The first thing you notice, approaching the Ghazipur landfill, is a pack of emaciated feral dogs. Some of them are coughing.
That, and the stench — a putrid mix of rot, burning plastic and a dead animal somewhere close.
From afar, it looks like an arid plateau on the outskirts of India's capital. But this mountain isn't made of earth. It's made of trash.
It bakes in 100-degree summertime heat, emitting fumes and oozing toxins into the groundwater. At 20 stories high, and growing, it'll soon be taller than the Taj Mahal. (The Ghazipur mound is 213 feet; the Taj is 240 feet high.) Two years ago, a landslide of soggy garbage killed two local residents.
This is one big, smelly, dangerous example of how India is growing, getting richer — and generating more waste than it's able to handle. There are three other major landfills that ring the Indian capital, and hundreds more across the country.
A slum of trash pickers has cropped up alongside the Ghazipur landfill, gleaning a living from it — or just barely. They scavenge plastic to sell to recycling plants.
"This work is easier in winter," says Sheikh Rahim, 36, a wiry, compact man with one gold hoop earring. "But I like it all right. I'm used it, and anyway, I don't have a choice."
Rahim never went to school. He moved here 19 years ago from the city that was then called Calcutta. He married a local woman, and they have four children. The family lives in a slum sandwiched between the landfill and a modern new metro station.
Every day at noon, Rahim climbs the trash mountain — in sandals. He prefers to go at the hottest time of day, when there's less competition. Sometimes his 8-year-old daughter Chandini comes with him.
There's a switchback road, as wide as a highway, which dump trucks have bulldozed, zigzagging back and forth up the mountain. But Rahim can't use that. Foot traffic is forbidden.
He has to go the back way.
First he shimmies under coils of barbed wire, which police put up around the perimeter of the mountain two years ago, after the landslide deaths, to keep people like Rahim out. Then he fords a fetid creek that circles around part of the trash heap like a moat. Previously, he'd dropped cement slabs into the water as stepping stones. He gingerly checks to see if they'll still hold his weight. He doesn't want to fall into this inky water, he says.
Rahim says his hands get cut, and his back gets scraped by the barbed wire. He gets shots regularly, to ward off infection.
Atop the mountain, Rahim uses a rod to rifle through the mound. The garbage is mostly gray and decaying, bleached by the sun. Vultures circle above him and dive, plucking bits of plastic in their beaks.
Before dusk, Rahim descends with a sack full of recyclables. In an open lot between his slum and the mountain, he and his neighbors sort opaque plastic from clear plastic, and aluminum foil from paper. They pack the segregated trash into giant yellow bags discarded from a cement factory.
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 all together. It gets sorted again at a landfill — not by the municipality but by the poorest of the poor.
Rahim picks through rotten trash for about five hours a day, then sorts and sells a day's haul for 150 rupees, about $2 dollars — to middlemen like Mohammed Asif.
Asif, 22, is one step up in the garbage chain. He doesn't collect trash himself. He's got an army of local boys picking up recyclables for him.
They deliver it to Asif's workshop, which directly faces the trash mountain, separated from it by yet another creek of raw sewage, buzzing with mosquitoes. Asif 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, then tucks it back into his pocket.
"I'm a businessman. I do this for money," Asif says with a swagger. But then he turns somber. "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."
The fires are likely sparked by the release of methane and other gases as trash and organic materials break down.
A local doctor, Kumud Gupta, told a local newspaper she sees about 70 people a day, including babies, who are suffering from respiratory and stomach ailments linked to pollution from the landfill.
Across India, there are many thousands of people like Rahim and Asif, toiling in extreme conditions like this, on garbage heaps that are only growing taller.
NPR producer Furkan Latif Khan contributed to this report.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.