27 June, 2022


Mumbai: A Tip Too Far

By Malcolm Smith

Dr. Malcolm Smith

Mumbai’s Deonar open refuse tip, the largest in Asia, has been “reprieved” yet again to add more ill-health and pollution to the squalor that millions endure. Yet Mumbai has apparently joined the likes of Washington DC and Amsterdam as an “alpha city”.

If it’s the street-food kiosks along Chowpatty Beach, the brassware at Chor Bazaar, or the history of the famous Taj hotel you’re interested in, Mumbai has tour guides happy to help you negotiate this sardine can of a city. Even tours of Dharavi, one of the city’s larger slums – the one made famous by Danny Boyle’s 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire – are increasingly popular.

But there is one place in Mumbai that no tour company will take you, one that’s sealed off from prying foreign eyes and one you have to negotiate your way into with considerable difficulty. It’s the putrid Deonar refuse tip, the city’s main dumping ground.

Mumbai’s Deonar landfill covers over 140 hectares of land and is piled  with stinking, decomposing garbage as high as a seven storey building. Each and every day it receives 5,500 tonnes of garbage, 600 tonnes of silt from the city’s drains and 25 tonnes of bio-medical waste. Between March and June the daily amount of silt dumped rises to more than 9,000 tonnes because of drain cleaning in advance of the annual monsoon.

The largest open refuse tip in Asia, it’s been in operation since 1927 when the British started dumping here on land that was then on the outskirts of the city. Today, the Deonar tip is surrounded by urban slums. Come the annual monsoon, horrendous pollution runs off it into its surrounding streams. With medical waste dumped here, it’s little surprise that health problems blight the shanty communities around its edges.

With a driver and vehicle provided by the Bombay Natural History Society, and the pretext of studying the birds feeding on the tip (it was partly true), I managed to bluff my way through three sets of bureaucrats in track-side shanty offices, each of them trying to prevent me from getting to it.

I signed papers put in front of me oblivious to their content, argued incessantly, tried to look as official as I possibly could, and insisted that it was of vital importance for Anglo-Indian relations for me to see the birds living there.

It took some time but I eventually made it to the tip with one proviso insisted upon by the tip bureaucrats: I had to be accompanied by a uniformed guard complete with his menacing lathi, the long wooden stick so beloved of Indian police for “crowd control”. His function? To protect me if rabid dogs came our way or some of the refuse pickers inhabiting the tip gave up picking refuse and robbed us instead.

Walking on the top of a seven storey plateau of refuse, the sickly, putrid smell cloying and stomach-churning, I watched processions of refuse lorries driving in to deposit their loads in a thick cloud of dust. And every time one disgorged its fly-ridden contents, stick-thin families of garbage pickers descended immediately on the stinking mass, combing it for anything of value, bits of plastic, metal, paper, even perhaps some discarded food worth eating.

The pickers hadn’t got far to travel. Hundreds, maybe thousands of tin-roofed shacks huddled next to the tip’s southern slopes. Down on the opposite side, women were busily washing clothes in the disease-ridden waters ambling slowly alongside this monstrous muck-pile.

With my driver who had never set foot here before looking more agitated by the minute, and my guard rhythmically tapping his lathi against his leg while scruffy, emaciated dogs thankfully kept their distance, it didn’t give me a great deal of quality time to look at the plethora of birds spending their day at Mumbai’s giant refuse heap, part of the reason for struggling to get here.

Hundreds of dark chocolate-coloured Black Kites hung in the dust-laden air above, diving on to the refuse when they spotted something organic – anything organic – to eat. Flocks of pretty grey and yellow-tinted wagtails, incongruous in this foul, smelly landscape, flitted from pile to pile, picking off insects which were in copious supply.

But the most surreal experience was to spot, amongst all this squalor, rabid dogs, refuse pickers and stench, a phalanx of hundreds of egrets standing bolt still, all incongruously clean and pure white like rows of choirboys lining up for an important church service on a saint’s day.

In a strange way, it made perfect, if perverted, sense. Here was a cathedral to squalor, an environmental eyesore the governing authorities of this huge, sprawling and noisy city seem incapable of addressing. And the neat, well-turned out choirboys were a surreal vision of a cleaner future.

But that dream never seems to become reality. Plans to close the squalid Deonar tip and replace it with a modern refuse disposal, energy production and recycling facility have been under discussion for decades. And just recently, they have failed yet again.

But shutting off the supply of refuse available to the pickers has dire implications for the thousands of families that depend on it. Mumbai’s refuse pickers and slum dwellers don’t trust the city authorities. What jobs will they ever have if they can’t pick refuse?

Local pickers argue that it’s their way of life and don’t want to be deprived of it. “If I’m lucky I can earn maybe 10,000 rupees ($180) a month, enough to support my family, that’s me, my wife and five children”, says Arnav Mehta, a shanty dweller who picks over the Deonar tip. “Yes, we do go ill, sometimes it is fevers or diarrhoea and sometimes a rash on the skin, but that’s the way it is here”.  

