“Mumbai’s riches are in its garbage,” says Ganesh Gaitonde, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character in Sacred Games, as he scripts his rags to riches story in the armpit of the city – its dumping grounds. Gaitonde’s words resonate with thousands of small-scale businessmen who are trying to make a living out of the Deonar dumping ground by selling piles of garbage to wholesale dealers.This multi-crore industry born of trash may sound like bare-minimum survival. But it’s a thriving business that employs thousands of small businessmen and ragpickers from the area. The Quint investigates how many gangs continue to operate with impunity and have conversations that give insights into the underbelly of this thriving business.Garbage is big business in Mumbai. It can rake in up to Rs 250-Rs 450 crore every year. Five hundred trucks make their way in and out of the dumping grounds every single day. Each truck carries Rs 5,000-Rs 8,000 worth of trash, which adds up to an estimated Rs 75 lakh worth of trash leaving the dump yard every single day.No wonder it’s a big business opportunity. And where there is money, the mafia isn’t far behind.In April 2016, the Mumbai police arrested brothers Ateeq Khan and Rafiq Khan for trading in illegal scrap. The brothers were charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and eventually, the police slapped the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) against them after investigation unearthed evidence of their involvement in the biggest fire that broke out in the Deonar dumping ground, almost choking Mumbai.A major crackdown followed and 13 other scrap dealers were arrested for their involvement in the mega blaze that lasted for over 2 weeks.When The Quint launched a probe into the role of these gangs that literally suffocated the city with a fire that raged on for 2 weeks, how a cartel of these so-called businessmen called the shots and controlled the market-share of this enterprise came to the fore. The names that echoed in the conversations with dealers were those of Ateeq Khan, Javed Qureshi, Manik Raju, Bhondhu and Saleem – men who had masterminded the illicit art of making millions out of these mountains of trash. A dealer linked to the business explains what could have triggered the massive fire. The local mafia set fire to vehicles and other scraps to reduce them to metal. “They used to bring stolen bikes, sometimes cars and set them on fire to melt the metal. Metal is big bucks in the market and so are tires. The dumping zone was divided into sections, for instance – wet waste, dry waste like plastic, electronic items, medical supplies, etc. The medical waste acted like fuel and transformed it into a wildfire.” Irshad, garbage dealerBesides, the gangs allegedly constantly clashed in turf wars to increase their profits, sometimes destroying the stock of their rival gang’s garbage by setting it on fire.Small-scale garbage dealers say that until a few months ago, the five headed the biggest garbage gangs that dominated the business in the dumping ground and employed and controlled hundreds of ragpickers as their foot soldiers in the area.“There were different groups of people who had marked their own territory. Even the ragpickers who scavenged garbage from their territory had to sell it to those who had unofficial rights over it. The garbage mafia would often charge a premium to get rid of medical waste, toxic chemicals and other illegal things. And their way of waste disposal was to just burn it. This would unleash hell for locals and the government.” Asif, garbage seller The gangs – extremely territorial – colluded with officials from the civic body who would allow them to smuggle out trucks carrying more expensive garbage like medical waste, scrap metal. However, the high-profile arrests of Ateeq and Rafiq Khan, shook the others.Tariq, a garbage seller, recounts how the trade once flourished.“There were about 11 gangs, about 5 big ones and a few small ones. But after the government crackdown post the 2016 fires at Deonar, all these groups wrapped up business overnight as all the key people were arrested. Other smaller businessmen too have become more cautious.” Tariq, garbage seller The dealers claim that while most of the old gang members are lying low after the crackdown on the cartel, some smaller gangs fly under the radar; for them, it’s still business as usual.