A few GMC waste dumpers, discarded tyres and metal scraps from the site. Photo: Aditya Ranjan Pathak
Boragaon, Guwahati: The afternoon brims with the distant sound of machines and the whistles of passing trains, while a few Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) workers, men clad in yellow caps, sip tea in one of the shops. The site, dotted with decayed, out-of-use GMC vehicles in fading shades of green and blue, mirrors the barren skies above that once were awash with kites and greater adjutant storks. The cattle and stray dogs too seem to have disappeared. These are the sights that greet us on our arrival on the first week of November 2022 at the once-teeming Paschim Boragaon garbage dump site in Guwahati – one that for nearly two decades until its relocation to a new site nearby in August 2021 served as an answer to the city’s waste disposal woes.
The landfill was shifted due to concern that the location of the Boragaon dump was damaging the neighbouring wetland, Deepor beel (lake). Recognised under the Ramsar Convention it is an important habitat for migratory and aquatic birds.
But, as the previous article pointed out, it was also an ecosystem where people from the margins of society made their living.
More than a year since the relocation, hovering along the road leading to this seemingly defunct landfill, we see Haider Ali* (names of some subjects have been changed to ensure anonymity) and a few other residents resting under a tree, their eyes fixed on their makeshift settlement.
This settlement houses around 100 families, most of whom were dependent on the landfill for their livelihood. Now, they work as informal waste pickers, small dairy farmers and vegetable vendors. A few work in the city, taking up poorly paid professions like drivers, informal labourers, and rickshaw pullers.
Ali, in his 40s, has been a resident of Boragaon for 12 years now. His trysts with floods and riverbank erosion in his hometown Howly (in Barpeta district of Assam) forced him to relocate to Guwahati, like many others, in search of a living. Like most other inhabitants of Boragaon who belong to the marginalised Miya community, Ali was not very long ago a small-time dairy farmer. Conversations during our initial meeting in February 2021 – before the relocation of the dumpsite – had closely revolved around his herd of milch cattle, which helped him comfortably sustain a four-member family.
But today, his tone is withered as he informs us that the relocation of the dumping ground and the consequent absence of cattle fodder drawn from the formerly ample waste has compelled him to sell his cows. He has taken up vegetable vending, like most dairy farmers and cattle rearers in the area who have had to resort to these informal sources of livelihood. Some, he says, have moved back to their native villages. “The garbage had been the main source of sustenance for all the cows. Earlier, there used to be at least 100-200 cows owned by the people who settled here. The Garbage has disappeared and with it our cows,” he laments. “Till about a year ago, we used to earn around Rs 25,000-35,000 a month. All that has come to an end now. We hardly get around Rs 15,000-18,000, all of which goes towards sustenance, leaving not even a penny to save at the end of the month.”
The conversation draws in two fellow residents, Azharuddin and Noor, who inform that the garbage is now dumped at Bel Ali, commonly known as ‘Raju Parking’, only a few kilometres away from the older site. Azharuddin reminisces about how the latter overflowed with ‘mountains’ of foul-smelling garbage when he had first arrived about three decades ago. “The government has taken it away… it’s their garbage after all. What can we say?” he remarks, before telling us how he initially stayed with his uncle on rent in Boragaon, working hard enough to eventually buy a small piece of land and sustain his small family through some cows in aadhi (shared ownership). On being enquired about the present state of their lives, they grimly tell us that they are “somehow managing”.
As the conversation tilts towards informality, Azharuddin points to the mounds of waste at a distance and the three JCBs clearing them out. “There will be a brand new park here for the people of Guwahati,” he says. The landfill has been emptied to pave the way for ‘development’. “Hei wall khon sa (Look at that wall),” he tells Noor. “All of that is Himanta’s (Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma) land; he will do what he wants to do with it,” he adds, with a slight bitterness in his voice.
