April 15, 2016


[They are fighting a David-vs.-Goliath-style battle online and offline to make the government shut down the dump and take the garbage out of the city. The actions take place as rising middle-class concerns about pollution and public health have fueled a new kind of civic activism in recent years in many Indian cities.]

A boy stands amid garbage as smoke billows from the burning Deonar dumping
ground in Mumbai in March. (Shailesh Andrade/Reuters)
MUMBAI — The curtains in Vandana Trivedi’s 10th-floor apartment gently sway in the evening breeze as she sips tea after returning from work, her children playing around her.

Beyond the sheer panels, however, is a jarring view — a mountain of trash the size of the Mall in Washington that has been burning for days.
The Deonar garbage dump is Asia’s oldest and largest, and when it caught fire recently the smoke was visible from space, according to NASA images.
Called “Mumbai’s silent killer” or “toxic time bomb,” the dump in recent months has given birth to a new environmental awakening among the middle-class residents in the area.
They are fighting a David-vs.-Goliath-style battle online and offline to make the government shut down the dump and take the garbage out of the city. The actions take place as rising middle-class concerns about pollution and public health have fueled a new kind of civic activism in recent years in many Indian cities.
“The stench remains in our clothes, curtains and the upholstery,” said Trivedi, 38, an asset-management professional. She had not sent her 6-year-old daughter to school for a week because of the noxious smoke, so the girl was skating in the living room, snaking between the sofa and the table.
“How do I protect my children from the very air that they breathe?” she asked. “I feel so helpless as a mother.”
The Deonar garbage dump, which has been around since 1927, has grown into a 300-acre open sore of putrefying trash.
More than half of Mumbai’s 10,000 tons of unsegregated and untreated garbage is dumped there every day.
It is an emblem of the poor management of Indian cities, which can lack even the most basic services. More than 350 million Indians live in cities today — and that will probably rise to 650 million by 2020 — but only 23 percent of urban solid waste is processed.
This year, the trash dump caught fire several times, worsening the city’s air quality to “poor” and “very poor” in March. In January, the thick, poisonous smoke blinded residents and left them coughing for days. Schools and malls were shut down. Last month, two of the firefighters working round-the-clock to douse the blaze were taken to the hospital after they fell sick.
Officials say the fire was set off by methane gas in the trash or started by individuals wanting to recover plastics and metal.
Rajesh Valappil, 42, who heads a tech start-up and lives near the trash pile, said neighbors who had previously been apathetic about it have been moved to action by the string of fires. He said he worries about dioxins being released into the air from the burning plastic.
The residents — most of them urban professionals who want to jog or walk outside — have dubbed themselves “the weekend warriors.”
They have conducted marches and protest sit-ins, tweeted to public officials, flooded inboxes and procured thousands of signatures in online petitions.
They regularly monitor an air-quality-index app on their smartphones, conduct strategy meetings in WhatsApp groups and upload videos of the smoke on their Facebook pages with posts that begin with phrases such as, “Another day, another fire.”
In a large slum that hugs the dump, children playing cricket run in and out of the area to fetch the ball. Rotting trash overflows the dump, floating in open drains and collecting in small heaps outside homes. Infants cough all day, while billboards hanging overhead demand that the dump be shut down.
And yet, said Syed Shah, 46, a trash picker whose family of seven lives less than 20 feet from the noxious mountain, “this garbage dump is our daily bread.” He said he feeds his family by selling the plastic and metal scrap and coconut shells that he pulls from the dump each day. “The whole city is up in arms against this dump. But where do we go? They cannot close it abruptly and kick our stomachs.”
The politics over the dump has shone a light on the city’s underlying classdivide.
“For saving the livelihood of a few thousand trash pickers, should the health of the entire city be compromised?” asked Akbar Hussain, a local political worker who heads a public union for transport drivers.
Clinics in the neighborhood are swarming with patients who suffer from respiratory illnesses, diarrhea and jaundice. A doctor said that since the fires started, many of his asthmatic patients have stopped responding to their regular medicines.
“The frequent fires will cause an epidemic of infectious diseases in Mumbai. It is no longer about the people who live near the dump,” said Sanjay Nirupam, a senior leader of the opposition Congress party who has protested the dump.
Residents say the city has not issued a single health advisory, despite the toxic air quality.
The government has identified a rural site outside Mumbai for a new dump. But officials say nothing can change overnight.
“Even if we start working on a war footing today, it will take at least a year and a half to stop the dumping here in Deonar,” said Shailesh Phanse, the chairman of the standing committee in the city municipal corporation. “We have to prepare the new site — we cannot repeat the mistake of just dumping the garbage there.”
Authorities have installed 12 surveillance cameras and increased police security at the dump site in hopes of determining whether the fires are self-igniting, from environmental factors or being deliberately set.
Officials are also considering making mandatory the segregation of trash by residents, a difficult move as recycling remains rare in India.
And even if residents sort their trash, the city municipal corporation does not have enough trucks to collect segregated garbage or processing plants to treat it, according to Raj Kumar Sharma, an environmental activist.
Instead, the resident-activists have faced criticism, accused of tarnishing Mumbai’s image globally and spreading panic on social media.
Recently, as the fourth fire raged on, Valappil, who heads the tech start-up, fought online.
“I updated the Wikipedia page on Deonar. Then I emailed NASA and requested them to release a new image. That is how desperate we are here,” he said.
On the same day, not too far away, a 7-month-old infant named Hasnain Khan began coughing nonstop. The deadly smoke had been swirling all day in his neighborhood on the edge of the dump. His father rushed him inside and closed the windows tight. It didn’t help. That night, he died in his sleep.

“No parent should go through the trauma of burying their infant son again,” said Sarfaraz Khan, his 36-year-old father. “The garbage dump must go, whatever it takes.”
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