Mumbai's burning question

A week-long fire at the Deonar dumping ground has put the focus on Mumbai's garbage crisis. The answer lies in its unique partnership between citizens and the civic body

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Monday 29 February 2016
Smoke from Mumbai's largest dumping ground Deonar caused the closure of 74 schools (Photo: Prashant Waydande)
Smoke from Mumbai's largest dumping ground Deonar caused the closure of 74 schools (Photo: Prashant Waydande) Smoke from Mumbai's largest dumping ground Deonar caused the closure of 74 schools (Photo: Prashant Waydande)

IT HAS been almost a week. Vijaya Easwaramony, a 62-year-old retired school teacher, often leaves her chores mid-way and rushes to the kitchen. “There is a strange burning smell in the air and I fear I have left something on the stove,” says Easwaramony, who lives in Mahavir Platinum building in Govandi area of Mumbai. The burning smell aside, the old couple is also experiencing irritation in their eyes; and the cough and cold refuse to go. “In the morning, we can’t even see the nearest building,” she says, while watching out from the window of her 12th floor apartment to see the rising smoke from the nearby Deonar dumping ground, on fire since January 28 morning. Though the cause is yet unknown, open landfills often see fires. Heat and methane produced due to biological decomposition cause materials in the landfills to ignite spontaneously.

Shilpa Arvind, who also lives close to the dumping ground, is worried about her four-year-old. “Whereas the municipal corporation has shut down its 74 schools due to the pollution, private schools in the neighbourhood are still open. There is no information from the government,” she laments.

While the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), India’s richest civic body with an annual budget of over R33,000 crore, is conspicuous by its absence, local residents are worried about the acute air pollution that has gripped Mumbai, making it surpass Delhi as the most polluted. On February 1 morning, the air quality index (AQI) in Mumbai was 308, much higher than that of Delhi (208). According to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), the air quality forecast of PM 2.5 levels in Mumbai was in the category of “very poor” for February 3 (129.5 µg/m3 or one-millionth of a gram per cubic meter air), February 4 (130.7 µg/m3) and February 5 (128.2 µg/m3). The US Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) warns that exposure to high levels of PM2.5 can cause short-term health effects and can also affect lung function and worsen asthma and heart disease.

Waste mismanagement

As per a conservative estimate, Mumbai generates 10,000 tonnes per day (TPD) of solid waste. A couple of years ago, MCGM had four waste disposal sites. However, due to residents’ complaints, Mulund and Gorai dumpyards were shut down, putting the entire burden of solid waste disposal on Deonar and Kanjurmarg.

“Mumbai does not have any MCGM-owned waste processing facility and the entire mixed waste, including debris, is dumped at Deonar and Kanjurmarg with-out any scientific treatment,” says Rishi Aggarwal, a city-based environmentalist. A plan for a new landfill in Ambernath taluka of Thane district, about 60 km from Mum-bai has provoked opposition. The residents of Karawale village, who are Katkari adivasi, are refusing to part with their land.

At 132 hectares (ha), Deonar is Mum-bai’s largest and oldest waste dumpsite operating since 1927. Though it has long exhausted its capacity to receive waste, the MCGM continues to send 6,000 TPD of waste to Deonar, surrounded by creek on the three sides. Kanjurmarg site was handed over to MCGM in 2003 but is facing stiff opposition from environmentalists as it is a salt pan land (buffer against floods) and falls under coastal regulation zone (CRZ-I) with mangrove cover.

“Several public interest litigations are pending before the Bombay High Court. We have filed a petition against Kanjur-marg landfill where mangroves were destroyed to reclaim 85 ha land and 5,000 tonnes of waste is being dumped daily,” says Stalin D of Vanashakti, an NGO that works on conservation in Mumbai. MCGM officials were not available for comments.

Community-led initiatives

The waste scenario in Mumbai was not always this bleak. A 1997 partnership between the municipal corporation and citizens, called the Advance Locality Management (ALM), mobilised citizens to participate in waste management and other civic issues. The money provided by the families, was used for civic activities and beautification drives. The participating households segregated the waste, used to compost it within the locality and sold the recyclable waste locally. This reduced MCGM’s burden. It is claimed that in 2000, there were about 1,000 ALMs, across Mumbai, but over the years, due to the withdrawl of corporators, they disbanded and the filth came back.

“While covering the stormwater drains, many composting bins were destroyed by the civic contactors, and never repaired. Our bin is broken for the last one year and we can’t compost anymore,” complains Rajkumar Sharma of Diamond Garden ALM in Chembur, which was started in 1998 and has 150 participating families.

Future of waste

“Waste must be treated and handled within the zone or municipal ward where it is gen-erated,” says Laxmi Narayan of SWaCH, a Pune-based cooperative of waste collectors.

Bharati Chaturvedi, founder and direc-tor of Delhi-based Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group suggests decen-tralising waste management in Mumbai. “Almost 50 per cent waste in Mumbai is biodegradable, which can be composted locally with the help of trained waste pickers. Dry recyclables (10-15 per cent) can be sold to the scrap dealer, debris (20 per cent) can be converted to bricks and paver blocks, leaving only 20 per cent waste, which as of now, has to be handled by the MCGM. This, too, can be diverted away from the dumping grounds by making producers responsible for the treatment of their products,” she says. She also recommends the revival of ALMs.

Aggarwal is also pressuring the MCGM to adopt decentralisation and promote entre-preneurs who can convert waste into wealth. “As per the proposed Development Plan 2034 of Mumbai, the city is divided into 151 planning sectors and each sector has about 200 acres (80 ha) area. We have requested the MCGM to allocate at least one acre (0.4 ha) per sector for decentralised solid waste management activities,” he says. The takeaways from the Deonar incident are clear, but is the MCGM listening?

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