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Smouldering 50,000 tonne coal mountain in the heart of the city, a decrepit dock choking 750 acres, Mumbai is a tired city with chronic fatigue syndrome. And yet, there is also Padhayi Gali, a patch of sidewalk paved with four young men’s dreams of gold.
Wasseypur, immortalised in Anurag Kashyap’s violent two-part epic, is now more or less subsumed by the expanding coal town of Dhanbad, and located in Jharkhand. The oldest stereotype of these east-central coal fields is the fires that burn inside the earth as coal heats up in summer and combusts by itself. The visual image is that of a hundred columns of smoke rising from black, coal-laden soil.
But if you are a Mumbaikar, you do not have to go as far as Jharkhand to see this spectacle. You can see it on a considerable scale, if not Dhanbad’s, next door to where you live in the sexiest parts of Mumbai. It will also solve another recent mystery: Why is Mumbai’s air quality deteriorating so rapidly, with dark black suspended ash that lodges in your nostrils, throat and, inextricably, in the lungs?
This is just about a mile from central downtown, on the eastern flank of the narrow strip of the island that constitutes South Bombay, the celebrated SoBo. In its eternal wisdom or, let’s dump all subtleties, incredible stupidity, the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) has decided to justify the existence of the nearly decrepit docks, import pulverised coal from Indonesia, pile it into an exposed 50,000-tonne mountain and open wagons, then ferry it to a government power plant in Nashik.
Winds lift and churn this malevolent powder into the air and bring it straight into your homes and lungs. Pulmonologists tell you of the boom in lung disease in Mumbai. “My daughter is a young doctor,” says prominent former banker and AAP South Bombay candidate, Meera Sanyal, “and even she tells you of this horrible increase in lung disease.” She also takes me to see the coal mountain, unmindful of what wading through the slurry would do to her sandals and feet, points to the fires already smouldering as the early summer sun beats down on the very high quality Indonesian coal. “Right next to this,” she says, “are thousands of tonnes of ammoniac fertiliser stored by Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers Ltd.
Then, three public sector refineries.” And then, she adds, in a tone that is a mix of disgust and resignation: “If this coal blows up, all of us are toast.”
Meera, herself a navy brat (her father was a respected vice admiral, G.M. Hiranandani) has brought along another retired vice admiral, I.C. Rao, who, continued…