Deonar is one of Asia’s largest dumping grounds and is probably its oldest too. (HT File)
Deonar is one of Asia’s largest dumping grounds and is probably its oldest too. (HT File)

Trash mountains: another type of Mumbai high rise

Efforts to build a waste-to-power plant for the Deonar landfill waste have been on for well over three decades, yet a plant is still to come up
By Saumya Roy
PUBLISHED ON AUG 30, 2021 12:44 AM IST

Mumbai, 1896: “A tide of rats overwhelmed the city following the retreat of the monsoon. They ran “about the streets… issuing from drains, gutters in a sick or dying state,” the British municipal report noted. The result was one of the deadliest pandemics to hit what was then Bombay. The dead rats were found with buboes or swellings, which doctors began noticing on fever-stricken patients. The Bubonic plague claimed more than 1,900 people each week that year.

Then, as now, home isolation and quarantining was necessary medical procedure. But the colonial government undertook measures often by force, which led to a mass exodus of people from the city that had, by the turn of the century, become a centre for migrants from around the country.

The British had built a fort, reclaimed land from the sea to join the islands and, on the sliver that emerged, built stately European buildings. Outside the fort, the lanes were packed with Indian migrants, drawn from around the country by the promise of work. Over time, the garbage dumping grounds at Mahalaxmi, where Mumbaiites had sent their garbage for years, swelled into the homes around it.

Early in 1897, with the plague cases rising, the British officers identified a marshland in the distant seaside village of Deonar, where Bombay’s waste could be sent henceforth. The government acquired the land from its owner, Ardeshir Cursetji Cama, in May. A bund, or embankment, was built along the edges of the Deonar grounds to keep the sea from seeping into the site, and the garbage from flowing into the creek. “Cuchra” or trash trains began arriving at the Deonar grounds on June 7, 1899.

“One great danger to the public health will be removed with the removal of the refuse,” official reports said.

Over the century, the grounds have risen with the city’s trash making mountains of garbage nearly as tall as 18-storey buildings. Spread over 300 acres, it’s a township that houses Mumbai’s castaway belongings, diseases and people.

Inhabiting the landfill

From the late 1960s, the municipality began to relocate Mumbai’s pavement and slum dwellers to Deonar allotting them plots of land: those who came from Umarkhadi called their settlement, near the gate of the dumping ground, Umarkhadi. Others who were sent from Bandra called theirs Bandra Plot. The settlers began to trawl through the grounds to sort and resell cloth scraps, paper and metal as a means of earning a livelihood.

As the decades passed, the city’s trash changed: cloth scraps shrank on the mountains, plastic — broken televisions, squashed bottles and plastic sheets —increased. These didn’t meld into the earth as food and cloth did, but only fed the growing mountains.

Deonar is one of Asia’s largest dumping grounds and is probably its oldest too. It reflects the dizzying growth and swelling desires of a city. The landfill currently holds between 13 million to 16 million tonnes of garbage, with at least 2000 Metric Tonnes (MT) added to it daily.

But the absence of a waste management system has begun to hurt the city, starting with the lives of the people living closest to the landfill. Some of the most common ailments to be found among the residents here include asthma, multiple drug resistant tuberculosis, cuts, bruises and eye disorders.

Several studies have been conducted over the years to assess the impact of the landfill on the city. A 2012 study showed that benzene, a carcinogenic, festered in the mountain air, many times greater than at any of the landfills the authors looked at elsewhere in the world. Medical studies from 2009 showed the haze around the mountain was thick with the carcinogenic chemical, formaldehyde. Most recently, a paper published in the Clinical Epidemiology and Global Health journal pointed out that people staying in the vicinity of dumping ground within the radius of a kilometre (“exposed group”) had more instances of respiratory illnesses, eye disorders and gastrointestinal problems than a group from a distant community living with similar socio-economic conditions.

One hundred and twenty two years since it first came as the result of a plague, a new pandemic grips the city. The grounds now house the waste of a new disease: face masks, sanitizer bottles and latex gloves; more plastic and organic waste from hospitals and homes.

Around 2005, the civic body made a waste processing facility at Kanjurmarg, where more than 80% of the city’s waste is currently processed. Efforts to build such a waste-to-power plant for the Deonar landfill waste have been on for well over three decades, yet a plant is still to come up.

(Saumya Roy is the author of Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings, a book about the waste-pickers of Deonar whose lives are caught in the crosshairs of legal, political and public health concerns. Published by Profile Books, distributed by Hachette India)

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