Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The Firefighting of Darjeeling’s waste problem

Toxic fumes and smoke billows from tons of garbage and waste which are on fire at Darjeeling town's solid waste dumping ground or 'chute' in Feb2024. Like most Himalayan towns, Darjeeling simply believes in removing the waste from the town and offloading the untreated waste in a remote area (Photo Credit: Zero Waste Himalaya)

On the night of January 28, 2024, the waste dump of Darjeeling caught fire once again. Yet again, the Darjeeling night skies glowed orange, spreading panic among residents close by. It was not even a year back on June 14 2023, when a similar fire had simmered over 4 months and it had taken the Darjeeling Municipality over 60000 litres of water transported through tankers to douse the fire. The alarming situation created a buzz in the media, provided a bit of opportunity for mud slinging and blame games, but as the fire went out, all conversation around it also died down.
What must have been a remote location during the the days of the British Raj is now Amar Jyoti Gram, Municipal Ward No 17 of Darjeeling town and this is where the town's solid waste continues to be dumped. We visited the site on 01Feb2024 - the fire was still burning, despite being doused with huge quantities of water. (Photo credit - STH)

The dumping site going ablaze undoubtedly draws much needed public attention to the problem but fails to shake the town into solving it. Let's not forget that the smoke from the smouldering dump has been contributing to Darjeeling’s polluted winter air for over a decade now (Darjeeling Burning!). All of the unsegregated waste dumped in the chute has been burning relentlessly, with the fumes enveloping the town in its toxic shroud. Living in such toxic and hazardous situations has somewhat become the norm for Darjeeling every winter, and this is highly concerning.
The chute on fire on 01Feb2024. The decaying organic matter produces flammable gases (mainly methane) which after catching fire continues to burn despite best efforts to extinguish the fire. (Photo credit - STH)

In response, Darjeeling, like so many other places, has quite literally been firefighting to keep the problem at bay. What is needed are longer term vision and strategies grounded on community ownership and individual actions. While waste profiles and demographics have undergone massive shifts over the years, our management systems are struggling to catch up with the changes. With mindless consumerism fueled by social media and the frenzy of online shopping, we are buying unnecessarily, and our waste piles are increasing by the day. Single use products that are non recyclable make up a bulk of the trash from our households that ultimately end up in the dump site mixed with biodegradable waste. (What Lies Beneath! The Truth about Darjeeling’s Waste)
The waste dump lies directly below Darjeeling town and the wind takes the toxic fumes, miasma and smoke directly into the town. Seen here in the foreground are built up areas in the dump site and new houses being built there; in the distance are Singmari and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute complexes. (Photo Credit - STH)

Individually and as bulk generators, our waste footprint has increased dramatically, but our responsibility towards managing our own waste has remained pitifully low. It is a struggle for local bodies to collect the monthly garbage fee to manage the waste we generate. Our houses may be tiled to the ceiling, but the simple practice of waste segregation is still an unthinkable chore for most of us. Segregation at source is the fundamental step to a sustainable waste management system. Without community support and ownership, long term strategic solutions will always remain elusive.
The urban setting around the 'chute' today. (Photo credit - STH)

It is time for all of us to take cognizance of the hazardous conditions we are creating and take concrete steps to resolve it. Zero Waste Himalaya, has developed the 8 steps strategy to move towards sustainable waste management which requires ownership and participation from the community as well as strong commitment and vision from elected bodies. -

1. Build citizen action and stewardship - Waste is everyone's business as all of us are
producers and managers of waste. To have a successful waste management system,
it needs community ownership and stewardship. This can be brought about by
participatory planning processes, ownership of action and continual community
engagement and knowledge building.

2. Adopt decentralised waste management at ward level or ward clusters- Decentralised waste management reduces the volume of waste to be managed, and makes the task of monitoring easier. Material recovery facilities can be developed for waste sorting and storage, with linkage to recyclers. With the goal of reducing landfill load, only ultimate discards should be sent to the landfill.

3.Implement segregation of waste at source - This is already mandated by the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 that stipulates segregating into biodegradable, non-biodegradable and hazardous.

4. No biodegradables to landfill - If segregation is practised, then the biodegradable waste can be managed separately. There are options for home composting, community composting or bulk composting.

5.Target bulk generators - Bulk generators such as hotels, restaurants, hostels, offices, markets generate waste in large volumes. They have to be targeted and their waste managed separately. SWM Rules mandates bulk generators to manage their biodegradable waste and not send it to the landfill. Food, vegetable and meat waste can be managed as animal feed, compost or through biomethanation. 

6. Strengthen and expand single use plastics ban - Increasing plastic production and consumption is the root of the Himalayan waste crisis and reduction of this waste is the real solution. This reduction of plastic can be achieved with the implementation of single use plastic ban that India has enacted since 1 July 2022 but a number of these banned SUP are still used in Darjeeling. For the Himalayan region, there is a need to expand this ban to other single use plastics like bottled water (especially the tiny one) that will enable the reduction of plastic waste to the landfill.

7. Invest in pilots (wards / institutions) - Pilots are a good way to showcase the immense possibilities as well as learn while doing. This can be a tool for others to learn and scale up from.

8. Invest in capacity building of all stakeholders (elected representatives / CBOs / Officials) The changing profile of waste has meant that traditional waste management systems of rolling down the hill and burning proves toxic and there is a need to shift the narrative in policy and practice. Leading by example is one of the most powerful actions thus elected representatives and community gatekeepers can be powerful agents of positive community change. A Zero Waste Learning Center can also be planned in a convenient location which can act as a constant source of learning on waste management for all stakeholders. 


Beyond all this, companies that are sparing no cost to send their plastics up the mountains need to be held accountable for managing it or taking it back. There is a need to close the plastic tap, especially those that are unnecessary, single-use and having no solutions. This is already enshrined in the Extended Producer Responsibility Rules 2022 under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 and this needs to be implemented in the mountain states. (Plastic crisis in the mountains: Will extended producer responsibility bring in change).

Zero Waste Himalaya is a platform of organizations, institutions and individuals working on issues of sustainable waste management and advocating for effective producer responsibility in the mountains. 

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Follows us on FB / Instagram: @zerowastehimalaya

Priya Shrestha
Roshan Rai


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