A vast grey cloud billows behind the sheet-metal roofs of the Govandi slum in northeast Mumbai. Home to about 600,000 of the city's poorest residents, Govandi is one of the largest slums in Asia. It lies in the shadow of the Deonar landfill, a towering 132-acre mountain of waste that requires clearances from airport authorities as it inches towards the flight paths of planes flying into and out of Mumbai's international airport. Entering the slum, one finds that the grey cloud is smoke from a fire raging atop the landfill.
"Can you smell it, that sweetish burning smell?" asks Arun Kumar, "It's a huge fire in the dump-yard, and it's been going on for the past 24 hours."
Kumar is a social worker and the director of Apnalaya, a non-profit that has been working in Govandi for 40 years. He told VICE News that the area's residents breathe some of the most polluted air in the city, filled with toxins and particulate matter from the nearby landfill, as well as a major highway, two oil refineries, a fertilizer factory, and a power plant.
"It's also got the most polluted water," Kumar tells VICE News, "and not a single hospital."
It's no surprise, then, that this ward also has the city's lowest average life expectancy — a shocking 39.4 years, compared to the metropolis' average of 68 years.
The age-sapping power of India's foul air made headlines when a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard found that over half the country's inhabitants breathed air clogged with PM10 pollutants —particles less than 10 microns in diameter that burrow deep into respiratory tracts — which shortened their lives by 3.2 years.
This was close on the heels of World Health Organization (WHO) study that found 13 of the world's 20 most polluted cities were in India.
Mumbai narrowly escaped the list.
But going by a standard unit of measurement used by scientists to quantify the level of pollutants in the air, at 136 micrograms per cubic meter, Mumbai's PM10 levels vastly exceed the WHO's "safe" level of 20 micrograms per cubic meter, as well as the country's own standard, 60 micrograms per cubic meter.
Mumbai's air is also laden with dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide, rapidly increasing due to an unabated rise in vehicular traffic. Besides, public health experts suggest that air pollution is a localized issue, noting wild variations across a single city, and levels of toxins spiking in deprived zones like Govandi.
In 2009, a local group of activists who call themselves the Smoke Affected Residents' Forum compiled municipal mortality data. They found that a quarter of the deaths between 2007 and 2008 were caused by respiratory ailments like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In comparison, such illnesses caused only 0.41 per cent of deaths in a neighborhood a little further away.
According to a recent Mumbai development plan, more than half of Mumbai's residents — close to 6.5 million — live in slums, which tend to be located on the city's least desirable and most polluted real estate. A 2011 study led by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) sampled air from four spots across the city, and found that the industrial zone where Govandi is located had an average concentrations of PM2.5, which is even more hazardous than PM10, of 95 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the US EPA's limit of 35 per square meter, and about 38 percent higher than levels in the city's leafiest, most sparsely populated residential areas.
'This is the opposite direction to other countries in the world.'
Archana Patankar, a researcher with the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, says that overcrowding, poor housing, and exposure to multiple types of pollutants has led to a rise in the frequency and incidence of asthma, wheezing, coughs, and loss of breath, as well as cases of allergic rhinitis and chronic obstructive lung disease. It's also likely to have escalated out-of-pocket spending on healthcare.
In a 2011 paper, Patankar estimated that coping with the rising health burden of respiratory illnesses would cost a total of $113 million for every increase of 50 micrograms per cubic meter in PM10 levels and $218 million from an equivalent spike in nitrous dioxide levels.
She found that most residents of Mumbai paid for these expenses themselves due to a steady decline in investment in public health services and the absence of accessible health insurance.
"About 75 per cent of Mumbai's residents go to private hospitals regardless of income levels," she told VICE News. The poorest among them, she adds, are forced to meet medical expenses by selling off the few assets they have or taking out expensive loans.
This study also found that nitrous dioxidelevels corresponded to greater incidence of respiratory problems — as well as costs. These levels are attributable to privately owned diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles, which account for an overwhelming 90 per cent of all vehicles on the road, said Rakesh Kumar, chief scientist and head of NEERI.
Kumar believes that the glut of private vehicles results from a dangerous — and deliberate — policy gap.
"The government thinks public transport companies should survive on their own, so prices are going haywire and it's becoming progressively more expensive to travel by public transport," he told VICE News. "This is the opposite direction to other countries in the world."
As a result, he says, the number of people using public transport has come down by 60 per cent in the past decade, which means more people are buying private vehicles, and end up in traffic congestion breathing in one another's noxious fumes.
The residents of Rafi Nagar in Govandi breathe far worse. The cluster of metal sheds in which they live butts right up against the landfill. Children and young men constantly mill atop the simmering bulk, retrieving old electronics and scrap metal to sort through in their huts.
"Big cocktails of things burn in these fires, including wood, garbage, rubber, leather," Kumar told VICE News, "so they have a different character altogether — one that's very harmful."
Follow Shruti Ravindran on Twitter: @s_ravindran