A Burning Mountain Of Trash In Mumbai Fuels Middle-Class Outcry

A Burning Mountain Of Trash In Mumbai Fuels Middle-Class Outcry

More than half of Mumbai's 10,000 tons of unsegregated and untreated garbage is dumped there daily. (File photo)

Mumbai:  The curtains in Vandana Trivedi's 10th-floor apartment gently sway in the evening breeze as she sips tea after returning from work, her children playing around her.

Beyond the sheer panels, however, is a jarring view - a mountain of trash the size of the Mall in Washington that has been burning for days.

Deonar is Asia's oldest and largest garbage dump, and when it caught fire recently the smoke was visible from space, according to NASA images.

Called "Mumbai's silent killer" or "toxic time bomb," the dump has in recent months given birth to a new environmental awakening among the middle-class residents in the area.

The January 28 images from NASA exlusively shared with NDTV shows a thick plume of smoke engulfing a large swathe of Mumbai.

They are fighting a David-vs.-Goliath-style battle online and offline to make the government shut the dump down and take the garbage out of the city. Rising middle-class concerns about issues of pollution and public health have fueled a new kind of civic activism in recent years in many Indian cities.

"The stench remains in our clothes, curtains and the upholstery," said Trivedi, 38, an asset management professional. She had not sent her 6-year-old daughter to school for a week because of the noxious smoke, so the girl was skating in the living room, snaking between the sofa and the table.

"How do I protect my children from the very air that they breathe?" she asked. "I feel so helpless as a mother."

The Deonar garbage dump, which has been around since 1927, has grown into a 300-acre open sore of untreated, unsegregated, putrefying trash.

More than half of Mumbai's 10,000 tons of unsegregated and untreated garbage is dumped there daily.

The fire had created a thick blanket of smog across the entire vicinity which gave residents breathing problems. (File Photo)

It is an emblem of the poor management of Indian cities that can lack even the most basic services. More than 350 million Indians live in cities today - and that will probably rise to 650 million by 2020 - but only 23 percent of urban solid waste is processed.

This year, the trash dump caught fire several times, worsening the city's air quality to "poor" and "very poor" in March. In January, the thick, poisonous smoke blinded residents and left them coughing for days. Schools and malls were shut down. Last month, two of the firefighters working around the clock to douse the blaze were rushed to the hospital after they fell sick.

Officials say the fire was either set off by the methane gas in the trash or started by some men who wanted to recover plastics and metal.

Rajesh Valappil, 42, who heads a tech start-up and lives near the mountainous trash pile, said that neighbors who had previously been apathetic about it have been moved to action by the string of fires. He said he worries about dioxins released into the air by the burning plastic.

The residents - most of them urban professionals who want to jog or walk outside - have dubbed themselves "the weekend warriors."

They have conducted marches and protest sit-ins, tweeted to public officials, flooded inboxes and procured thousands of signatures in online petitions.

They monitor the air-quality-index app on their smartphones daily, conduct strategy meetings in WhatsApp groups and upload videos of the smoke on their Facebook page with posts that begin with, "Another day, another fire."

In a large slum neighborhood that hugs the dump, children playing cricket run in and out of the dump to fetch the ball. Rotting trash overflows and is floating in the open drains, and lies in small heaps outside homes. Infants cough all day even as billboards hanging overhead demand that the dump be shut down.

And yet, said Syed Shah, a 46-year-old trash-picker whose family of seven lives less than 20 feet from the trash mountain, "This garbage dump is our daily bread." He said he feeds his family by selling the plastic and metal scrap and coconut shells that he pulls out from the dump daily. "The whole city is up in arms against this dump. But where do we go? They cannot close it abruptly and kick our stomachs."

The politics over the dump has shone a light on the city's underlying class divide.

"For saving the livelihood of a few thousand trash-pickers, should the health of the entire city be compromised?" asked Akbar Hussain, a local political worker who heads a public transport drivers' union.

Clinics in the neighborhood are swarming with patients who suffer from respiratory illnesses, diarrhea and jaundice. A doctor said that since the fires started, many of his asthmatic patients have stopped responding to their regular medicines.

"The frequent fires will cause an epidemic of infectious diseases in Mumbai. It is no longer about the people who live near the dump," said Sanjay Nirupam, a senior leader of the opposition Congress party who protested against the dump.

Residents say the city has not issued a single health advisory despite the toxic air quality.

The government has identified a rural site outside Mumbai for a new dump. But officials say nothing can change overnight.

"Even if we start working on a war footing today, it will take at least a year and a half to stop the dumping here in Deonar," said Shailesh Phanse, the chairman of the standing committee in the city municipal corporation. "We have to prepare the new site, we cannot repeat the mistake of just dumping the garbage there."

Authorities have installed 12 surveillance cameras and increased police security at the dump site in hopes of determining whether the fires are self-igniting, from environmental factors or being deliberately set.

Officials are also considering making segregation of trash by residents mandatory, a difficult move as recycling remains rare in India.

And even if residents sort their trash, the city municipal corporation does not have enough trucks to collect segregated trash or processing plants to treat it, according to Raj Kumar Sharma, an environmental activist.

Instead, the resident-activists have faced criticism for tarnishing Mumbai's image globally and spreading panic on social media.

Recently, as the fourth fire raged on, Valappil fought online.

"I updated the Wikipedia page on Deonar. Then I emailed NASA and requested them to release a new image. That is how desperate we are here," Valappil said.

On the same day, not too far away, a 7-month-old infant named Hasnain Khan began coughing non-stop. The deadly smoke had been swirling all day in his neighborhood on the edge of the dump. His father rushed him inside and closed the windows tight. It didn't help. That night, he died in his sleep.

"No parent should go through the trauma of burying their infant son again," said Sarfaraz Khan, his 36-year-old father. "The garbage dump must go, whatever it takes."

© 2016 The Washington Post

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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