18-storey toxic tower, scrap mafia: Why Mumbai is choking on bad air

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Feb 01, 2016 16:25 IST
Heavy smog in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)

Air quality in Mumbai continued to be “very poor” on Monday, four days after a mystery fire at the city’s largest dumping ground left it struggling with record levels of air pollution. Here’s what we know about the landfill, which has seen recurrent fires and futile efforts by local residents to have it shut down.


On January 28, fire brigade authorities get a call about a blaze at the Deonar landfill, which receives 6,000 metric tonnes of waste daily, including 600 tonnes of silt and 25 tonnes of bio-medical waste every day. Between March and June, the daily deposit of silt touches more than 9,000 metric tonnes because of drain cleaning in preparation of the monsoon. The dump, the city’s oldest, is often as tall as an 18-storey building.

Spread across 326 acres, the dumping ground is located on the eastern suburbs, close to the crowded neighbourhoods of Chembur, Sion and Navi Mumbai which are worst affected by last week’s fire. The city has two other major landfills in Mulund and Kanjurmarg.

Read: Why Mumbai’s air is far worse than Delhi’s


Recurrent fires at the dump pose grave health hazards to local residents who have complained of everything from acute asthma and skin rashes to higher infant mortality rates. In 2008, many residents of Chembur went on a hunger strike to protest against illegal burning of fires at the landfill. Four years later, Chembur residents protest with the civic authorities, particularly pointing to the rising incidence of asthma among them.

Firemen try to extinguish a fire at the Deonar landfill in Mumbai. (Prashant Waydande/HT Photo)

Last year, several surveys identified the localities around Deonar as the city’s most polluted. Officials figures show infant mortality in the nearby areas nearly doubles the average of the city at 60.80 per 1000 live births, although there are no studies directly linking the fatalities to the landfill.


The Deonar dumping ground regularly reports fires, often started by errant contractors and the scrap mafia trying to separate iron, copper and other metals from the garbage. Fires are also lit illegally to manage dumping levels. The facility has little surveillance; has no CCTV cameras or guards. Last week’s fire has also been blamed in a police complaint on dumping ground contractors and unnamed rag-pickers and the scrap mafia.

Past police complaints in similar incidences of fire have also blamed unidentified saboteurs. Convictions are almost nil.


The amount of smoke from the dump has reduced and the air quality has improved marginally since Friday when the city recorded its worst air pollution since monitoring began in last June.On Monday, seven out of 10 locations in Mumbai recorded “very poor” levels. Chembur continued to be the most polluted location for the fourth day in a row with an air quality index of 363 while locations such as Andheri recorded 355 and Malad and Mazgaon both recorded 330. Dozens of schools remained shut for the fourth day Monday. Fire tenders and civic officials continue to fight the fire, which they said had been controlled but not doused yet.

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