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High Court steps in as Deonar's burning garbage chokes Mumbai

Parth MN | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:51 IST

In latest developments, The Bombay High Court has asked Mumbai's civic body to not allow new constructions. This until it can come up with an efficient way to manage waste and prevent fires from occurring. On Monday, 29 February, the HC restrained the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) from granting permission for new commercial/residential buildings.

This, until it makes compliance of Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000. Developers will now have to put several new projects of theirs on hold. The rules say that the BMC should use the right and appropriate technology to treat the waste and reduce landfills burden.

Fatima's plight

While performing her usual household work in the Gulf three years ago, Fatima Sheikh received a call informing of her son's illness. Mansoor, then 20, had contracted Tuberculosis (TB). She left her job in the Gulf and moved back with him in Mumbai. In the first week of February 2016, she oversaw Mansoor's last rites.

Read- Blaze like no other: Mumbai reels from the effects of a garbage dump fire

A narrow pathway through the densely populated Lotus colony in Govandi leads one to the main road from Fatima's shanty. Small one-room houses clutter both sides of the pathway as kids optimize the slender gap in between households to play various games. Upon reaching the main road, the imposing Deonar dumping ground with heaps of garbage stares back ominously from a few meters.

The doctors had advised Fatima to shift houses but her financial condition did not allow her to do so. "Everywhere they asked for a deposit of 1 Lakh rupees," she says.

The menacing fire of 27 January that engulfed the whole city in smoke may have proved to be the last nail in Mansoor's coffin. Daily fires and pollution over the years that have largely gone unreported "The air killed him," says the tearful Fatima. "He was my only child."

Around 100 plots with 200 shanties each dot the periphery of the Deonar dumping ground. More than a lakh live in close proximity to the landfill and breathe the noxious air. Apart from slums, plush apartments within its two-kilometer radius have come up in the recent past.

Mumbai generates close to 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, for which it has three landfills: Deonar, Kanjurmarg and Mulund.

Residents around the dumping ground, consisting of Rafiq Nagar, Shivaji Nagar, Baba Nagar and Matti Ward among others, say the health has always been a problem here, but it took a fire as acute as the one on 27 January for the rest of the city and media to notice. These areas fall under Mumbai's M-Ward, which is arguably the most neglected ward of the city.

Along with Mansoor, a 13-year old girl too succumbed to TB in the first week of February. In a losing cause of curing her son, Fatima has tested positive for TB and her two-year old neighbor is diagnosed positive as well.

"Every resident is coughing in the vicinity," says Mohammad Siraj, a local independent corporator, who was on a hunger strike for four days, demanding closure of the dumping site. "TB, Asthma, irritation in the eyes and throat is common."

There are 74 schools in the area, which frequently shut down when the fire generates considerable amount of smoke, says Intezar Alam, who runs a local NGO. "It encumbers their education," he says.

Mumbai's waste and Deonar dumping ground

Mumbai generates close to 10,000 tonnes of solid waste per day, for which it has three landfills: Deonar, Kanjurmarg and Mulund. The one in Mulund is barely 25 hectares and brimming with waste, thereby putting the entire burden on Deonar and Kanjurmarg.

Also read: Mumbai schools shut as city battles thick smog for 5th consecutive day

The Deonar landfill, spread across 326 acres, will be 90 years old in 2017, an age hardly heard of for a dumping ground. The stench emanating from the ground works as a marker for directions and ensures one does not get lost in the attempt of visiting it. As one moves closer, the stench gets stronger. In parts of the landfill, the garbage heaps stand as tall as 15 meters, or around six to eight storied buildings by a conservative estimate.

Foreigners could well mistake it for a small mountain range in fading light. Kids are seen playing cricket in the dump yard, diving around, embedding themselves in the stack of garbage. Buffaloes meander through the landfill searching for waste food.

More than a lakh live in close proximity to the Deonar landfill and breathe the noxious air. Each and everyone is in danger

The 27 January fire has seen quite a few visits by journalists to the Deonar landfill, prompting the police to tighten security and restrict journalists from taking pictures. A security guard, stopping our bike, asks for my mobile phone. He scans my pictures and warns against clicking a snap.

BMC the culprit?

This land was allotted to the BMC in 1927 to dump garbage for five years. Close to 90 years down the line, the landfill is alive and thriving.

Stalin Dayanand of Vanashakti, a city-based conservation NGO, says the BMC is not doing anything it is supposed to do with the dumping grounds. "The processing and segregation of garbage does not happen," he says, adding all parts of the landfill must be accessible by road at all times. "The drain should be collected, treated and then reused. Right now, it is mixing with the creek. They are supposed to maintain a green zone around the dumping ground as well."

The contractors, who are paid by the BMC for scientific processing and segregation of garbage, are making a fortune for merely dumping it. The lack of segregation and uncovered waste in landfills results in biological decomposition, which creates the flammable combination of heat and methane, thereby the frequency of fires. "Methane is the biggest culprit," says Dr. Sharad Kale of BARC. "With my methane harvesting system, I can make the Deonar landfill methane-free within 3-5 years, provided fresh dumping is stopped."

Read more- We didn't start the fire: Mumbai's netas blame each other for fires at dumping grounds

In its own admission, the BMC accepted the landfills had to be closed years ago and start waste segregation and processing plant like using waste to build concrete road after the Bombay High Court rap. According to The Indian Express report, The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board had sent eight notices to the BMC for its unscientific manner of handling the garbage.

Milind Ranade, a labor activist, says the "M" in SWM (Solid Waste Management) is conspicuously missing. "Management refers to thinking ahead of your time," he says. "Here the BMC is falling behind with every passing day."

