For four days, a massive fire swept through Mumbai’s biggest garbage dumping ground, where heaps of waste that comes in at 5,500 tonnes daily now stand as tall as five-storey buildings. The most challenging part of the firemen’s operation ended Monday, though sporadic pocket fires continued to break out.
Mumbai’s air quality remained hit by the cloud of toxic smoke billowing out of suburban Deonar. On Monday, it saw a marginal improvement from last week’s 341 to 308, though still in the “very poor” category.
But the larger firefighting moved to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation headquarters, where bureaucrats and politicians admitted that poor coordination between the municipality and the state government, a vexed matter until 2014 with the previous Congress-NCP government jousting on civic affairs with the Shiv Sena-BJP that rules the municipality, had allowed a crisis around Deonar to grow.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis himself tweeted about this blaze, which also sent central Mumbai residents, at least 15 km from the fire, scurrying to doctors with shortness of breath, cough and lung infections. “I have asked for a report on the reasons and lapses behind the incident and the measures that should be taken,” said municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who visited the site, accompanied by the BMC’s top bureaucracy. He ordered officials to build a road using debris to make access easier for firemen.
A ground that shouldn’t be Deonar dumping ground, a sprawl of about 132 hectares with slum colonies at its fringes and middle-class housing colonies a few hundred metres away, should not have been ablaze this week. With eight decades of garbage and toxic leachates, it should have been on its way to scientific closure.
In 2009, a Rs 3,700-crore contract for partial closure of the dump and building an “integrated waste management facility” was given to United Phosphorus. Disputes arose in 2010 over not installing the compost plant. A penalty was imposed, but the dispute was never settled and the project never took off.
BMC officials say they wrote several reminders to the government, seeking its nod for the contractor’s condition for a lease on the land before starting work. “The previous government did not take a decision for years. The BMC filed an affidavit in Bombay High Court stating the state had to take a decision,” said a senior official, requesting anonymity.
“Due to politics and vested interests, the then Congress-NCP government sat on the proposal for six years,” said Manoj Kotak, a BJP corporator.
The contractor continued to operate the ground from 2009 until Monday and charged the BMC a fee for accepting the garbage. After the BJP-Sena took over in 2014, the new government took a decision to scrap the contract. Starting now, the BMC will handle the operations itself.
“The contractor was getting huge money for doing what the BMC’s own men and previous contractors were anyway doing for years previously. Ideally, the contract should have been terminated three or four years back when a high court-appointed investigation team submitted a report pointing out flaws in the contract,” a very senior bureaucrat in the government said.
Both firms in the joint venture that had the contract — United Phosphorus and Tatva Global Environment — declined to comment.
The ground that is Fire brigade officials who have been at the site almost 24 × 7 since Friday said they found it near-impossible to navigate fire engines through uneven and slushy garbage. “There is only one route where our vehicles can ply,” a fireman said Monday. Also, access to areas where pocket fires still broke out was only for fire engines with a capacity of 4,000 litres, not for larger ones of 20,000 litres.
The operations included turning over heaps of garbage and dousing them to prevent pocket fires. “Each heap is like a building emanating methane and other hazardous gases adding to the heat,” said another fire brigade officer.
Firemen say it may be another four days before cooling operations end. “Right now, we are not fighting fire but dealing with the collateral damage. The smoke has caused a lot of environmental worries. The sporadic fires in dumping grounds are a phenomenon seen worldwide due to the reigniting of methane. We are currently dealing with that,” said chief fire officer P Rahangdale.
On Tuesday, the fire brigade will use magnesium chloride for cooling. “The area is generating immense heat. Nobody can assure us it will not happen again,” said one resident of the neighbourhood.
S R Maley, an expert in garbage management, said the process of selecting the consultant and contractor was questionable. “Deonar dumping ground has exceeded all limits of garbage without any kind of treatment. The main cause of the fire is the methane gas, and one day it can just explode and kill people,” said Maley, a member of a high court-appointed committee on municipal solid waste.
Rahil Qamar Siddique, a doctor at Rajiv Gandhi Medical Centre at Shivaji Nagar near the ground, said there was a spurt in the number of patients visiting him since the fire started.
Samajwadi Party corporator Rais Shaikh said the fire and the concomitant problems of pollution must be seen in the light of the larger failure of the BMC to manage the dumping ground.
Civic officials said decision-making on what to do with the growing environmental hazard at Deonar dumping ground over the years was stalled by an inquiry by the state government, ordered in 2013, over the appointment of the contractor.
Even with an allocation of over Rs 376 crore in 2015-2016 for solid waste management, the BMC finds itself tripped up by the worst headlines the country’s richest municipality has faced in recent years, just ahead of the state government’s big push to showcase the city as a global hub.