IN APRIL, the recurrent blaze in the Deonar garbage dumping ground still fresh in public memory, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s visit was timely, his jibe at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission juicy. But with less than two months to go for elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, residents of seven electoral wards around one of Asia’s largest dump sites find that the political embers from that visit, and from similar other visits and promises by politicians, have died.
In Shanti Nagar, for example, several residents who have worked as ragpickers all their lives congregate every evening in 51-year-old Shakuntala Salve’s house for a small cup of tea and discussions about their financial woes. While every party had promised to resolve their difficulties, it has been an arduous year for ragpickers who were banned from entering the dumping ground after the fire. Says 40-year-old Tahil Ali, “Our vote will go to the candidate who is able to get us jobs before the elections. Or else we will not vote.”
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Started in 1923, the Deonar dumping ground is today covered by massive mounds of garbage spread across 132 hectares. Experts say the average life of a dumping ground can be between 50-60 years, but Deonar, at well past 90 years, continues to receive 10,000 metric tonnes of the city’s garbage every day. The BMC has plans for a Rs 1000-crore waste-to-energy plant here, but work will only begin next year and continue for three years, at the very least.
As a result, with segregation of waste by ragpickers now prohibited in the dumping ground, residents of Shanti Nagar, Baba Nagar, Rafiq Nagar, Bainganwadi and Shivaji Nagar on the fringes of the site have lost faith in political parties’ commitment to bring them permissions to resume their business. Asked about local corporators’ efforts, the ragpickers share a common view — that the Samajwadi Party’s corporators including group leader Rais Shaikh had let them down by seeking closure of the dumping ground. “He had won with the help of our votes but he now advocates closure of the dumping ground. How quickly he has forgotten that the dumping ground is the only source of our income,” says Salve.
Seven corporator wards dot the periphery of the Deonar dumping ground. These include the slum-dominated wards 129-133 of M-East Ward, represented by mostly Samajwadi Party corporators. Others who suffer environmental implications of the fires and the pollution in the area are from M-West Ward numbers 144 and 149, where middle-class residents of Chheda Nagar and Swastik Park are represented by BJP and Shiv Sena corporators.
In July, Rais Shaikh had said the area around the dumping ground was severely polluted, and raised objections to the setting up of a waste-to-energy plant. His contention was that toxic ash from the plant would harm locals’ health.
The ragpickers of Deonar are still angry. Salve says many took loans to survive in the absence of a livelihood. “They give us a loan at 10 per cent and we are forced to take the deal because we have spent all our savings. We do odd jobs to earn and pay them back, and the cycle begins again,” she says. Others say adults in many homes eat only once a day — there’s not enough to go around in the absence of an income.
A recent survey by non-profit organisation Apnalaya showed that at least 72 per cent of families of waste segregators had no alternative source of income. Also, 50 per cent of surveyed families had taken loans, the average loan amount being Rs 48,000. Another parallel survey, also carried out by Apnalaya on 33,000 people from over 6,600 households in Shivaji Nagar, quantified the food insufficiency in the area, indicating that over 11 per cent of the total population of Shivaji Nagar goes hungry at least every third day since the closure of the ragpickers’ business.
Shaikh says he has raised their issues with the municipal commissioner several times. “The BMC is reluctant to allow them to enter the Deonar dumping ground and say they will hold us accountable if there is another fire there. Their anger is justifiable but while we have asked for the closure of the dumping ground, our principle demand has always been to rehabilitate them first,” he says.
Other party leaders are sympathetic too, but the issue is too complex for an early resolution. Deonar still handles the lion’s share of Mumbai’s garbage, the continuing fires are a worry, reports of a criminalised ‘garbage mafia’ muddy the waters further, and the needs of the ragpickers may not align with the needs of other residents.
Directly, or indirectly, the dumping ground fire and the absence of waste processing have affected the 8.2 lakh people of M East ward. Apart from the livelihood and health issues in the slums, residents of housing societies in the vicinity have also been affected with a rising number of complaints of respiratory disorders.
Residents of Aniket cooperative housing society on Ghatkopar-Mankhurd Link Road have taken on the role of vigilantes and watch out for fires in the dumping ground. Kala Suresh, 47, says, “Residents on the sixth floor have a clear view of the dumping ground. As soon as they spot a fire, we immediately inform the disaster management department and post it on Twitter as well. If the fire is promptly extinguished then there is less pollution to deal with the next day.” During the Deonar fire, the children were constantly coughing while adults woke up every morning with headaches and blocked sinuses. Many continue to experience difficulty in breathing.
The angst against politicians, however, is common to all sections. “Our local corporator has never came to visit us since she got her votes from the slums. They only show up at the time of elections,” says Suresh. The local corporator is from the SP, but the residents are equally angry with Shiv Sena and BJP too for being unable to find a solution to the decades-old problem. “We want to see the parties’ manifestos before we decide who to vote for. Our support for now goes to Independent candidates from our area,” says Suresh.