandhwari.
A landfill and its leachate
Over the last eight years, the Bandhwari landfill has collected more than 27 lakh tonnes of waste. It’s run by Eco Green, a private company, along with MCG.
As the air and water around them became increasingly polluted, the villagers tried to get their concerns addressed by various authorities.
In 2018, residents of Bandhwari and nearby villages met chief minister of Haryana Manohar Lal Khattar to discuss the landfill’s adverse effects on the region. Manoj Bandhwari, a local politician with the Jannayak Janta Party (part of the state’s governing coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party), was part of the delegation. He told Newslaundry that Khattar had agreed to relocate the landfill, but politics among the locals made it difficult.
“To compensate for the landfill, the chief minister offered to build a road to the village and waive electricity bills,” claimed Manoj Bandhwari. “Some local politicians readily agreed. This might have led the government to believe that the village was not serious about shifting the dumpsite. Now we have a road, free electricity, but the landfill issue is on the backburner,” he admitted.
However, residents of Bandhwari told Newslaundry they were yet to see any benefits from having approached the chief minister. For instance, Rawat said he and many others had not been granted the waiver on electricity bills. Manoj Bandhwari attributed this to a “software error” in the electricity department’s system that has allegedly been fixed since.
For Rawat, the electricity bill is not a priority. “The government has made us drift away from nature and unleashed diseases upon us,” he rued.
In 2020, a study by the Central Pollution Control Board, or CPCB, noted the toll the dumpsite took on the local environment. In addition to “aesthetic loss”, it found pollution in air, water and soil around the landfill. The study was ordered by NGT in 2019 while hearing a case filed by environmentalist Vivek Kamboj in which Kamboj alleged groundwater in the area was being contaminated by the garbage dumped at the Bandhwari landfill. The study was to assess the “damage” caused “in monetary terms and the cost of restoration”.
CPCB’s report referred to “leachate” – water that percolates through solid waste, absorbing its contents – that seeped through the ground and caused “high levels of contamination”. Specifically, it found copper, lead, nickel and chromium in the water samples collected within five kilometres of the dumpsite, adding that the contaminated water could lead to “health-related issues”.
“The contaminated water poses high risk to human well-being, aquatic lives, and other related ecosystems,” noted the study.
A report prepared by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute for CPCB estimated environmental damages to the tune of Rs 148 crore inflicted by the landfill site since its inception.
Following the 2020 study, the CPCB drew up a three-step process by which the MCG could stabilise the old and fresh waste; screen and segregate it; and dispose of it elsewhere. In March of the same year, the MCG told the NGT it would stop dumping fresh waste at Bandhwari as part of an “action plan”. As for the old waste, it would install 18 trommels – screening machines that help segregate waste – to treat nearly 18 lakh metric tonnes of waste at the site.
The results were dismal. Six months later, in September 2020, the pollution board informed the tribunal that fresh waste – 2,000 tonnes of it – was still dumped at the site every day. Just eight trommels were haphazardly operational and only 0.85 lakh tonnes of the old waste – less than one percent of the set target – had been treated.
The NGT said CPCB’s observations “show that the information given by the [municipal] corporation is not based on ground reality.”
Living with a landfill
For Bandhwari, the MCG’s failure to manage waste means villagers have to walk to one corner of the village to buy drinking water. The village chief has installed two small filtration plants and set the price of a 20 litre bottle between Rs 5 and Rs 20.
Manjeet, 28, is one of those who treks for water every day. “I could do with ordinary water earlier. But I have a two-month-old baby now, and since my wife became pregnant, we only use the filtered water. I spend Rs 300 every month on it,” he said. “The water from normal supply is not drinkable. It smells of the dumpsite.”
The water filtration plant in Bandhwari.
Harpal Harsana, 60, who runs the village’s filtration plant, said the water quality started deteriorating two years ago. “It was so pure when I was growing up. When our relatives would visit during monsoon, they wouldn’t want to leave,” he recalled. “Today, closer to the landfill, you can’t even use the water from the borewells. We’ve protested often, but to no avail.”
