Like most other slums in the city, Rafi Nagar in the eastern suburbs is a maze of narrow lanes and crammed rooms with abysmal civic amenities. But what makes it different is it has the city’s largest dumping ground in its backyard, which has been witnessing frequent fire breakouts in the past few months. Battling the stench and fire on a daily basis, the residents are angry, but are also helpless.
The fire on March 20 was the eleventh in the past two months, including all pocket fires, with the first being reported on January 27. The incidents have changed the residents’ lives for the worse.
“You are lucky you can see the sky today. A week ago, our huts and gullies were covered with black smoke cover and the stench. Nights and early mornings are especially difficult, leaving us with sore eyes and unbearable throat irritation,” said Rafia Shaikh, 45, a juice seller, who sits near the broken wall of the dumping ground, which provides a glimpse of the 35-meter heap of garbage in the dump yard.
Every six of the 10 patients Dr Rahil Qamar Siddique, a doctor at Rajiv Gandhi Medical Centre at Rafi Nagar, gets complain of breathlessness, throat and skin infection. “The present generation will survive, but the threat is for the future generation who are inhaling toxic gases 24x7. If a healthy person’s life expectancy is 60 years, for this generation, it will get reduced to 40 years.”
“I have to cover my nose with a wet handkerchief every time I get out of my house. I get temporary relief, but I am scared now,” said Rais Khan, 15.
The dumping ground has been in use for 89 years, unheard of for any dumping ground, and holds nearly 12 million tonnes of waste. The garbage heap is as high as a six-storey building. With the frequent fires, some residents have started moving to other parts of the city. A case in point could be Wajid Ali, 53, a scrap dealer from Rafi Nagar, who has sold his shop and is headed to his village. “I am suffering from asthma. The smoke was killing me slowly. I will come back if they find a solution to this problem,” said Wajid Ali, who had to catch his breath after each word.
Migration is, however, not an option for 75-year-old Ishtiaq Ali, but he has moved to his relative’s place in Sion. Rihana, who has been living 10feet away from the dump yard for 35 years, has frequents bouts of cough. “I pay Rs2000 a month for single room. For every visit to a doctor, I pay Rs100, but it is impossible to think of leaving this place.”
According to a section of residents, fires are not new, as many cases have gone undocumented. Around 1 lakh people live in the close proximity of the dump yard and around 3,000 work as waste collectors, scrap dealers Although suffering, some don’t want the dumping ground to be shut as it is their source of livelihood. Their anger is against the authorities, who failed to consider the impact of their decision on the business here. “Fire and smoke is a regular affair here, but this time it affected the rich beyond Deonar and Govandi. The uneducated masses hardly complain,” said Rajan Waman Gade, a Govandi resident since 1970 and a scrap dealer.
“I used to earn Rs100-200 a day after waste collection, but because of the fire I don’t know if I can make Rs50 now,” said a scrap dealer working from Rafi Nagar. “There have been numerous protest but the stakeholders such as scrap dealers and rag pickers are not made aware of the need of scientific closure of the dumping ground, employment generation and a better life after that,” Dr Siddique said.
Around 89 years in use, 10 years of planning to close it, numerous protests later, too, the BMC is yet to get into action mode. The civic authority paid heed only after the January fire covered the city, including south Mumbai, in smog and made the city more polluted than Delhi.
After two major fires, the authorities decided to declare the landfill a ‘prohibited area’ and 150 security guards were pressed into service. A three-hour visit to the landfill showed the BMC has chewed more than it can swallow. “We are trying to cover as much area as possible with 50 guards in each shift. But it is nearly impossible to cover corner of the landfill, which has many illegal entries and exits and a damaged boundary wall,” said a security guard on the duty.
“Seventeen fire engines have been spread over six zones. We have set up a control room at the landfill,” said Sanjay Deshmukh, additional municipal commissioner. “Segregation of waste is the key. We have to reduce the garbage going to landfill,” said Ajoy Mehta, civic chief at a press conference after the inferno.
However, it will be a long way before segregation will be mandatory. For now, despite the BMC continues to dump 2,600 tonnes of waste at the spot daily.
Till then, residents will have to deal with BMC’s response: “We do not have any other landfill to dump the waste.”