And what are the chances of Mumbai’s slum dwellers all getting improved homes and better living standards in a city riven with corruption? How will they run their paper and plastics recycling, their little repair shops and the hovels that take bits of discarded metal to make something useful out of them if they are living ten stories up in a high-rise block?

In 2009, Mumbai – the commercial hub ofIndia and its most populous urban area – was named an “AlphaCity”, joining the ranks ofAmsterdam,WashingtonDC,Moscow andToronto amongst others.

The concept of an Alpha or Global City was popularised by the Dutch-American sociologist Saski Sassen as a city that has a direct and tangible effect on global affairs through socio-economic means. To qualify, an alpha city must – among many other things – have renowned cultural institutes; it must exert active influence on and participate in international events and world affairs; provide international financial services; and possess an advanced communications and transport system.

But where does a huge level of abject urban poverty and open refuse tipping figure in all this? Is it acceptable that more than half of an Alpha City’s inhabitants live in shanties or outdoors? What about pollution? And what about squalor and an attitude to society’s refuse and waste that put it on a par with the very worst of the developing world?

With its fourteen million or so inhabitants making it the fourth most populous city in the world, Mumbai is the business and entertainment capital of India. It is one of the world’s top ten centres of commerce in terms of global financial flow generating 5% of India’s GDP and accounting for 25% of its industrial output and 70% of its maritime trade.

In 2009, its per-capita GDP was $8,796, compared with an average $1,500 for India as a whole. It’s a comparatively rich city.

But as any tourist arriving at its Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, then travelling into the city by taxi soon finds, the roadsides are clogged with traffic and lined with shanties as squalid as in most undeveloped countries. Divert off the airport road as my taxi had to in order to make any progress towards the centre and you enter what my driver called “the real Mumbai”.

Naked children squatting to defecate in the gutters; thousands of thin, poorly fed people sitting forlorn on any bit of concrete they can; litter everywhere; squashed vegetables mixed with excrement; and gnarled, dishevelled dogs fighting over some heap of bones. All life takes place in the open: teeth get pulled, babies get delivered, and dead bodies are wrapped up ready for collection.

Mumbai’s backstreets are “home” to maybe five million destitute people, begging to survive, taking on the most menial jobs such as cleaning the foul public toilets or collecting paper and plastic litter (there’s plenty available) to pass on to recyclers for a rupee or two. When the monsoon arrives – and thirty inches of rain hammers down in a month – the lucky ones have a plastic sheet for shelter.

Mumbai is a city in trouble, alpha or not. It has widespread poverty and unemployment, poor public health and poor civic and educational standards for a large section of the population. With available land at a premium, even Mumbai’s better off residents often live in cramped, relatively expensive housing, usually far from workplaces and therefore requiring long commutes on crowded trains or clogged roadways.

Dharavi, one of the city’s major slums (there are three larger ones!)  “houses” a million people in shacks. Each one, about ten feet square, has electricity but no water or toilet. Water is available at the nearest standpipe….when it is flowing! There is reputedly one public toilet for every thousand “residents”. Mahim Creek, a local river, is where most of the residents urinate and defaecate, thereby spreading contagious diseases.

Just as at Deonar, Dharavi’s slum shacks are technically illegal; their occupants had no official permission to build them even though they were homeless. And if they want to build an extra room on to their illegal shack they first have to pay bribes to the police and to the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the local authority, maybe to informers who have to make a living too! If they don’t, their shack might mysteriously be knocked down.

So Dharavi has a particular employment speciality: builders who specialise in making new shacks – or extensions – look old and decrepit. That way they attract less attention!

Did Saski Sassen visit one of these slums before Mumbai was included as an Alpha City? Presumably not. Plans for Dharavi’s re-development and re-housing come and go; so far, it remains as it always has.

Mumbai is a split city; between the Manhattan-priced high-rises that dot the south Mumbai skyline….and the brown-coloured areas on the map marked with the letters ZP for zopadpatti; the slums.  62% of the city’s population live in the brown ZPs.

Perhaps those egrets weren’t really there at all, a clean white illusion, an image of what might transpire here but perhaps never will. There’s plenty of money in Mumbai and there are plenty of rich people. Most of them have the latest in-home gadgetry and expensive cars. Walk along streets full of people living outdoors in Mumbai and an adjacent street is just as likely to house a Mercedes dealership.

But who’s bothered about the poor, even if they live in one of the most polluted environments in southern Asia. Alpha city? That’s a joke.

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  • 0

    China has the longest High Speed Rail in the world. India is yet to construct the first mile. But not to be outdone, she too must have a superlative to prate about. “The largest open refuse tip in Asia”!

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