The Bhalswa landfill, on the outskirts of Delhi, is an apocalyptic place. A gray mountain of dense, decaying trash rises seventeen stories, stretching over some fifty acres. Broken glass and plastic containers stand in for grass and stones, and plastic bags dangle from spindly trees that grow in the filth. Fifteen miles from the seat of the Indian government, cows rummage for fruit peels and pigs wallow in stagnant water. Thousands of people who live in slums near the mountain’s base work as waste pickers, collecting, sorting, and selling the garbage created by around half of Delhi’s residents.
This March was the hottest on record in India. The same was true for April. On the afternoon of April 26th, Bhalswa caught fire. Dark, toxic fumes spewed into the air, and people living nearby struggled to breathe. By the time firefighters arrived, flames had engulfed much of the landfill. In the past, similar fires had been extinguished within hours or days, but Bhalswa burned for weeks. “The weather poses a big challenge for us,” Atul Garg, the chief of the Delhi Fire Service, said, nine days after the fire began. “Firefighters find it difficult to wear masks and protective gear because of the heat.” A nearby school, blanketed by hazardous smoke, was forced to close. In the end, it took two weeks to extinguish the blaze. The charred bodies of cows and dogs were found in the debris.
I have family in Delhi, and have visited regularly over the decades. Each year has always felt hotter than the last. But this spring’s heat wave, which continued into the summer, has been unprecedented in its severity, duration, and geographic expanse. Across much of northern India, where more than a billion people live, temperatures have regularly soared past a hundred and ten degrees, and slightly lower temperatures have often combined with very high humidity—a dangerous combination. “The heat is rising rapidly and much earlier than usual,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, in April. “Fire has broken out in many forests, historical monuments, and hospitals.” Indians who work outside—about half the population—have sometimes had to stop in the afternoons, relinquishing their wages; schools and businesses have had to adjust their hours or shut entirely; and farmers have seen their crop yields drop by a third or more. On a particularly hot day in May, the high in Delhi hit a hundred and twenty-one, and overheated birds fell from the sky.
According to the official count, the heat wave has killed around a hundred people. But the true toll is certainly higher: in the summer of 2003, a less severe event killed seventy thousand across Europe. Only eight per cent of Indians have air-conditioning, and many lack reliable electricity, a situation that limits their use of fans and other cooling devices. In 2010, during a heat wave in Ahmedabad, the financial center of the state of Gujarat, officials counted seventy-six heatstroke deaths during the hottest week—but a later analysis of death certificates revealed that there had been at least eight hundred more deaths than usual during that time, some two hundred of them on a single day. Research has shown that, each day the temperature rises above ninety-five degrees in India, the annual mortality rate increases by three-quarters of a per cent. (In the United States, the rate increases by only .03 per cent.)
The dusty road leading to Bhalswa is lined with ramshackle shops and gutters full of stagnant water. When I visited, in May, some sections of the landfill were still releasing angry coils of smoke. In the car, I consulted my phone, which told me that it was a hundred and three degrees outside, with thirty-two-per-cent humidity. Still, when I opened the door, I was stunned by the three-dimensionality of the heat. The sun fried my skin but also somehow roasted me from within. I felt as if I’d swallowed a space heater.
A dirt path wound between tents and shacks. Tattered sheets, hung from wires attached to wooden poles, provided only a little shade. Fat plastic bags full of trash for resale leaned against crumbling brick walls; alongside them were broken chairs, metal buckets, plastic bottles, cracked pots, torn trousers, errant shoes, and a dirty diaper. Two women cooked over an open fire while an elderly man pushed a wooden cart, a young child lugging a sack behind him.
In a small brick hut, a man sat cross-legged amid a thick knot of flies, braiding human hair that he’d collected from the landfill. Half a dozen women in brightly colored clothing, their heads covered in scarves, sat on the floor.
“It didn’t use to be this hot,” Saira, the woman in charge of the group, said. “Before, it felt like it was possible for humans to work the landfill.” Now, because of the heat, they tried to stay out of the sun. “If you see five hundred people working there right now, you’ll see at least two thousand people up there at night,” she said.
“We eat up there, sleep up there sometimes,” another worker added.
