The fire that has been raging at the Deonar dumping ground has cast a pall of gloom – literally and metaphorically – all over Mumbai. “How could this threat have been ignored for so long?” is the constant refrain I have heard over the past week.
For those who would like to believe that the problem is localised, let me warn that there are no ‘safe’ areas in such situations. It is not only ‘downmarket’ Deonar, as one ill-informed and arrogant townie described it, that will suffer.
The shadow and stench of burning waste has covered the entire city, making all claims of geographical superiority pointless. In any case, it is so absurd to believe that the air over any area remains static that a rebuttal itself is foolish.
Without trying to be preachy, it is now well known that the planet responds to how we treat it: if care and concern is lacking, it can be unsparing.
Specific to the problem on hand, if those who live in and those who administrate cities are either ignorant or callous about maintaining it, there can be hell to pay, as Mumbai is realising to its great cost.
Just as Delhi has been struggling to recover from its smothering pollution despite some serious crisis management (let’s abstain from the politics of it), the portents for Mumbai are equally – if not more – ominous.
The wind carries poison all over the city. As if things were not already bad enough with rising pollution from vehicular traffic, construction dust and industry.
It is tempting to look back at an earlier Mumbai where Chembur was jokingly called “Chambers” because of industrial pollution from factories in the area or when Parel and Labaug were avoided by everybody who didn’t work and/or live there because of the textile mills.
That was also a time when everyone smoked in closed spaces and no one was concerned because the debilitating effects of smoking were not as widely known as they are now.
The only saving grace was that very few people owned cars, but with economic growth, this was never going to remain the case always. The argument about better public transport and road planning becomes stronger, but that’s another issue.
Fact is, the ill-effects of pollution are now all too well-known to us and no one is immune or safe. The sea helps Mumbai by clearing the air, but the sea is constantly abused by the city: whether it is rubbish chucked into it by the general public or untreated sewage by the authorities.
And there we reach the nub of the problem – all the authorities that rule Mumbai and help each other in the great game of passing the buck. If one single matchstick carelessly thrown– which has been attributed as the cause – can set off a fire in a dump, far, far away for more than a week without relenting, the consequences for Mumbai are frightening.
There are other colossally scary dimensions too. The Deonar dump was reportedly almost 22 storeys high; and rising, because 6,000 tonnes of rubbish were being added to it every day! How come this never caught attention?
News channels were outraged earlier this week that many BMC corporators were on a junket to the Andamans, as the Deonar fire broke out. But the problem is older and more serious than that.
The BMC is still the primary agency that runs Mumbai, but subsequent state governments and endless political wrangling have brought things to a pass where fingers are pointed everywhere, but a few remedies are provided.
The Deonar ground should have been closed years ago. Instead, it is now several metres high; an edifice that is not just ugly and unaesthetic, but also a major environmental and health threat to Mumbai.
If this fire is not a wake-up call, what is?