BMC and the local citizens

The BMC is not the only one responsible for the mess Mumbai is in. The residents have been equally careless, says Rishi Aggarwal, environmentalist. "As a society, we absolutely have no learning curve," he says. "The waste needs to be reduced, reused and recycled. But, in spite of being aware of the importance of segregating solid waste, hardly anyone does it. The constructive way forward is the decentralisation of waste management."

The scenario had been better in Mumbai when the municipal corporation entered into a tie up with the citizens in 1997. The scheme was called Advance Locality Management (ALM), which aimed at the involvement of citizens in waste disposal as well as other civic issues. There were 1,000 registered ALMs by the year 2000, most of which are now dysfunctional.

Dr Karle: "'waste' does not belong in the nature's dictionary, it is part of human dictionary. My dream is to see a dumping-free society."

Rajkumar Sharma of Diamond Garden ALM in Chembur says ALM was a great concept but its prospects depend on the BMC commissioner. "We did wonders in the initial days but subsequently we did not get the support and encouragement from the authorities," he says. "Civic contractors destroyed our composting bins while covering storm-water drains more than a decade ago. We approached the authorities but the bins have not been repaired yet. On the one hand, you speak of Swachh Bharat and on the other, you discourage people's initiatives."

Kale says if every household, society, and big hotels segregate their waste, and then BMC does its job, we would merely have 20% of what we have stacked up at the landfills. "Moreover, the transport cost and stench would be reduced, methane would drastically come down and even global warming can be controlled," he says.

Silver lining

Nonetheless, a group has managed to see the silver line even amidst this doom and gloom. As the muck stockpiled, the garbage mafia proliferated. Every truck of garbage carries recyclable and sellable material like plastic, paper, glass, metal and, many a time, gold and silver. On an average, every truck is worth 6,000 rupees. "Even if we assume the 500 BMC trucks unload at Deonar twice a day, material worth rupees 60 lakhs a day arrives at the landfill," says Siraj, the corporator.

According to a rag-picker, there are five main gangs, headed by Ateeq Khan, Bhondhu, Manik Raju, Saleem and Javed Qureshi, along with smaller ones, who have divided the landfill amongst themselves. Each of the five, leading a lavish lifestyle, has at least 100 ragpickers and muscle men to monitor their business. Needless to say, there is always a tussle between them for a bigger share. "The tension between the gangs gets ugly at times," says Siraj. "They burn each other's material and there have been cases of murder as well."

#Deonar: The 27 January fire has seen quite a few visits by journalists. Police have tightened security and restricted journalists

A rag-picker, requesting anonymity, says once the rag-picker works for a particular gang, he is bound by it. "A transgression could conclude my life," he says.

According to the rag-picker, the reason why murders go unnoticed is that the garbage mafia has good contacts in the police. and knowing their power, eye witnesses turn hostile. In 2009, Khan was accused in the murder of Qadeer Ahmad, who seemed to be stabbed to death. However, he, along with the remaining four accused, walked free due to lack of evidence.

The BMC, after having the approval from the state government, has located a 39-hectare land in Karawale village in Ambernath district, where the local body plans to open a dumping ground that will share the burden of Deonar and Kanjurmarg. There are around 50 families belonging to Katkari tribe, which will be displaced if the dumping ground goes ahead as planned.

Worried villagers

The area zeroed down for the dumping ground is overlooked by Haji Malang, a mountain peak, which is a religious spot for Hindus and Muslims alike. Therefore, it is a tourist attraction as well. Kids spend their evenings and vacations in the open field playing outdoor games. Cattle leisurely roam around the area occupying a part of the could-be landfill.

Villagers fear once the dumping ground starts functioning, their pristine village with greenery, paddy fields and fertile land would resemble Deonar and they too, would lead a life plagued with diseases. "We will not let this happen to our kids," says Suman Waghe. "We will die but we won't move."

deonar embed

The BMC has ensured this dumping ground would be handled better but the history does not allow optimism to creep in. "Why should we suffer for the waste generated by the city anyway?" asks Balaram Waghe, a resident. "This is where we belong and we cannot imagine our life beyond this village."

Stalin believes it is grossly unfair for the city to dump its waste in the outskirts and impose the burden on villages by shrugging off the responsibility. "Why should only city kids have TB?" he asks sarcastically. "And in any case, they are tribals and poor. Who cares for them?"

Central suburbs to become gas chambers?

The BMC has also mooted a dumping ground in Mulund near Airoli Bridge, and if these two newly proposed dumping grounds come into being, all the five landfills would happen to be on the central line of Mumbai. Effectively, the central suburbs would become a gas chamber, say activists, and ask if the BMC is so confident of maintaining an odourless and disease-free landfill, why not install one in South Bombay?

"Dumping is a crime against nature," says Dr Kale. "The word 'waste' does not belong in the nature's dictionary, it is part of the human dictionary. My dream is to see a dumping-free society."

In Deonar, though, the struggle continues. The dumping has stopped for the time being. The authorities have assured Siraj and co. that their demands will be met. The dump will not be unloaded without processing, the security will be enhanced and CCTV cameras will be installed. Fatima, in the meantime, sets an early morning alarm, as Mansoor's picture on the wall overlooks the house. She has to stand in queue at the hospital to collect her medicines for TB.

Edited by Sahil Bhalla

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First published: 2 March 2016, 7:19 IST
Parth MN @parthpunter

Parth is a special correspondent with the Los Angeles Times. He has a degree in mass communication and journalism from Journalism Mentor, Mumbai. Prior to journalism, Parth was a professional cricketer in Mumbai for 10 years.