This article is part of a wider initiative by VICE looking at the state of the environment around the globe. In Asia-Pacific, each VICE office is examining the main concerns from their territory, in an effort to gauge the health of the planet as a whole and to highlight the widespread need for change. For other stories in this series, please check out Environmental Extremes.
When we walk into the Deonar garbage dump, India’s oldest, and one of its largest, the harsh reality hits us hard. At 327-acres wide, and in some places 20 storeys high, the dump receives more than 9,000 metric tons of trash every day from Mumbai’s 20 million residents, which accumulates to make it a dizzying and sickening spectacle. This is where residents in the slums surrounding the dump barely make it past the age of 40, with a high incidence of malnutrition, respiratory issues born out of breathing in toxic fumes, and tuberculosis among inhabitants, as well as a medical waste incinerator near the dump lowering the collective life expectancy drastically. This is also an area that serves as a source of income for some of the city's least fortunate.
Most of the locals living on the fringes of the Deonar dump work as ragpickers, the people who segregate waste. Often entering this profession as children, they have been hailed as the “unsung heroes of sustainability” and the backbone of the city’s informal waste management sector. In a country where citizens don’t throw out old T-shirts, but turn them into mops, it’s probably this spirit of jugaad (improvisation) that makes us one of the world’s least wasteful countries. And traditionally, ragpickers in Deonar were a vital component of this ecosystem, separating our waste from our recyclables to help India be more sustainable. But it turns out, the ones turning waste into wealth are some of the most marginalised people in the country—battling everything from low wages to an even lower social status. What’s worse is that in recent times, their main source of livelihood has been taken away from them. The Deonar dump has borne witness to three major fires—in January 2015, March 2016, and March 2018—which the authorities have pinned on the ragpickers as “sabotage,” effectively cancelling the licenses and livelihoods of some 3,000 ragpickers and building a big, barricaded wall blocking them from entering the area that most have lived alongside for years.
“This (move) is unfair since even plastic lying in the dump can burn in the heat of the sun and set off a fire,” a former ragpicker who lost his job post the fires, Jamal, tells VICE. Jamal—standing out in his all-white clothing and shoes—was in the ragpicking business for eight years and earned an average of Rs 1,000 ($14) a day by scouting for plastic bottles and discarded slippers, and sending them to recycling units. Now, though, he has been coerced into a tailoring job, earning half of what he used to. The gashes and scars we notice on his chest and arms suggest that he’s someone who isn’t afraid of a fight, quite like many others out here.
The BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) officials, in-charge of civic issues in the city, have blamed the blaze on highly combustible materials lying around in the dump, but it’s no secret that there are other powers at play. Since the garbage that accumulates in the dump is worth millions, a lot of what goes in and around the landfill is reportedly controlled by an aggressive “garbage mafia;” one that apparently sets fire to cars and other scraps to reduce them to metal. This ultimately made authorities shut out everyone, including ragpickers, leaving them with no other option but to look for alternate sources of income. While some, like Jamal, have given up the work they have grown up doing, others are still scrounging for something of worth in the dirt.
Mannya, another former ragpicker who now operates the kind of four-seater ferris wheels you see around parks, is one of them. Though he’s given up separating waste, he continues to dive into the open gutters around the area to pull out discarded plastic tiffin boxes and bottles, making an average of Rs 100 ($1.40) a day.
Since most ragpickers remain unregulated, they have no gloves, masks or any kind of protective gear. That’s why many of them don’t pick up glass shards anymore since the injuries aren’t worth the offered prices. This means that glass items, which are almost 100 percent recyclable, are left behind, yet skin infections remain common.
Many ragpickers though, continue to illegally access the dump through holes in the fence, or by building makeshift bridges over the top, both of which are risky moves that could land them in jail. Some continue to pay the dumpyard security hefty bribes to continue working while others, many of them young and unemployed, have simply given into alcoholism and drugs.
We meet some teenagers smoking a joint in one of the bylanes and though they assure us they’re only recreational smokers, they tell us of how many of their friends waste their days high on ganja (weed), opium, heroin, cough syrup, whitener or glue. One of them, Mohammad, who is also a dealer, resignedly tells us, “Yaha paida hona humare nasib mein tha, aur ab aadat pad gayi hai. Lekin kuch logon ke aadat bure ho chuke hai aur unka pura din nashe mein hi pada rehta hai. (It was in our destiny to be born here, and now it’s become a habit. But for some people, their habits have turned bad and now, their whole day is spent intoxicated.)”
Another alternative means of employment involves becoming part of the mafia. “Those from these gangs come to our doorstep and take away large sums of money,” says Aktara, a woman whose deceased husband used to be a ragpicker, with her 18-year-old son now following in his footsteps. “It’s very easy for teenagers to pick up that life and become part of the gang or succumb to addiction. What else is there for us to do?”
The helplessness is also born out of those from the community being denied opportunities to integrate with society. Many tell us about how the jobs they might have the skills for are denied to them the minute they mention where they live. To add fuel to the fire, locals tell us that authorities have now decided that some people living on the fringes, who once even worked as security guards for the dumping ground before they themselves got dumped from the job, have occupied the area illegally. Most of them have lived there for more than 25 years, even legally registering their Aadhar identity cards with their present address.
But now, authorities want to bulldoze their humble abodes to make way for a broader road that will make transporting the garbage easier, leaving the locals doubtful about where they will go from here.
“I started doing this kachre chunna (segregation of waste) as a kid after watching all my neighbours, but now kids don’t really do this work,” says Lalan, a ragpicker who we bump into as we’re about to leave, in an area we’re told not to walk over because it’s an open defecation spot. “There have been incidents of kids getting caught under car parts or heavy materials and dying, so even the guards don’t allow them to enter anymore.” Lalan and other ragpickers now have to bribe them with almost half of their earnings, just to enter. And even then, they only let them in once a day. “It’s better in the monsoons though, because we can slip in and because they don’t want to risk falling in the keechad (mud), and so, they don’t chase us as much. But even if this option shuts down for us, we have nowhere to go. Even if we somehow save up and spend to educate our kids, no one will give them a job when they find out where they come from. When will they realise that what we do actually helps people?”
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