Home / Politics / Policy /  Mumbai is being buried under a mountain of its own trash

Mumbai: A memorable scene in the movie Slumdog Millionaire, set in Mumbai, depicts the boy hero plunging into a ghastly pool of liquid excrement.

Truth isn’t much stranger than fiction. The city of 18.4 million people is running out of space for its waste, and Deonar, Asia’s oldest and largest dumpsite, is bursting.

Each day, more than 500 trucks line up along a two-lane dirt road in an eastern suburb, waiting to add to a mountain of refuse tall enough to submerge the White House twice over. That pile began in 1927 — the year Charles Lindbergh completed the first trans-Atlantic solo flight.

A galloping economy, coupled with surging urban populations, has propelled India’s most basic and inadequate infrastructure to a breaking point. That leaves Prime Minister Narendra Modi to navigate festering waters of red tape and lawlessness to attain his vision of creating modern metropolises.

“We continue to dump because we have no option," said Amita Bhide, chairman of the Center for Urban Policy and Governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “We are exhausting our landfills. This issue is reaching crisis proportions and will blow up in the face."

Mumbai produces 11,000 tonnes of trash each day. More than half of it is stacked at 180-foot-high Deonar, the rest at a second, smaller site. A third site hasn’t been operational because of environmental concerns; the hunt is on to find a location for a fourth landfill.

There are also vague plans to set up a compost plant at Deonar, buy more land to dump outside the city and spend more than 2,230 crore on waste management in the coming year. That won’t cut it.

“Finding newer landfills is just relocating the problem," said Jyoti Mhapsekar, president of the city-based nonprofit Stree Mukti Sanghatana that is working with 3,000 women waste-pickers. “Dumping the garbage is not the solution; processing it is."

Cairo, for example, produces more garbage than Mumbai and relies on door-to-door collectors who whittle down junk from the get-go. A collective of rag-pickers also exists in Pune, which, for a while at least, has been held up as a model in recycling.

In Mumbai, that could be one way forward, since about 80 percent of the refuse mixes biodegradables with recyclable plastic, glass, paper and metal, according to a 2013 report for Mumbai’s Development Plan.

Instead, backyard burning has worsened air pollution, and street littering contributes to the outbreak of diseases such as dengue at a time when India wants to shed its developing-world mantle. Cities overrun with rabid dogs and open garbage pyres don’t jibe with Modi’s vision of a modern nation dotted with 100 high-tech metropolises.

“Dump yards are a disgrace to Modi’s Clean India campaign," said Manjeet Kripalani, executive director of think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. “There is a yawning gap between these vision initiatives and ground reality."

Except for an incineration plant at Deonar for biohazardous and other hospital refuse that puffs out blackened smoke, there is no processing plant near any Mumbai dumpsters.

“In India you just start dumping on a piece of land, and that’s how it becomes a dump yard," said Bijoy Davis, a civil engineer who helped build a recycling plant in the outskirts.

The current method of waste disposal isn’t only a health and environmental hazard; it’s also taking up prime real estate. The city district crams 19,652 people in every square kilometer. Almost half—equivalent to twice the population of Denmark—live in slums such as Dharavi that have grown alongside the dumps.

Unlike in New York, which produces more daily waste per capita than Mumbai, most Indians would never think of separating their own garbage. In the Hindu caste system, only the lowest ranks handle and transport trash.

“There is a culture of dumping the garbage away from one’s house, disassociating and expecting someone else to take it away," Bhide said.

After generations of neglect, desperate measures might set in. Davis has heard of a few, from piling waste on cargo trains and stuffing it in abandoned quarries to creating a garbage island floating off the Back Bay.

“Everyone wants to hide and run away from their junk," Mhapsekar said. Bloomberg

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