Despite National Green Tribunal ban on burning of waste in open places, Kashmir continues to grapple with the pungent air emanating from streets. The smoke in presence of the snubbed sweepers often leaves people gasping for breath.
As morning dawns upon the Bemina locality of Srinagar and envelopes all and sundry into its emollient rays, many households fortify themselves as a matter of routine.
They shut the morning breeze out by closing their windowpanes.
This daylight routine makes many wonder about the unwelcoming gesture towards the fresh and rejuvenating morning air, especially now that summer has retreated and autumn is strengthening its foothold to eventually embrace the winter when the doors and windows are shut anyways given its chilling temperatures.
“It’s not refreshing but suffocating,” Alaya, who lives on rent in the area, explains her stance of shutting the morning air out.
“With the daybreak, the air around is filled with smoke as a result of garbage burning. Sometimes, it’s not our alarms, but the smoke coming in from windows that wake us up.”
Alaya had even tried to shift somewhere else as she has allergic rhinitis and the smoke, as she explains, is “slow poisoning” her.
But her south Kashmir-based parents are reluctant, as they painstakingly found that abode for her after her admission in a reputed city college. She shares the place with her septuagenarian landlady who feels equally bad about the smoke continuing all day long, giving her frequent spells of cough which in her age is quite difficult to deal with.
The question that remains to be a mystery, however, is to ascertain who’s behind all this happening in the area.
“Sometimes it’s the municipality staff, the sweepers, at other times it’s the slum-dwellers [referring to non-local refugees], yet other times it seems that perhaps the djinns [referring to supernatural beings] are doing it as nobody takes the blame,” Bashir Khan, a retired government employee living in Bemina for last two decades, voices his plight of having tried to figure out as to who burns the garbage.
“How can we keep a watch on each of them? The smoke lets us know that something has been burnt around, and will the culprit ask us before lighting a fire?”
Khan lowers his tone to reveal, “What if I tell you some of my neighbours also do it?”
But for the sake of his ‘baradari’, he refuses to name and shame them, but wishes that sanity should prevail.
The case of solid waste burning is not restricted to Bemina only but also abounds in areas like Lal Bazar, Batamaloo, Hyderpora, Khanyar, Bohri Kadal, Sekidafar, Eidgah, and Soura, only to mention a few. It actually goes on in many other municipal areas of the capital city.
Not so long ago, a case of grass-burning in one of the parks of the Bemina area resulted in rigorous complaints by the irked locals.
The park had been cleared of the long wild grasses which were subsequently burnt and the smoke, as the complainants say, had blackened the sky above them.
In response to their numerous complaints, the Chief Sanitation Officer, Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), Nazir Baba directed his staff to keep a vigil on the perpetrators and make sure that such a thing does not recur.
Actions were also taken against the on-field officers for showing laxity in the performance of their duties. But to no avail.
While the residents complain of garbage burning day in and day out, the SMC officials have ruled out the involvement of any of their sweeping staff in the matter of solid waste burning citing the fact that their Sanitation Department makes sure to fetch the waste materials from the households at alternate days, hence leaving no room for garbage to pile up on roadsides and empty plots.
In the above-mentioned case of grass burning, the Chief Sanitation Officer had even vouched the people to punish the perpetrators once identified but the latter, many say, are so elusive that none has been able to identify them or even if they’re identified, none has the audacity to name them because of several reasons.
While the people blame the SMC officials for leaving the entire job of identifying the culprits to them, the officials on the other hand cite their own reasons of their limited duty hours post which they can’t exercise their jurisdictions.
The hierarchical setup puts the lowest in the rung in trouble. The sweepers speak of their own pathos amid the plight of the residents.
Sporting bandana, a young masked sweeper, Yasir narrates the predicament of his precarious livelihood.
Hailing from a village in Pattan area of district Baramulla and having aged parents, a wife and a toddler back home, Yasir speaks of his appointment in the SMC as a sweeper under the Sanitation Club, started back in 2011 by the then Commissioner of SMC Sheikh Mushtaq, with the aim of providing employment opportunity to people like him.
The salary of 600 employees appointed under Sanitation Club was supposed to be settled from the sanitation fee collected from the households. Yasir reveals that the initial salary of sweepers has since jumped from Rs 2100 to Rs 6500.
“It’s very difficult to cope up and manage with such a meagre salary given the kind of inflation we are facing,” straight-faced Yasir says, as he unties his bandana to wipe the sweat from his face.
“But what’s more important is that we’re still content if this much of salary is only paid on time.”
The department collects the fee from the households, which is supposed to be the source of salary for these sweepers, “and then after a substantial cut, they pay us a month’s salary after an extensive wait of 4 to 5 months,” he grimaces.
Yasir reveals how bad the Covid times have been for them as the department denied salary to them on account of having received nothing in the name of sanitation fee from the households.
On top of that, the admission of these sweepers in the department is just on a sheet of paper and as Yasir and his tribe reveal, more than half of the 600 employees of the Sanitation Club have managed to get regularized through recommendations but others are facing the music as they don’t have the ‘contacts’ or ‘sifarish’.
“Nobody listens to us,” continues Yasir in response to having sent a representation to the authorities regarding their situation.
On the contrary, the authorities have an altogether different tale to narrate in response to the injustice meted out to the sweepers.
The officials of the administrative department of SMC outrightly deny the regularization of any employee whatsoever under the Sanitation Club. They even claim to have paid these Sanitation Club members in times of crisis like Covid lockdowns and other such situations from internal resources.
But, citing the sanitation fee of the households as the only source of their income and the basis of their engagement, the officials acquiesce to the fact of delay in their salaries once in a blue moon.
The discrepancies in the revenues of different wards are yet another reason of the plight of the Club members.
The officials reveal that the Club members have two responsibilities to look after to – sweeping and user-charges collection. “So if they don’t perform these duties assigned to them properly, they’ve to bear the brunt,” the officials say.
But since some wards generate over-rated revenues, it’s assumed the Club members there are performing their duties with diligence while others fail to generate any and the result is a delay in their salaries, as the Department does not always possess a surplus of internal funds to pay the Club members with.
Both the SMC administration and the Sanitation Club members have their own stance, own way of looking things, but a blame game never settles things between two parties.
If the factual account of SMC administration is well taken, the precarious situation of the sweepers and fee collectors is equally agonizing and worrisome.
On the other hand, the issue of unabated solid-waste burning is equally distressing.
Studies from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources reveal that one of the chief waste products is plastic and experts are of the view that the incineration of such a waste poses a great threat to humans as well as animals, as plastic wastes, on being burnt, release toxic gases such as dioxins, furans, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls into the atmosphere.
They further release hazardous halogens and pollute air and increase the risk of heart diseases, aggravate respiratory ailments such as asthma, emphysema and causes rashes, nausea and headaches and damage the nervous system.
Not only this, the other chemicals released while burning plastic include benzo(a)pyrene (BAP) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have both been shown to cause cancer.
Again, as a matter of fact, the residue from burning contaminates the soil and groundwater and can enter the human food chain through crops and livestock.
In addition, certain chemicals released by burning can accumulate in the fats of animals and then in humans after they consume meat, fish and dairy products.
Cities like Delhi and areas of NCR (National Capital Region) owe much of their poor AQI (Air Quality Index) to the open burning of piles of waste and stubble burning.
For now, the AQI of Kashmir falls in the ‘satisfactory’ category but given the pace of solid waste burning and stubble burning, both of which have better alternatives of disposal and removal respectively, the experts see Kashmir replicating Delhi very rapidly.