For communities that had faced adversities like riverbank erosion and landlessness, the dumping site had been an abode. After the erection of the large wall in the past few months and the increasing ministerial and bureaucratic visits to the area amidst talk of ‘development’ catering to the urban middle class, speculations of a gentrified metamorphosis of the site have only intensified. “Very soon, hundreds will be seen here every day,” says Noor. “Thakiboloi bhal hobo (It’ll be nice living here),” he jokes as he addresses this foreshadowed development.
Rehman, a former rickshaw puller who has been working as an informal waste picker for half a decade now, says things were better for them before the landfill was relocated. The informal waste pickers who used to collect various metals, plastics, papers and bottles among other things in the Boragaon site are now compelled to travel to Raju parking. They are paid a lump sum of Rs 15,000-20,000 every month in return for their goods. Hailing from lower Assam, where his home was washed away by the floods, Rehman – like many others residing in Boragaon – has to make this journey to Raju Parking in trucks early in the morning, working until dark. “Now we leave at around 5 am and barely ever return home before 6 pm,” he says
“The younger lads work late into the night,” admits Shahid, one of the young waste pickers. Boragaon locals say that their dwindling cattle also find their way to Raju Parking to feed on the waste. “In monsoon, they swim,” they say.
Both Azhar and Noor say land prices in the area have skyrocketed from Rs 3-4 lakh per katha [a non-standardised unit of measure, which is 2,880 square feet in Assam] at the time of their arrival around 30 years ago, to about ten times that price today. There are multiple reasons for this abnormal inflation: from the profiteering of these lands by numerous upper-class city dwellers, to the extension of the city towards the southwest direction. It is interesting to note that none of these plots have pattas or settlement deeds, and are in truth, government-owned.
Zigma, an Andhra Pradesh-based company, has secured the contract to clean the site and recycle the waste. “All of this is money,” says a security guard at the site, referring to the heaps of waste, as he sips on a cup of afternoon tea. The company is expected to clean the waste from the site in three years.
Narendra, an onsite worker from Jharkhand who runs the JCB, joins our exchange and tells us that different companies had previously tried and failed to clean the site. Like many others working with the company on-site, he works the entire day. “Work begins at around 9 am and continues late into the evening. We get breaks for lunch and dinner.”
Over the last six months, Zigma’s operations have drawn migrant workers from states like Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Boaragon is their temporary home. They tell us how the large birds known as hargilas (greater adjutant storks) now visit Raju Parking (Bel Ali) to feed on the waste but return to their trees in Boragaon the same evening.
The discarded landfill site also shares a border with a small piece of marshland and a stretch of an artificial lake called the green beel (lake), apart from the Deepor Beel. Rahul Kumar, a native of Bihar, has been selling fish caught from the beel throughout Guwahati. His day begins at 5 am, when he begins fishing at the lake. The catch is then sold at nearby markets until about 9:30 pm. Fish worth around Rs 3,000 are sold every day, he tells us. The beel has fish like Rou, Magur, Singi, Bhokua among many others, says Kumar.
But the proximity of these lakes, including the Deepor beel, to the dump yard for several years has led to the detection of heavy metals in the ecosystem around the dumpsite. Dr Sabitry Bordoloi, a retired professor and scientist associated with the Life Science Division at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Science and Technology in Guwahati, has shown this in her research.
The locals are also aware of the pollution. “The water has become contaminated. We don’t eat fish from here; it smells like kerosene,” says Hasina, as she collects ‘Nol Grass’ (Arundo donax), and helonchi, a grass edible for humans and cattle, from the marshlands bordering the landfill. She tells us that the grass that naturally grows here is only given to the cows, considering how toxins from the landfill have also affected the plants. “They won’t fall sick, but we will,” she says. She and her husband, who are inhabitants of the nearby settlement, have been collecting helonchi grass for their cattle for the last 15 years, having migrated from Barpeta. “Earlier, we had over twenty to thirty cows; it has come down to only four now,” her husband adds.
Over this discarded site that now brims with wild shrubs, plastics and discarded metal of all kinds, towers an old, dysfunctional GMC control room where some men sit idly, observing the ceaseless and hasty movements of the yellow capped workers. “I had around 6 tonnes of maal (goods). I hardly have 2 now,” Diganta Das sighs in disappointment as he supervises the loading of the metal scraps onto his trucks. Das had a tender for disposing of discarded metal goods from the landfill, which are sold to businessmen dealing with such material. He grieves the loss of a significant part of his goods.