Another sinister development is the increasing incidence of cancer in the area. “More than 30 people have died of cancer in Bandhwari in the last two years,” Harsana rued. “But we do not talk about it because it will bring a bad name to the village. If word gets out, who will marry our children and settle here?”
Harpal Hasrana outside his house in Bandhwari.
A health worker at the village’s Ayushman Bharat centre also said she’s seen more cases of cancer in recent times. “I know at least two people in the village who have cancer,” she said, requesting anonymity. “One in his chest and the other in his mouth. Skin diseases have become quite common too,” she said, adding that the landfill was the likely cause.
In 2018, Hindustan Times that at least 13 people succumbed to cancer-related ailments in Bandhwari between October 2017 and June 2018. The number goes up to 21 if the three nearby villages of Mangar, Dera and Gwal Pahari were included. The paper touched upon a dumpsite connection: “Locals estimate that there have been at least 100 cancer-related deaths in the region since 2013, after a fire mishap left the waste management plant at the Bandhwari landfill defunct.”
Mangar is five kilometres away from Bandhwari and falls in Faridabad district. Environment activist Sunil Harsana, who is a local, believes an official study of the cancer deaths is hampered by the location of the Aravalli villages, which come under different local administrations despite belonging to the same geographical region. “Some are in Delhi, few in Gurugram and others in Faridabad. About 15 people have died of cancer here in the last 10 years,” he alleged. “No one died of such problems before. The correct figures will be available only when the health departments of the three administrations conduct an investigation.”
A change.org by the Aravali Bachao Citizen Group quotes Tejpal Harsana, a Bandhwari local: “Ever since Bandhwari landfill has come near our village, many residents have been getting cancer, heart problems and breathing ailments. About 60 people have died of cancer.”
The campaign has nearly 34,000 signatures.
A state of denial
On April 7, 2021, the NGT had said, "The Tribunal has been monitoring the remedial action by the Municipal Corporation, Gurgaon in the last more than five years and has repeatedly found failure of the authorities in performing their basic responsibility, to effectuate the right of the citizens to clean the environment.” It further asked the state “to take ownership of its basic responsibility in the interest of rule of law, protection of environment and public health”.
However, according to the MCG and Eco Green, there is no cause for concern.
Speaking to Newslaundry on condition of anonymity, a municipal officer said, “No evidence has come to fore so far that the water in the surrounding villages has been damaged due to the dumpsite. So you can’t argue that locals are falling ill or dying because of it. We work carefully here. The leachate is recycled and put in the trees and plants outside the roads.”
When asked about the pervasive stench that comes from the landfill, the officer said, "If garbage accumulates here, it will stink. This cannot be denied. Once you come to the site and see our work, then you will know how hard we are working.”
In addition to ignoring the complaints of the villagers, this adamant denial suggests a worrying disinclination to work towards improving the terrible living conditions in Bandhwari.
During the NGT hearing, chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel had warned that if the tribunal’s orders were not followed, “strict steps will be taken and even the salaries of the corporation officers can be withheld".
Perhaps the threat of salaries being suspended will eventually open the eyes of municipal officers to the plight of breathing foul air, spending hundreds of rupees for uncontaminated water and living in fear of disease.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Rajdeep Adhikari, Shubham Kesharwani, Kunju Nayak, Abhimanyu Sinha, Himanshu Badhani, Masood Hasan Khan, Tanmay Sharma, Puneet Vishnawat, Sandeep Roy, Bharadwaj, Sai Krishna, Ayesha Siddiqua, Varuna JC, Anubhuti Varshney, Loveen Vuppala, Srinivas Rekapally, Avinash Maurya, Pavan Nishad, Abhishek Kumar, Somsubhro Chaudhuri, Sourav Agrawal, Animesh Chaudhary, Jim J, Mayank Baranda, Pallavi Das, Mayuri Walke, Saina Kathawala, Asim, Deepak Tiwari, Mohsin Jabir, Abhijeet More, Nirupam Singh, Prabhat Upadhyaya, Umesh Chander, Somasekhara Sarma, Pranav Satyam, Hitesh Vekariya, Savio Varghese, Asutosh Mourya, Nimish Dutt, Reshma Roshan, Satakarni, and other NL Sena members.
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