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’18 Story High’ Garbage Mountain Ensures Survival of India’s Poor

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Every morning Farha Shaikh climbs to the top of Mumbai’s century-old garbage mountain to watch the collection trucks arrive.

The 19-year-old garbage collector says she has been digging rubble piles on the outskirts of Deonar for as long as she can remember.

Despite the beautiful palaces, 70% of the Indian population live in poverty

Despite the beautiful palaces, 70% of the Indian population live in poverty

Amid the sticky trash, she sorts plastic bottles, glass, and cables for resale in popular city markets. But she mostly looks for old broken cell phones.

Every now and then Farha finds a “dead” phone in the garbage piles. She takes the little money she has and has the device repaired. With her cell phone alive, she watches movies, plays video games, texts and calls friends.

Mumbai’s mountain of garbage is 18 stories tall – Photo: Sauma Roy / BBC

When the phone stops working days or weeks later, Farha’s connection to the outside world is severed. And she returns to work for several days, sorting through what she’s worth among the piles of trash destined for resale – and looking for another phone she can restore.

More than 16 million tonnes of waste are found in the Deonar Mountains – eight of which are spread over an area of ​​one square kilometer – considered to be the tallest and oldest in India. The piles can reach 36.5 meters high. The sea is on the edge of the mountains and slums have started to emerge from the piles of rubble.

Decomposing waste releases harmful gases such as methane, hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide. In 2016, this resulted in a fire that burned for months and sent smoke into the sky over Mumbai. Landfill fires contribute 11% of particulates in the atmosphere, a leading cause of air pollution in the Indian city, according to a 2011 study by an Indian regulator.

Mountains of garbage caught fire in Mumbai in 2016 and smoked all over the city – Photo: Reuters / Via BBC

A 2020 survey by a New Delhi-based institute, the Center for Science and the Environment, found that there are 3,159 mountains of waste in India, containing 800 million tonnes of waste in various parts of the country.

In Mumbai, a lawsuit has been trying for 26 years to close the Deonar landfill, but waste continues to be dumped there.

national cleaning program

The mountains of garbage in India have long angered officials and politicians. On October 1, Modi announced the equivalent of nearly $ 13 billion for a nationwide cleanup program, which included building waste treatment plants in landfills like Deonar.

But experts are skeptical of the end of the problems. “It was done in small towns, but it’s difficult to have a cure for mountains of this size,” said Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, who works at the Center for Science and the Environment.

For Dharmesh Shah, country coordinator of the Global Alliance for Alternatives to Incineration (a coalition of waste reduction groups), “there is a recognition that this is a problem, but we accept that living in big cities like Mumbai or Delhi mean living with the “mountains of garbage”.

Since 2000, new rules oblige Indian municipalities to manage waste. But most sites only partially meet the targets and don’t have enough stations to get the job done.

Mumbai, the commercial and entertainment capital of India, has a population of 20 million and a single waste treatment plant. But there are plans to build a factory that would turn Deonar’s waste into energy.

Modi hopes the new program will generate jobs in the “green economy”. But that worries scavengers like Farha, who has been doing this job all her life.

It became much more difficult to move mountains of trash after the 2016 fires. The municipality has stepped up security to prevent waste pickers from using the fire to melt metal parts for resale.

Collectors, when caught in landfills, are beaten, detained and deported. Some bribe security or enter before the morning patrols. Much of the waste separation is now done in the most central areas of the city of Mumbai, which has reduced the amount of rubble reaching Deonar.

Farha hasn’t had a cell phone for a few months. She has to pay at least 50 rupees (the equivalent of 0.67 USD) to the guards each day to enter and work in the Deonar landfill. To compensate, she has considered rummaging through the garbage arriving from hospitals treating Covid-19 patients. India has recorded more than 34 million cases of the new coronavirus and more than 450,000 deaths.

His family, however, asked him not to touch the batteries with the covid medical waste. She then closely follows other scavengers in search of plastic to resell.

“Hunger will kill us if it isn’t disease,” says Farha.

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