He says that despite the area being barricaded by the GMC, cases of theft have occurred. On-site workers, including Kumar, label the settlement nearby – where Ali and others live – as a haven for thieves and looters which is ‘unsafe for outsiders after dark’. “The government will teach them a lesson. All the people living in the settlement will have to leave sooner or later. They don’t have pattas; it’s the government’s land after all,’’ declares Kumar.
But residents of the settlement reveal that only some of their land is ‘occupied land’, ek sonia patta mati (annual patta) for which they have been paying khajana (land tax). While this does not grant them ownership of land, they have claimed these lands in Boragaon, where they have been residing for many years. Apart from being landless, they are also riddled with complexities surrounding citizenship, livelihoods and belongingness. All this has only left no recourse for them.
Ali during a conversation the previous year spoke about how in the past, the Akhil Gogoi-led Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti had spoken up for the rights of the landless in the city from time to time. It had appealed the previous dispensation to provide miyadi pattas (periodic patta)for these lands. “On our behalf, Akhil did try to legitimise our claim on these lands we call our home,” he tells us.
Shehnaz, who has set up a shop within the landfill site, selling dry fish, tea and a few groceries, says the stench in the area has begun to fade since relocation. Her husband works as an informal labourer in the city while she takes care of the shop; a space whose dynamics have changed considerably. “Now I have more leisure time,” she says. Until last year, her shop overflew with diverse customers like informal waste workers, GMC personnel, security guards and other people from Boragaon.
The residents of the settlement are divided about what the future holds for them. Some with very subtle optimism, occasionally toy with a dream of development that would be inclusive of them; hoping against hope that the clearing up of the deserted landfill site foreshadows their prosperity too. Others are more rooted in realities, where development does not include but is also built upon their helplessness.
During conversations with a group of informal waste workers who inhabit the Boragaon settlement and make the trip to Raju Parking every day, questions about what the current developments in the Boaragaon area mean for them are mostly met with silence. The silence, below the surface, reveals a state of utter confusion.
An often demonstrated sentiment in these conversations is hostility towards the clearing of the dump, which altered their lives and the intention of the government to transform the space as an area for upper-class development. Shaukat Ali, a waste picker, spoke passionately about the government’s meddling in their lives. He says there has been no relief or support for the landless people who had worked and lived so vulnerably around this hazardous space for decades.
Asked whether there has been any word on clearing the settlement for newer developments, the response is again a gloomy silence. “We don’t know where we’ll go, but we’ll go if we have to,” says Azhar, as he speaks his mind on what would happen if faced with the horrors of eviction.
Mubina Akhtar is an environmentalist, journalist and activist who has primarily worked on issues relating to the Boragaon landfill site and also other environmental issues in Guwahati. She says the GMC should regularise the professions of the people who live around the waste site and work as ragpickers, small cattle rearers and waste collectors. “They are landless people who’ve migrated from various places in Assam. They should be given basic financial support and stability,” she says.
She adds that rather than simply relocating the waste site to a new one, four-five smaller disposal sites – where waste is disposed of scientifically – should be created in different pockets of the city. This will not only lead to better waste management but will also help communities dependent on the waste economy, she says. “But in the spirit of welfare, the communities should be given access to basic amenities like healthcare, schools and sources of alternative livelihood,” Akhtar adds.
Aditya Ranjan Pathak is a Research Assistant with the ERC Urban Ecologies research project based at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore and the University of Cambridge, UK.
Research for this article was enabled by the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 Starting Grant (no. 759239), entitled “Urban Ecologies: Governing Nonhuman Life in Global Cities”.
The author expresses gratitude to professor Maan Barua,(the P.I of the ERC Grant) University Lecturer at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK for his valuable suggestions and comments on the piece, and for the countless conversations during visits to the site.