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.
Mahul was once a simple fishing village but today, this Mumbai neighbourhood is a dystopian nightmare. The area is home to a foul combination of heavy industries and sewage treatment plants, jammed cheek-by-jowl with residential apartments. And the single worst of these apartments, the ground zero within ground zero, is ironically known as the Eversmile Complex. It’s a sprawling compound of 72 concrete buildings that house an estimated 30,000 people in crumbling, garbage-strewn apartments that leak sewage from the top floors down.
The statistics are alarming. According to the latest Indian Institute of Technology report, about 204 residents suffer skin infections, 129 live with chronic fever and colds, and around 200 have reported loss of wages and jobs. Residents tell us that since July 29 this year itself, nine people have died of diseases. The total number of deaths till now is yet to be determined but reports last year quote activists citing over 100 deaths since 2017. As we walk around, some residents gather outside a vacant room of a young boy, who recently moved here, fell sick, and then ultimately killed himself.
One of the most common statements you’ll hear from residents seems to be: “We’d rather live on the streets than here.” Indeed in 2015, the National Green Tribunal declared the air of Mahul unfit for human habitation, a claim that the state and the BMC have been denying and the High Court mulling over right now. If anything, the state is trying to dump more Mumbaikars here. In fact, the place is only filled because thousands of families were displaced during demolition drives by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and relocated to Eversmile, which they describe as a “hell hole”, or sometimes a “gas chamber” or even a "human dumping ground".
As the photographer and I arrive at the complex, we’re assaulted by the stench of waste, garbage, and chemical pollutants. We’re told that rain exacerbates the smell, and it’s been raining. We quickly find that Mahul residents talk very easily, sometimes with a dark sense of humour about contracting debilitating illnesses right after moving in. “If they want to kill us, they should just do it at once, rather than dumping us here,” Pooja, a 29-year-old resident tells VICE. “Here, within just weeks of moving, we feel like jumping off the buildings and killing ourselves.”
The drinking water is so hard that it causes the stomach to knot up instantly (Several residents offered us water and water-based beverages, and we tasted it). Pooja also tells us that food grains, vegetables, and herbal medicines start rotting within a day or two. "We never thought something like this would happen to us,” says Rekha Ghadge, 36, a resident who’s been mobilising other residents to campaign for relocation. “Look at how [the government] is bringing down Aarey forest. Looks like they’re trying to turn the place into Mahul too. They’re more concerned about expeditions to the moon than for people on earth. Perhaps after screwing us, all the politicians will run off to the moon, and ruin that too.”
From the terrace of one of the seven-floor buildings, one can see thick, billowing smoke gushing from the nearby chimneys of factories and refineries. “At midnight every day, the skies here blaze up from the chimney fire from the factories,” explains a 65-year-old resident named Akbar Sheikh. “And around 3 AM, thick smoke enters our homes, and it stinks a lot. Every morning, the first thing we do is clean up thick layers of ash from every surface of our house.”
At that, Ghadge pipes up again to explain that the surrounding refineries have suffered a number of gas and crude oil leaks, fires, and explosions. The worst part of it is that there’s only one way to enter or exit the neighbourhood, says Ghadge. “Last year, when the blast at the Bharat Petroleum refinery took place, thankfully, nobody was in proximity. But who’s to say we’ll be alive the next time?”
We walk around to find several catatonic old men huddled around, and restless, lanky young men gathered around the halls. “The moment elderly men move here, they’re instantly crippled with diseases. They’re listless, depressed, and jobless as a consequence. At the same time, it’s very common for young men to take up alcoholism and drugs. It’s really not that difficult for them to be radicalised,” says Ghadge.
The women of Mahul also reveal a host of reproductive and sexual health disorders, which they often find difficult to discuss with their families and friends. “Girls here get their period at least two to three times a month,” says Farah Sheikh, 26. “If not that, then they skip a few months. The common answer doctors have for this is that we should leave our cycle be. There’s constant itching down there, which leads to infections like the urinary tract infection. I used to be so thin, but now I’m constantly bloated. We’re also losing a lot of hair and have developed bad skin. Many women here get thyroid, sugar and high blood pressure.” We’re told of common occurrences of miscarriages too, usually within the first three to four months of pregnancy. “At a very young age, women suffer so much. Will there be even a generation after us?” Archana, 29, asks.
To make things worse, there aren’t any hospitals in Mahul except a local clinic that’s unpopular among the locals, mostly because the doctors often dismiss their symptoms. “The doctors give us temporary medicines,” says Farah Sheikh. “When we go to private hospitals outside, they immediately tell us that the only way to survive is to leave the area. But the doctors here tell us there's nothing wrong. Are they saying doctors outside this area are all mad? Are the researchers who've declared this place unfit mad?”
Living in this condition inevitably affects the mental health of the residents. “I myself am a psychological (sic) patient,” Ghadge tells VICE. “I get dark thoughts. When I start talking, I can’t seem to stop. I overthink the smallest of things. I’m constantly anxious and often get panic attacks. You can’t present a tangible proof of these conditions to the people we’re fighting against. If you don’t have physical manifestations, they tell us, ‘Oh, but you seem healthy.’” A few other female residents tell us about experiencing mood swings and panic attacks too. What makes it worse are the badly constructed tenements that have poor ventilation, no natural light, and constant leakage and seepage.
In the face of such an unprecedented crisis, men and women like Ghadge exemplify extraordinary leadership. Apart from mobilising the residents for protests and campaigns for the last two years (prominent Indian activist Medha Patkar joined in the cause last year too), she also collects medical records of everyone to build the case of debilitating diseases living here cause.
On a day like this, when she takes a journalist through the neighbourhood for the umpteenth time, she shows a resilience that comes with dogged determination. “Some people get numbed telling the same stories again and again. I don’t,” she says. “I feel grief every time I talk about the people here. This one time, an uncle who used to live here was convinced he wouldn’t survive beyond a day or two. He told me, ‘When I die, I don’t want you to take me to a graveyard. Take my body and place it in front of the chief minister’s house instead.’ Which is why every time I talk to journalists, I feel that anger again, and I tell myself, ‘We have to get out of here.’ And that’s what I’m going to do.”