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Waste Pickers And Their Life In The Deonar Landfill Of Mumbai Is The Setting For Saumya Roy’s Debut Book

In conversation with Saumya Roy, Author, Mountain Tales – Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings on India’s waste management and garbage crisis

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Waste Pickers And Their Life In The Deonar Landfill Of Mumbai Is The Setting For Saumya Roy's Debut Book

New Delhi: The “mountains of garbage” dotting India’s cities is currently the most critical issues facing our planet. Time and again, experts have said, not segregating our waste is one of the major reasons behind the current garbage crisis, as a result, today, garbage is clogging our mountains, rivers, oceans, impacting health of the people and the environment. To discuss more about the issue and the threat of the ever-growing manmade garbage mountains, team Banega Swasth India spoke with Saumya Roy, Author of a recent book Mountain Tales – Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings. Here’s what we discussed:

Also Read: Understanding Solid Waste Management Rules 2016

NDTV: Tell us about your book and its setting, one of the oldest and largest landfill in the country, Deonar in Mumbai.

Saumya Roy: So, Deonar is about 123 years old landfill and when it was set up by the British administration to deal with the root cause of plague. They thought the city has a lot of filth and the rats are carrying the filth and spreading the disease, so to deal with that bout of plague they thought of transporting all the city’s garbage to a place outside the city, something which was like on the edge. They bought around 823 acres of land in this village called Deonar, which had edge of the sea on all sides and that’s how that landfill came into existence. But it continued to be in operation, city people thought that the waste is going outside, so they can consume anything to everything. As a result, today, Deonar is little over 300 acres large and the garbage that is piled up has reached a height of 120 feet, so it is literally like a big mountain of garbage. There have been many plans over the years to remediate this garbage, but for various reasons, including the court cases, the continuous increase in the quantum of waste, the task of managing the waste at the landfill became a challenging job. Not to forget the role of the waste pickers. Today, thousands of people live near the landfill area there are many slums as well, this landfill serves their only source of livelihood. And it is because of them that some fraction amount of garbage is being taken away from the area. So, you can imagine the kind of health hazards it has for these people.

NDTV: In the book, you followed the story of four families for 8 years, particularly Farzana’s story – what made you zero in on this setting and Farzana as your protagonist?

Saumya Roy: I wanted to see what their business is like and as I followed their story, it became very clear to me that their lives are made out of our trash. I could see them using our ripped jeans, old mobile phones and food, sometimes, to me it was like the mirror image of our lives in the city. It was so fascinating to see how they are living that life and at the same time it was this fact that was making them sick, it almost made me question about our lives in the city. I realised, whatever we were using back in the city was coming to them in some or the other way, I could see it was hurting them – it was giving them bruises, cuts, health problems like Tuberculosis, breathlessness, Asthma and yet they couldn’t stop going to the place. And that’s the fact that drew me to the story and that’s when I decided to follow these four families for 8 years. When I met Farzana, she was 13-years-old, not a very verbal person but was full of energy, but her life was consumed by trash. She literally learned to walk on those garbage mountains, found her first toys there, she also shared a lot of happy memories with me, it was as if she was seeing the city from another end. She told me how once she found imported apples there, someone back in the city must have thrown it away thinking the date has expired, but for her, nothing mattered, she picked it up from the landfill and ate it. So you see the trajectory of our world, cities and our trash. It is like it is making waste pickers lives but at the same time breaking them.

NDTV: Deonar despite being on the fringes of the city takes centrestage in your book, take us through socio-economic life that you saw unfold in those 8 years when you were working on this book.

Saumya Roy: Whoever I met, first told me their happy memories from this place as that is their lives and that is what I wanted to show in this book that how tremendous joy and tremendous suffering are so tightly packed together. When I first read about this place and how this place is full of trash, even I went there with my preconceptions but when I started meeting people there and the waste pickers, I realised there is so much more to the place. People there believed in things like good luck, treasure. They believed that someday they may also find gold and diamonds in that waste dump. Bombay is the city of dreams and these people believed in this fact, they thought if they will look little further in the 16 million tonnes of trash, they may also find diamond dust or gold rings. To me it was an important part. But you can imagine what kind of life one can build on trash. Their life is full of accidents, bruises and yet they have no option but to continue working. The fire in 2016 made their lives even more precarious. There were police cases made saying that the waste pickers have lit the fire, which they may or may not have, but the fact is that we are the ones who created this place.

Also Read: Garbage Management Crisis: How Effective Are Waste To Energy Treatment Plants?

