A week after a fire broke out in the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai, fires in smaller pockets continue to blaze. But toxic smoke is only an addition to a long list of problems in Deonar. The oldest and largest dumping ground of India receives over 5,500 metric tonnes of waste, 600 metric tonnes of silt, and 25 tonnes of biomedical waste daily. Between March and June every year, the daily amount of silt rises to more than 9,000 metric tonnes because of drain cleaning before the monsoon season. As of December 2014, the waste had reached a height of around 164 ft, equivalent to the height of an 18-storey tower.
The high mounds of trash in which children and stray dogs loiter around, and around which the air smells of burnt plastic and putrefying garbage makes Deonar most certainly unfit for human habitation.
From slums to dumping grounds
Since the early 1970s, this peripheral ward has evolved into a space for dumping garbage, waste from polluting industries, from abattoirs, and so on. It is not only unwanted things but “unwanted” people too who were and are dumped in this place. Poor people living in inner city slums, and migrants displaced from other parts of the country were all forced by circumstances to settle here.
In 1972-73, poorer residents from inner city areas were relocated to Shivaji Nagar, Baiganwadi, and Lotus Colony. More people (largely Dalits and Muslims) relocated around the dumping ground, following acute droughts in rural Maharashtra and other parts of the country. In 1976, people were internally displaced within the ward, when residents of Janata colony within and around the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre were shifted to Cheetah Camp. The Prime Minister’s special grant for urban renewal from 1986 to 1993 resulted in massive eviction of poor people from inner city areas to Deonar. This trend of relocating a large number of slum households from all over the city for “development” continued from 2003 to 2006, with World Bank-funded infrastructure projects.
Now, M-East ward, with over 80 per cent of its people living in slums, has emerged as an expanded poverty space. Along with the lack of decent housing, there is lack of potable water, adequate drainage, electricity, and welfare services such as public health facilities and government secondary schools.
Housing is not the only prism of legality and realising fundamental rights. When people are dislocated, or when they migrate to the city because of distress conditions back home, they are uprooted from their social, economic, and environmental contexts. They may put up/rent a hut in the ward, but lose access to workplaces, schooling, water and sanitation, and social capital. The cost of being displaced from established slum areas and villages and being relocated close to the dumping ground is devastating particularly for children, women, the elderly, and persons with disability or illness.
People’s rights to minimum standards of living here are challenged on a daily basis. M-Ward’s Human Development Index is the lowest in the city, at a meagre 0.2. The unemployment rate is 52 per cent. Of those ‘employed’, the income of 71 per cent of the ragpickers is uncertain. The average monthly income of a family is Rs. 8,000. Talking about the sudden shift from village life to life in a garbage dump, Aamna Bi, 16, who has come from Kolhapur to Nirankari Nagar after marriage, says: “It feels strange to live with garbage all around you. The water is not clean, and the place stinks all the time. But what is good is that this very dump is also a good source to fill our stomachs. If you work hard to collect sufficient recyclable garbage, you will have food at the end of the day. The dump sees to it.” But with the Municipal Corporation deciding to cancel licenses of ragpickers, the economic condition of Amina Bi and several thousand families is bound to get desperate.
There are at least 17 settlements on the edge of the dumping ground. The people here are constantly afraid of the threat of eviction, particularly during peak monsoon season. Their lives take on a repetitive pattern of construction and breakdown — first families reclaim the land from the marsh, lay the ground, build the walls, and raise the tin roof. Then a bulldozer accompanied by the police mows these houses down. After a few days, the families start rebuilding their lives all over again.
Says Salima of Nirankari Nagar: “Working filled with insects, with just our heads above it, my husband and I slowly pushed it back, made the ground solid, and built a home on it. And we paid registered rents to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Suddenly ward officials came with bulldozers and the police and demolished it. They said this is not my father’s land.” Straddling the Shankar Nagar housing colony and the vast dumping ground, the residents of Nirankari Nagar live on the edges of both. Even though they are registered renters to the BMC, the expanding garbage dump has now spilled over into their homes.
With open defecation, acute air and water pollution, and decaying garbage, M-East Ward has the lowest life expectancy rate of less than 50 years, and the highest infant mortality rate with around 20 per cent of all deaths in 2015 accounted for by infants. Every second child is underweight. Over 90 per cent of pregnant women in 2014-15 were anaemic, and there is a high instance of maternal mortality. There is a high threat of contacting diseases such as tuberculosis. Healthcare is grossly inadequate; the ‘health service’ providers are mostly quacks. Education is poor, and seven out of ten households have no access to piped water connection.
To add to the challenges, factors such as caste, religion, region of origin, and occupation also affect the experience of poverty. The parameters of human development in parts of this ward are, in fact, comparable to some of the poorest regions in the world, and overall ward development is still much lower than the rest of the city.
But M-East ward is not an isolated phenomenon of our human condition. At its roots is the systemic agrarian distress in India’s villages. This has to be addressed through accountable and efficient welfare and development programmes. It is here that the late President Abdul Kalam’s vision of creating secured villages (through the Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas framework), and comprehensively articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the Sansad Aadarsh Gram Yojana, becomes important. This programme has the potential to retain people in the villages and ensure that they live with dignity. Such rural prosperity can contribute substantially to creating sustainable cities and better economic development.
Forty years ago, when Mumbai embarked on several redevelopment programmes, spatial transformations, ‘beautification’ and ‘cleansing’ drives to become the economic capital of India, it seemed to close its eyes to communities which are at the very bottom of its class, caste and gender pyramid. In M-East ward, over half a million people living in the most difficult conditions contribute immensely to keep the city moving. They maintain our antiquated colonial sewage disposal system, clean the streets, take away and sort garbage, work as security staff, as maids in well-off households, as constables, and provide other basic services. Their abject standard of living has no place in a ‘global city’. Surely, Mumbai’s rich and powerful are capable of showing some compassion to address the existential problems of a few millions of fellow citizens who were dumped, along with the city’s garbage, in M-East Ward and other peripheries of the city.
S. Parasuraman is Director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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