Delhi, India – On September 1 last year, 16-year-old Vishal Kumar had a parent-teacher meeting at his school in Kalyanvas in east Delhi.
He asked his cousin, 30-year-old Rajkumari, to attend the appointment on his parent’s behalf.
The pair mounted Rajkumari’s scooter in the afternoon, and had travelled two kilometres along the foothills of the Ghazipur landfill – a huge mountain of rubbish – when suddenly part of it crashed into a nearby canal.
The heaps of garbage created a surge of sewage that flung a car, two motorcyclists and Rajkumari’s scooter into another canal filled with contaminated water.
“It was a flood of trash,” says Kumar. “I saw heaps of garbage coming down the hill like a flood and suddenly, we were swept into the canal. For a moment, everything went dark,” he told Al Jazeera.
Kumar was lucky.
A sudden thrust from within the canal pushed him on to the surface and he was rescued by the locals of Mullah Colony, only a few hundred meters away from the infamous landfill site.
He searched for his cousin, but there was no trace of her.
By the time police and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) arrived, two people were dead.
One of them was Rajkumari.
She was the only child of 55-year-old widower Tara Chand and was set to be married on December 7 last year.
Chand, who lives in a two-room house in Khora Colony, had lost his wife to cancer three weeks before his daughter’s death.
“My daughter was everything to me. She was my world,” he told Al Jazeera.
It took rescuers more than an hour to find her body among the rubbish in the canal.
“When I saw my daughter’s body, my whole world was turned upside down. I had wished to see my daughter in a wedding dress and not in a shroud,” Chand said.
Following the disaster, dumping was halted at the Ghazipur landfill, which is spread over 28 hectares, on the direction of Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, Anil Baijal.
But failing to find alternative sites, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation started dumping again within a week, according to residents.
On the first anniversary of the deadly incident, locals marched in remembrance of the victims and to protest against the continued use of the landfill.
The rubbish dump is now 65 metres tall, as high as the towers on London’s Tower Bridge or a city block, and just eight metres shy of Delhi’s Qutub Minar – the world’s tallest minaret made of bricks.
Children fall sick very often here. We want to breathe freely but we can’t. This mountain of trash has made our lives hell.
MUHAMMAD ASLAM, LOCAL TRADER
New Delhi generates as much as 9,500 tonnes of rubbish a day, saturating three main landfill sites – all of which have been at maximum capacity for 10 years.
Ghazipur was set up in 1984. Its height is not meant to surpass 20 meters.
An official at the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media, told Al Jazeera: “The site crossed its proscribed height in 2002 and should have been closed 16 years ago.”
Delhi Municipal Corporation has attempted to stem the crisis and stop dumping, but failed.
Atul Awasthi, a supervisor at Ghazipur landfill, told Al Jazeera that between 2,000 and 2,500 tonnes of rubbish are dumped daily.
Nearby, there is a large dairy farm, a buffalo slaughterhouse, a fish market and several residential areas.
The air is foul and canal water is dark brown, almost black.
Locals say it has made their lives miserable.
“Children fall sick very often here. We want to breathe freely but we can’t. This mountain of trash has made our lives hell,” said trader Muhammad Aslam. “When they burn the trash, it becomes very hard to breathe. Our doors and windows remain always shut.”
Aftab Alam, a 22-year-old social worker, says property prices have dropped by around 50 percent since last year’s deadly incident.
“People from good localities would never want their daughters to be married here,” he said.
The Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken steps to clean up the country with its “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (Clean India Mission), which started in 2014.
The government introduced waste management rules in 2016, which introduced fines for people who do not recycle rubbish.
And in June, Modi announced an ambitious pledge to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022.
But experts say segregating waste in Delhi is a tall order.
“Among the metropolitans, Delhi is probably the biggest waste generator,” said Swati Singh Sambyal, a programme manager at the Center for Science and Environment in Delhi.
“Ideally, if we look at Delhi’s waste, only 10 to 15 percent of the quantum of the waste that is generated should go to the dumping sites but around 70 to 80 percent of the garbage gets disposed at these sites because we are not segregating the waste at source.
“Our approach is collection and dumping or burning, which is not a sustainable and viable solution.”
PK Khandelwal, chief engineer at the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, said however that things are getting better.
He claims that since last September, two alternative sites have been eyed but are yet to be approved and daily dumping has fallen at Ghazipur, with around 1,200 tonnes are processed at a nearby waste-to-energy plant for the generation of electricity.