As night temperatures fall in January, the city is enveloped in a thick haze of dust and pollutants in the early morning.
The fires that dot the streets on winter nights may lend some warmth, but the waste burned to light those fires — both the small ones and large - scale incineration at rubbish at dumping grounds — result in poisonous emissions, making these fires one of biggest sources of air pollution.
Mumbai in winter is the most polluted metropolis in the country after Delhi, according to a six-city study by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).
Leaf litter, municipal solid waste, roadside refuse, plastic or even highly toxic waste is burnt in the open, emitting carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM) and hydrocarbons (HC). These gases mix with the atmosphere and enter into our lungs, inviting a host of respiratory ailments.
Burning of tyres, wires, battery cells, wood, paper and a host of other things releases toxins that result in bronchospasms.
“Our windpipe gets affected adversely and we can also suffer from upper and lower respiratory tract bronchitis,” said Dr Jalil Parkar, a pulmonogist from Lilavati hospital, cautioning people to avoid areas where open burning occurs.
The Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000, declare open burning to be illegal, but it is being increasingly used at the local community level to burn refuse that the municipal corporation does not collect on time.
Studies on emissions from open burning by NEERI, across seven locations in the city, show that the problem is at its worst in Dadar and Dharavi.
The November 2010 study, covering Colaba, Dadar, Dharavi, Khar, Andheri, Mahul and Mulund revealed that Dharavi emits 144.70 kilogram/day of CO while Dadar emits 144.09 kg/day of CO.
Environmental activists said that even the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) sweepers indulge in open burning of leaf-litter, especially during winters.
“Many look at waste burning as a simple solution to get rid of rubbish and BMC sweepers are no exception. There are times when waste from municipal garbage collection bins are burnt, releasing air-borne pollutants into the locality,” said Rishi Agarwal, environmental activist.
The NEERI study reveals that around 3% of solid waste generated from each ward is openly burnt and about 10% of total solid waste is burnt at landfill sites.
In a year, open burning releases a whopping 2292 tonnes of CO, 734 tonnes of PM, 164 tonnes of Nitrogen Oxide (NO2) and 1173 tonnes of HC.
The Railways also contribute to air pollution. Railway conservancy staff is supposed to collect garbage from tracks and platforms and dispose it in BMC bins, but open burning of waste can be seen on major suburban railway stations on the central line such as Dadar, Thane, Ghatkopar.
Vidyadhar Malegaonkar, chief public relations officer, central railways said, “We don’t allow open burning, but it is a fact that it does happen at some places. The Railways is not necessarily responsible for it. We award contracts to rag picker co-operatives to clean tracks.”
Meanwhile Sandeep Silas, divisional railway manager, western railway, Mumbai division, said, “The no-man’s land in Dadar, which does not belong to either the central or western railways, might be used for burning waste. The contractors who pick up waste from stations dump it in BMC bins outside our stations. The waste between tracks on 29 suburban stations is collected in around 300 bags weighing 5 kilograms each.”