IN 2007, RAHIL SIDDIQUE, a general practitioner, set up his clinic in Deonar, at the edge of India’s largest garbage dumping ground. There had been no doctor in the area and he immediately began to receive a steady stream of patients. What surprised him was that most of them had respiratory and upper chest ailments. The landfill was clearly taking its toll on those who lived around it.
Over the last few months, respiratory ailments have begun to afflict more people across Mumbai. In January, a massive fire raged at the garbage dump for nearly a week, filling the city with smog. This was at a time when Delhi was implementing the Odd-Even vehicle formula, with pollution levels in Mumbai higher than the capital.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which manages the landfill, seemed clueless. On 21 March, the fire started again at least at five points within the dumping ground. Despite using 1.5 million litres of potable water to douse the flames (at a time when the state is going through one of its worst droughts in recent history), the fire continued for six days.
D Stalin, director of projects, Vanashakti, an NGO that works to protect Mumbai’s environment, says, “The pollution has spread far across the city. Since January there is smog as far as Borivali and Thane (at the outer suburbs). The air quality has never been so poor.”
Extending over 132 hectares, the Deonar dumping ground was set up in 1927. Daily, it sees 5,500 metric tonnes of waste, 600 tonnes of silt and 25 tonnes of bio-medical refuse. The height of the mound of garbage in there is pegged at 164 feet, a little less tall than a 20-storey building. Between March to June, the amount of waste the garbage dump sees goes even further up with about 9,000 tonnes of silt deposited daily due to a massive annual drainage-cleaning exercise that goes on across Mumbai and its suburban areas.
Siddique’s job meanwhile got tougher. His working hours extended into the night with the number of patients jumping from a daily 200 to 300—most with respiratory ailments, redness of eyes, irritation in the throat, breathlessness and aggravated asthma. “Children and senior citizens are the most affected,” he says.
Because there are so many patients, he has had to rent a house nearby to stay during the week. On weekends, he goes back to his home in Kurla, about 15 km away from Deonar in the central suburbs of Mumbai. He says that there have always been small fires on and off at the landfill site since he set up his clinic. “There are poisonous gases all the time as bulldozers are moving the garbage around. The stench is unbearable. The smoke has reduced the visibility to less than 50 metres on any given day. Even before the January fires, the pollution in this place has been high,” says Siddique.
People moving around the area with green coloured face masks is a common sight now. Photojournalist Mohammed Arif, who has lived in Deonar for 30 years, says that the stench and smoke have become a part of his daily living. As the landfill grew in size, so did the stench. “The burning of the hospital garbage is the worst. We have learnt to shut it out from our daily lives by not addressing it,” says Arif.
Deonar, Shivaji Nagar, Govandi and Mankhurd, which are all close to this landfill, are also areas that are witnessing a high incidence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. Complicating the issue is the fact that thousands of people are directly and indirectly dependent on this landfill for their livelihoods. Various groups have their territories within and employ rag pickers to rummage around the landfill to bring them scrap. Inter-gang fights are common.
There is also an illegal market run by shopkeepers who sell items from the landfill such as discarded packaged food items (chocolates, biscuits, packets of noodles) and medical waste (syringes, gloves, forceps, X-ray plates, plastic medicine bottles, etcetera) to the poor. “This is a very big racket. Trucks line up to take these items and the mafia sells it,” says Siddique.
Since the fires began in January this year, politicians have been quick to blame each other. Since the Shiv Sena has been ruling the BMC for over two decades, it has been accused of apathy and corruption by even its alliance partner, the BJP. The Sena leadership says the fires are deliberately started to defame the party before the civic elections next year. They have demanded a CID inquiry. Small attempts like the installation of 12 CCTV cameras and deployment of private security personnel at the landfill have been made to find out who is supposedly setting off these fires. There is a ban on the entry of non-residents near the landfill, while residents have been issued passes.
Stalin feels that the landfill must be shut down permanently. “These fires will keep happening,” he says. While this has been a long-standing demand by residents, most know this is a lost cause.