NDTV: You document the various court cases and efforts to reduce the size of these mountains, set up waste to energy plant and may be shut it down completely, as someone who has had a ringside view to the proceedings, why have these efforts not materialised, despite court orders and guidelines like the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016?

Saumya Roy: Waste in the cities is increasing, so whatever the authorities and government plan sometimes is not enough. Around the world, waste has not been very profitable. Wherever I have traveled, I have seen waste management as a problem. It is only in developed countries you see the management is well as they have money to transfer their trash to the third world countries. Earlier waste wasn’t really the top priority for municipalities and when they turned back to the topic the crisis had become huge, the garbage mountains had become really big and that’s when they realised it won’t be an easy task to get rid of so much waste. So, what is the ideal model to deal with the city waste is really a technological question but I think the topic deserves more attention.

Also Read: Garbage-Free Cities: What Have These Cities Done Right About Waste Management?

NDTV: We have cities in India like Indore, that have successfully implemented waste segregation and gotten rid of dumpsites and their legacy waste. Government of India’s Swachh Bharat 2.0 sets the goal of making cities Garbage Free, one of the criteria for which is to get rid of these legacy waste in landfills and dumpsites. How do you perceive this goal can be achieved on a larger scale across India?

Saumya Roy: It is very much possible. It is wonderful to see that the government has given waste that kind of priority. So, while development is important so is sustainability, basically these are the twin goals to be pursued. It is possible that every city will have different needs, every landfill will need something different. The key is, when we think of solutions, we shouldn’t leave the people out of it. There is waste picking communities around the country, so as we think of solution for waste management, we also need to think about the community, who over the years have provided very private and personal solution to our waste problems.

NDTV: You trace Deonar’s genesis to the British era and plague breakout in the then port city of Bombay in the 19th century, we are in the middle of a pandemic now, how did COVID-19 outbreak affect the people of the garbage mountain and the mountains themselves.

Saumya Roy: It was like, COVID-19 never existed for these people. Many of them continued to work at the landfill, even during the pandemic, as they had no option. Some of the waste pickers even told me when COVID began, PPE kits were sent, so they used to wear that and go to the trash mountain. They also found it harder to get the market for their trash items, they told me, if not illness, unemployment will kill them.

NDTV: Even before COVID, given the unhealthy surroundings of the mountains, what are the kind of health issues you witnessed people face, because of living near this mammoth garbage mountain?

Saumya Roy: Almost all the characters in the book had Tuberculosis at some point in their life. Two of the characters passed away while I was writing the book. So, certainly TB was very common, though there is no direct link of TB and waste but it could be that their lungs were impacted with the work they do or the gasses they inhale on an everyday basis, and that’s what made their lungs prone to diseases like TB. Almost all of them have asthma and breathing troubles, constipation, poor eyesight, cuts, bruises, many of them have suffered from accidents. If you ask them about their accidents, all of them would laugh and giggle and show you the marks. Talking about life expectancy, in this ward it is like 39 years, back in 2003 to 2004, for rest of the India it was 65. Even the recent data has not changed much, now it could be in mid 40s, but certainly has not gone up much and is obviously below the national average.

Also Read: Living In The Shadows Of Asia’s Largest Garbage Mountain, The Ghazipur Landfill

NDTV: What are some of the significant environmental hazards of the manmade garbage mountains?

Saumya Roy: The mountain is really a toxic cocktail of gases that are let out of our decomposed waste. Landfills around the world are a large source of methane, which is also one of the major contributors to greenhouse gases, it is also a cause of global warming. Now, we are seeing increase in temperatures around the world in summers and all that is somehow linked with an increase in the release of these gases. I also found some studies which stated that in Delhi about 10-15 per cent cause of pollution comes from the garbage piles.

NDTV: You have said in your book that – One person’s trash in another person’s scrap. If the future is meant to be garbage free cities, then what will become of the numerous characters, like Farzana and her family who know nothing beyond life on these mountains? Their survival depends on these mountains, what role do you see for them if cities are to go garbage free?

Saumya Roy: Even our Solid Waste Management rules say that waste pickers are to be integrated in waste management systems in the city. I feel, the modern, new systems that the city creates should certainly have jobs for waste pickers. We should look out for material recovery facilities, segregation, recycling – these are all the jobs that can be done by the waste pickers easily because they do have a skill and if they can utilise this skill in a hygienic way, there will be nothing better. I also hope Farzana’s kids never have to come in this business and maybe do something very different from her.

NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ populationindigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.

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