The coughing fits began a day after the fire started in the early hours of January 27. For three days, owner of a tiny gulab-jamun stall, Shivnath Rathore, would lie on his mattress at night, suffering bouts of asthma as a heavy layer of smoke settled over the cluttered 10X15-feet houses spanning eastwards of Deonar dumping ground.
The 65-year-old would get breathless, unable to eat anything and his abdomen pain would increase. On February 3 as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) fire brigade was in its final phase of dousing the fire in the 30-feet mountain of garbage, Rathore took his last breath. His family moved to Etawah that day, vowing to return only after the smoke they think killed their father disappears.
On February 2, after medication failed to control his asthma, Rathore was taken to Vikas nursing home in Baiganwadi. “I gave him medicine for stomach ache. He could not eat and was coughing,” said physician Prakash Khetani. He had planned to conduct more tests the next day, but it was too late. The smoke, as per medical records, did not directly kill the sexagenarian. However, his son and daughter-in-law will now always be fearful of a future fire in the dump.
Govandi’s Kamla Raman Nagar dispensary is the the closest one to the dumping ground. It recorded 48 cases of acute respiratory infection on January 28, a day after the blaze spread. By February 1, the numbers swelled to 91. Two nebulisers with steroids were sent to the dispensary to aid patients.
“But these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Wakar Khan, a local who has been assisting the civic body in dousing the fire. There are over 50 private hospitals in Govandi, flooded with locals with three complaints — breathlessness, headache and suffocation.
“In a day, 20 patients are coming to me with the same symtpoms,” Khetani said.
Wakar, a close aid of Govandi’s local corporator, spent two hours for three consecutive days in the dumping ground, overseeing the fire fighting. “I have severe headaches and persisting eye irritation,” he said. He has neither visited a doctor nor taken any medicine. Many like him hope after the fire is doused, their breathlessness will go.
In their first-floor one-room space, 15-day-old baby of Nazreen Khan has been coughing persistently. “I stay up to wave off mosquitoes at night. But how do I block off the smoke?” she said. While Nazreen can afford daily fees of a doctor, Abu Bakr Shaikh is not that lucky. His mother’s asthma has worsened after the fire broke out. He is spending Rs 1,200 every month on her medicines. Now, he has to shell Rs 100 each time he takes his mother to the doctor. “We shut doors and windows at night, but it suffocates her,” he said. Shaikh’s pregnant wife Asma got high blood pressure, days after the fire.
The residents claimed that health workers did not visit them to extend help.
However, medical officer of the ward Sandeep Gaikwad claimed that the cases of respiratory distress had not risen dramatically. “We have stocked eye lubricants and steroids. A venous blood gas analysis was done to check whether carbon mono-oxide levels had risen in patients. The levels are normal,” he said.