From above, the sprawling trash heap of Deonar (pronounced "Devnar”), in eastern Mumbai, resembles a large left ear. A curving stream traces its outer edge, feeding into Thane Creek, the body of water that separates the city from the Indian mainland.
On the opposite side of the ear, where the head would be, is the teeming neighborhood of Shivaji Nagar.
In late January, Deonar erupted in fires. An arrowhead-shaped plume of smoke floated up from the 326-acre site, carried aloft by north-easterly winds, and blanketed Mumbai. For six days, the city’s air-quality rating remained at "very poor,” with measurements of particulate matter exceeding safety standards by a factor of five.
Seventy schools were closed, and hospitals were flooded with patients suffering from lung and heart ailments. (Air pollution contributes to more than 600,000 premature deaths in India every year.) The acrid smoke burned the eyes and throats of people from the Gateway of India, a monument at Mumbai’s southern tip, to Chembur, fifteen miles away, near the dump. Locals took to calling the neighborhood ‘Gas Chembur‘.
Earlier this month, after the fires were mostly doused, Rishi Aggarwal and Vazir Kadri went to Deonar to see the effects of the inferno. Aggarwal is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai, an independent think tank, and has been an environmental activist since the late nineteen-nineties, when he protested illegal dumping in a lake near his home.
"I used to call it my own Walden Pool,” he said, before admitting with a laugh that "it was just a big ditch.”
Kadri lives in Shivaji Nagar with his parents, his wife, their two children, and his brother’s family, all crowded into one house. His 13-year-old son has tuberculosis, and the symptoms worsened during the fire. "My child is affected,” he said, and so he is agitating to close the dump.
Gaining access to Deonar proved easy for the two men: they simply stepped through a broad breach in the barbed-wire-topped stone wall, dodging rat holes and fresh water-buffalo patties as they went. They walked past endless bits of plastic, a shiny spoon, old shoes, and deposits of construction sand which muffled the smell. They crested peaks of detritus until, soon, they were at eye level with the minarets of a nearby mosque, looking down on the rooftops of two- and three-story buildings.
"Where we are standing once used to be all mangroves,” Aggarwal said.
When the British set up Deonar in 1927, it was miles from the city. Over the years, though, as Mumbai grew into a metropolis of more than 12 million, the site was enveloped. Now, Kadri said, "the dumping ground has become a mountain.” Black flies landed on his bright white button-down shirt. The smell of smoke still filled the air, and small blazes were visible in several directions. (The Mumbai Police are investigating who set the January fire.)
There once was a plan to clean up Deonar. Years ago, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which manages (in the loose sense of the term) the site, declared that half of it would be shut down with systems put in place to collect methane and wastewater.
But litigation and political infighting have stalled the B.M.C.’s efforts. New landfill locations, beyond the bounds of the city, have been proposed by government officials, but the plans have been fought fiercely by the people living there.
It’s a common conundrum in India, which has a population four times larger than that of the United States in a territory about a third as big.
"For years, it was NIMBY -- ‘Not in my back yard,’ ” Aggarwal said.
So the garbage kept coming to Deonar, more than eight million pounds daily, nearly a third of the city’s waste.
"But now people have realized that whatever goes out of their back yard also affects them,” he continued. "This garbage belongs to millions of citizens in Mumbai, and the toxic air has gone back to the same residents.”
Something over the next hummock caught Aggarwal’s eye. "Come! Come!” he called. In the distance, trucks were arriving, kicking up billows of golden dust, depositing new loads of refuse for bulldozers to scrape up. There were dozens of people around the vehicles, sorting through the piles.
"It’s the treasure of ragpickers,” Aggarwal said.
Continuing to walk up the hill, he passed a man who was collecting coconut husks, which he would sell to a bakery for fuel.
"We need to look at waste not as waste but as a resource,” Aggarwal said. "You can have a bloody rich entrepreneur base instead of two or three big politicians benefitting from this nonsense.” (In the past, officials have received kickbacks for awarding particular companies waste-disposal contracts, which are never properly fulfilled.)
Aggarwal advocates for the composting of all organic matter, which is required by law but rarely enacted, and comprehensive recycling, as happens on a small scale at some community facilities. In his more optimistic moments, he envisions a circular economy in which products are designed to be useful even after their primary function is fulfilled.
For now, the recycling happens piecemeal, scrap by scrap. Another man was moving across the hills and humps of the trashscape, collecting plastic bags in a large piece of fabric with the green, white, and saffron stripes of the national flag. When the mound reached his waist, he knotted up the four corners to create a hefty bundle, his work done. He stepped to a small pool of water, black as espresso, which had collected in a depression, and leaned down to wash. He scooped up water with his hands, rubbing down his arms, his fingers, his legs. Then he slipped off his flip-flops so that he could get the spaces between his toes.
Close by, a young boy was entertaining himself with a shimmering strand of unspooled cassette tape. A dog wandered by, pausing to let out a yowl. The boy responded in kind. Hundreds of feet above him, birds of prey rode the thermal currents, their wings outstretched and their forked tails tilting, in the company of plastic bags that swirled in the same winds. For the moment, a strong breeze had cleared most of the smoke from the skies of Mumbai.
Within a couple of days, though, the haze would return.
[Courtesy: The New Yorker]