EIGHT-year-old Rizwan has just returned from the Deonar dumping ground with a white gunny bag full of plastic and other wastes. “Haath jal gaya. Bahut garam hai (My hands got burned. It’s very hot),” he says. Another waste-collector behind him removes a bottled water from his waste and splashes water on his hands and face. “The dumping ground is like a furnace, par majboori hai,” he says.
The two, along with many other waste-collectors, have been going to the dumping ground despite the fire. “They have stopped dumping in the area since the first fire broke out. We have to scourge through heaps of waste to find scrap now,” said Irfan Shaikh, a 22-year-old who has returned after hours of collecting waste. For most like them who are daily earners, rummaging through the smoldering dumping ground is not an option but the only source of livelihood available to them. Many walk into the ground barefoot with nothing but their bare hands to scavenge through the waste. Children from impoverished families in the area make way to the dumping ground after their school still in their BMC school uniforms.
“Before the fire, there was waste of at least 500 kg daily. Now it is barely 200 kg and it will keep dwindling,” said Salim Shaikh, the owner of a scrap shop on the edge of the dumping ground in Rafi Nagar. His shop has three other workers segregating the waste brought by waste-collectors.
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One of them, a boy in his teens, is seen separating plastic from other metal found in the waste. Another, a woman in her 30s, is beating a wire to remove the metal from inside it.
Irfan, a Std IV drop out, has been working in the dumpyard for 15 years. “This fire is the biggest I have seen. It is difficult to breathe inside. On the first day, I came back with black smoke all over my face,” he says. Another teenager adds, “There are small fires regularly. The contractors manage to douse it. Iss baar, kisi ne roka nahi, aag bohot zyaada ho gayi.”
The contractor who had been maintaining the dumping ground was to hand it over to the BMC on January 31. The Shivaji Nagar police has booked a case against four unknown juveniles for the fire but local waste-collectors refute it. “Yeh humaari rozi roti hai. Iss mey kaise aag lagayenge?,” Rehana Bi, another waste-collector asks. Most waste-collectors in the area are wary of talks that the dumping ground will now be shut. “There are so many of us who earn our daily living through the ground. For the government, we do not exist. We will not be given any alternate livelihood,” says one of them.
“For the first time, we have seen so many cars of bade log going into the ground. Hopefully, they will see our plight now,” says 65-year old Khairoon Bi. “We are only segregating through the city’s waste to recycle it and earn a living, we are not a nuisance,” she adds.