RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In India, garbage is becoming a big problem. The country is getting richer, consuming more and creating more waste. Landfills on the edges of cities are growing into huge mountains of trash. NPR's Lauren Frayer visited one of them in the capital New Delhi and met some of the locals gleaning a livelihood from it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The first thing you notice on the edge of this massive mountain of garbage is the dogs. They're barking. Some of them are sort of coughing. And the stench - it just hits you.
SHEIKH RAHIM: (Speaking Hindi).
FRAYER: But this is where Sheikh Rahim just barely makes a living for his four children by scavenging plastic to sell to recyclers. When he moved here two decades ago, the trash heap was maybe a quarter of its current size, he says. Now it's 20 stories high, almost as tall as the Taj Mahal. From afar, it looks like a beige plateau on the horizon, something out of the American West. It bakes in the 100-degree heat, emitting fumes and using toxins into the groundwater.
RAHIM: (Through interpreter) I get tetanus shots because my hands get cut, and my back gets scraped from climbing through the barbed wire. Police put up the wire two years ago to keep us out after a landslide of trash buried two people alive.
FRAYER: So this is the barbed wire that he climbs under here. It's pretty easy. I mean, it's a 3-foot hole I can easily climb through. And, in fact, there - I'm inside now. There's a cliff of trash. And there are actually trucks driving on top of it. So the trucks have carved out, bulldozed out a road, kind of a switchback road that goes up the mountain of trash. And I guess he's going to climb it.
Up the trash mountain Rahim climbs in flip flops each day at noon, the hottest time of day when there's less competition, he says. He looks like a gymnast, wiry from scampering up this heap. Vultures circle and dive above him. Before dusk, Rahim descends with a sack full of recyclables.
RAHIM: (Speaking Hindi).
FRAYER: So here he is sorting opaque plastic, clear plastic. And then there's some aluminum foil.
Most of India's recycling happens like this. Even if you sort your trash at home, municipal garbage collectors - if they even service your neighborhood - often toss it into the truck altogether. It gets sorted again at the landfill, not by the municipality but by the poorest of the poor. Rahim picks through rotten trash for about five hours, then sorts and sells a day's haul for 150 rupees - about $2 - to middlemen like Mohammed Asif.
Asif is one step up in the garbage chain. He's got a workshop directly facing the trash mountain separated from it by a creek of raw sewage. He's also got an army of local boys picking up recyclables for them. He weighs bags bursting with empty bottles and sells them to truckers bound for recycling plants. He licks his fingers and peels bills off a fat wad of currency.
MOHAMMED ASIF: (Through interpreter) I'm a businessman. I do this for money. But if I don't, our streets will fill with trash. We won't be able to handle it. It already stinks. Our eyes burn. In summer, this trash mountain spontaneously catches fire.
FRAYER: Asthma, tuberculosis, dengue fever - living next to dumps like this one can take decades off your life expectancy. And there are landfills like this in every major Indian city. Delhi has four. There are many, many thousands of people like Rahim and Asif.
As I leave, my taxi driver Paramjeet Singh asks why I wanted to come here. Don't we have trash mountains in America, he asks.
PARAMJEET SINGH: So where going the trash in America?
FRAYER: Yeah. It's a good question. We have even more trash...
SINGH: Yeah. Yeah - more trash...
FRAYER: ...More trash than India.
SINGH: ...In India.
FRAYER: But you don't see it.
SINGH: I don't like.
FRAYER: You don't like this.
SINGH: I don't like.
FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, on the Ghazipur Landfill in New Delhi.
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