MUMBAI, India — On any regular morning in the bustling port city of Mumbai in western India, a thick, yellow-gray pall hangs over the city. Driving on one of the metropolis’ highways, buildings just dozens of meters away are hard to make out through the early morning smog.
And as you approach Deonar, the city’s oldest, and by some accounts Asia’s largest, garbage dump, the air thickens and constrains the throat. It affects the thousands of poverty-stricken residents that exist on the sidelines of this sprawling, 132-hectare site.
It receives 4,000 tons of waste a day, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) tells CNN, that is dumped on top of the previous day’s deposit each day. Over the years, the city’s waste has accumulated into staggering, towering mounds of garbage.
The air pollution around Deonar has been particularly bad over the last few days; an acrid, choking haze that coats the back of the throat, reddens the eyes and shortens the breath. Even still, it’s much better than it was in the hours following the morning of January 28, when huge fires erupted around the site, immediately cloaking the area in thick, black smoke that blotted out the sun.
An image posted by NASA showed the scale of the incident, with a thick plume of smoke visible from space. The cause of the fires remain under investigation, though authorities say the blazes could have been triggered by combustible gases from disintegrating garbage.
Mohamed Sedaj, a 12-year-old who lives a stone’s throw from the dump, says he was flying kites with his friends when the skies darkened with smoke. He ran home, scared, and stayed there for two days, as schools in the area were shut under an emergency provision. The city’s fire department sent out 14 fire trucks, and crews to contain the massive blaze. Two days later, however, it was still going and a week on, patches still smolder.
Even upscale residential areas far from the site felt its impact, with mothers waking up to an impenetrable blanket of smog and taking to Whatsapp groups to discuss keeping their kids home.
It was one of the worst fires that Mumbai has seen in recent years, and for those on the ground in Deonar, it was just another symptom of a government that many feel has abandoned them.
‘Government doesn’t listen’
Deonar is home to thousands of scavengers who live either in the nearby slums, or within the walls of this acrid wasteland.
Mohammed Merajul lives behind the dump. He says he would move but, he says with a shrug, “majboori” — he has no choice. He concedes that the city’s fire brigade responded quickly to this emergency, but the infrastructure and care in this poor, mostly Muslim neighborhood is severely lacking. “It always smells here, and we’ve lost count of the number of kids who get sick,” he tells CNN.
The biggest problem right now, he says, is a lack of clean water supplied by the government. “Sometimes we can’t bathe for four, five days.”
The government needs to put in toilets — the dump is used by many as a huge, open-pit toilet — and a water supply, he says. “But the government doesn’t listen to the demands of poor people.”
His companion, another man named Mohammed, says that the discrimination runs deeper. If you go over there, he says, gesturing into the distance at a largely Hindu area, it is spotless. “We have one drum of water, and it is full of worms. We have to drink that water; bathe using that water.”
Jockin Arputham, president of India’s National Slum Dwellers Association, tells CNN that the government is dismissing these Mumbaikers (Mumbai residents) because they’re poor.
Surrounded by slums
“This dump is surrounded on three sides by slums. If these were rich people or middle class people local politicians would have come and given it attention.”
The government needs to have a clear rehabilitation policy, he says, and should reclaim the dump, flatten it and use the land as housing for the surrounding slum dwellers.
“They should level this place and use it to rehabilitate people. the government shouldn’t grumble about not having land available. (The government) has a choice — it can do something or close its eyes.”
When asked about complaints from the community and allegations of bias against Muslims, the government denied any bias and defended its approach, telling CNN that Deonar is a poor locality, but things are improving.
“It’s not only Muslims who live there,” says municipal corporator (a position similar to city councilor) Rais Shaikh. “Bias is not a reason for the condition there.”
“Over the last six years, this locality has improved a lot. There are better roads, there is better sanitation, there are parks and schools. If there was a bias, all this would not have happened,” he adds.
Shaikh also said the goal is to reduce the amount of waster received at the dump. “Then we want to process this waste in a scientific manner,” he said. “We can use it to convert it into energy, for example.”
Life on the edge
Sabil, a scavenger, combs the site daily for old shoes which he takes back to a tiny, cramped workshop. He earns around 400 rupees ($6) a day, he tells us, and is another who has nowhere to go. It would cost at least 30,000 rupees ($442) to relocate and escape the trash dump, we’re told, far beyond the reach of these slum dwellers.
“Look outside,” Sabil urges. “Can you see the sun? We couldn’t that day.”
As the thick, acrid smoke poured into his workshop, he says he had no choice but to keep working. With a family of four to support, he simply couldn’t afford to shut down for even a day.
“It’s not just me, thousands walk up that dump every day,” he says. But he isn’t expecting his government to do anything for him.
“Does the government help poor people?” he asks, already convinced he knows the answer.