Hema, a thin woman in a purple sari, sat on the stairs. “When the sun hits, it feels like your body is on fire,” she said. “I drape a shirt over my head—that makes it feel even hotter. When we come back home, our heads feel like they will explode. We take water with us, but it’s boiling by the time we can drink it.”
The women described headaches, exhaustion, dizziness, rashes, fever. The stench of the landfill—an acrid mixture of excrement and rotting trash—was sickening, they said, but the heat made it hard to tolerate masks. Outside the hut, children kicked a ragged soccer ball. A scrawny dog panted on a mound of refuse. Flies swarmed a heap of dung.
“We are living,” Saira said. “But we are also dying.”
Sunday, July 31, 2022
In rural California, as in many parts of the country, wildfires, flooding, storms and mudslides cause by climate change are the perfect opportunity for white supremacist domestic terrorist militias to recruit from people whose lives have been devastated, posing as "helpful concerned citizens" when state and local officials are overwhelmed by increasingly powerful and more numerous disasters.
The parking lot of H&L Lumber in Mariposa, California, was host to a flurry of activity Sunday as members of a local militia sporting military-style fatigues handed out pancakes and steak sandwiches to evacuees of the Oak Fire raging nearby. Along with breakfast, they doled out business cards with QR codes and directions to join their militia.
Some say the members of the Echo Company militia served as a de facto checkpoint or an advertisement for the group during the crisis, according to witnesses who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified.
“They had their whole setup with military-style trucks, and they were in their fatigues and whatnot,” said Rain Winchester, a manager at Mariposa’s nearby Monarch Inn. “I’m fine with them helping out with relief efforts as long as they don’t start to set up roadblocks or do any security work. I don’t want them doing the work of the sheriff’s office.”
The militia is becoming a consistent presence in rural Mariposa County southeast of Sacramento with a population of 17,131 scattered across 14 towns, according to the 2010 U.S. census.
Providing immediate assistance in military-style garb during an emergency is a recruiting tactic used by militias nationwide, and not confined to Mariposa County. As climate change creates more wildfires and adverse weather events, further straining local law enforcement and fire services, militias around the nation have seized on the disasters as opportunities to entangle themselves into the politics and emergency services of small communities.
In the aftermath of fires in Oregon in 2020, militias set up civilian roadblocks, which stopped at least one fleeing Black family and were ignored by local police. Members of the Oath Keepers have created a “community protection team,” six of whom were arrested for breaking a curfew during Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Joshua James, an Oath Keeper who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, met and joined the militia during relief efforts for Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Wildfires in the United States this year have consumed 5.6 million acres. The Oak Fire destroyed at least 116 homes and burned more than 19,000 acres, according to local fire authorities.
Serving as de facto aid organizations is a common recruitment and community ingratiation tactic used in rural areas to win support and acceptance during emergencies, said Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Although help is always needed in difficult times, it is incredibly important to remember that militias are providing it with an agenda,” she said.
“That agenda is to recruit members of the community, including victims into their organizations, legitimize them, and radicalize people into holding grievances against the government they may very well express through intimidation or violence.”
Echo Company is one of hundreds of active militias across the U.S., according to a 2016 tally by the Southern Poverty Law Center, numbers that have climbed steadily in recent years. Experts have warned that militia groups have been emboldened by former President Donald Trump and other leaders of the Republican Party.
It was not immediately clear how many members Echo Company has. In times where there are no disasters, it’s most commonly known for holding training sessions for its members and attending protests, common practices for U.S. militias.
Echo Company is, however, well known among California militias.
It was ousted from the larger California State Militia organization in 2020 for capitalizing on larger, fictitious fears of antifa looters and “for behavior that was interpreted as potentially inciteful and militant.”
Echo Company attended a “straight pride” rally in 2020, alongside the Central Valley Proud Boys.
But there are signs its efforts to provide services have worked. The group has in recent years gained favor among some in the community, as evidenced by the response to a sheriff’s office Facebook post that warned residents to “be aware of a local militia around the Mariposa town area.”
The post was soon flooded with support for the militia. Hours later, the sheriff’s department issued an “update” softening their stance.
“Clearing up confusion and answering the large amount of comments on this original post,” the updated post reads. “We are not unsupportive of community groups helping those affected by the Oak Fire, however it is important that we inform the community of resources available to them by the incident and Mariposa County.”