“Earlier, everything used to happen in broad daylight. The scale was huge but now, they operate only late at night between 1 am to about 5 am. After the 2016 fire, a lot has changed in Deonar. Even the officials are more strict now. Everyone is under pressure.”Irshad, garbage dealerEvery single day, Mumbai regurgitates nearly 7,000 metric tonnes of garbage. Four thousand metric tonnes of trash is dumped in the sprawling 132-hectare Deonar dumping ground, attracting employment opportunities in one of the most inhospitable and inhuman working conditions in the country. While Deonar was established in 1927, the locals aren’t certain about when and how garbage became such a lucrative business.“My father shifted here in 1971 and after working as a daily wage labourer for about 3 years, he realised the potential of the garbage business and started a small shop that has grown bigger over time. Soon, I took over the business and things have been going good for us,” said Salim (name changed), who owns a small business that sources garbage and sells it.The Ragpickers:A huge compound wall built to cut off the Deonar dumping ground from its neighbouring slum settlements hasn’t deterred ragpickers. Every morning before sunrise, hundreds of ragpickers make a beeline to scale the wall to fill up their sacks with garbage. Most of the collection is made before the break of dawn as BMC and police officials start making their rounds from early in the morning. These ragpickers are controlled by ‘dons’ who have the last word on pricing and the buyer the ragpickers can do business with.“Right from plastic bottles, glass, tyres, cloth, metal, everything fetches a price. I prefer collecting plastic bottles and barrels as that earns me about Rs 12-13 per kilo. Glass gets me Rs 2-3 per kilo but it’s risky to pick up. Basically, nothing in Deonar goes for a waste.”A ragpicker Another ragpicker, while rummaging through his collection didn’t seem impressed. “These won’t fetch me much. I’ll be back in the afternoon for more,” he said. Neither of the two ragpickers are allowed to enter the dumping ground. Getting caught by BMC officials will earn them heavy penalties and they may even be handed over to the police but that’s not their biggest worry. “What will we eat if we don’t collect garbage?” asks one of them.Ragpickers earn anywhere between Rs 200 to Rs 400 every day for the garbage they collect.The Small-Scale Businesses:Areas around Deonar are dotted with small shops which can be seen weighing and segregating garbage all day. These business owners buy trash from the ragpickers and sell it to big businesses that recycle garbage.“When ragpickers come to us with their garbage, we buy it and then clean, segregate and weigh the waste. After we accumulate about 1 or 2 tons, we sell it to wholesale dealers who recycle this waste and make something out of it. The segregated garbage is sent to locations like Malegaon, Ahmedabad, etc. It’s a multi-layered process.” Asif Ali, garbage seller (name changed)The owners of these businesses keep a margin of Rs 3-4 for all items they buy from the ragpickers. For instance, while ragpickers are paid Rs 12-13 per kilo for plastic by the businessmen, these businesses in turn earn Rs 15-16 per kilo of plastic.“On an average, we (businessmen based out of Deonar) earn about Rs 25,000 per month at least and end up selling over 8 tons of assorted garbage. Business has taken a hit after the BMC’s crackdown in the last two years. But despite that, garbage is the most lucrative business here.”Tariq, garbage seller (Name changed) In February 2016, Mumbai was wrapped in a blanket of smoke for over two weeks after a massive fire broke out at the Deonar dumping ground. But this is an everyday reality for residents living around the dumping ground. Constant outbreak of fire in pockets of the dumping ground has been releasing toxic fumes over a period of time, causing residents to develop chronic respiratory illnesses.“The dumping ground is in our backyard, very often the garbage spills over. This has been the case for over a decade. Fire breaks out and the fumes from this spread across the area. We feel breathless because of this, and dirty. I suffer from Tuberculosis (TB) and doctors have told me that my condition is because of the dumping ground and the filth here.”Naeema Salim, residentResidents claim the root cause of the fires is the greed of the ‘garbage mafia’ . “They get scrap metal, medicines, syringes and other items. The ragpickers take whatever they need and sometimes just set the rest of the garbage on fire. We have seen this. Because of this we suffer,” says 38-year-old Mehrunissa.Despite their complaints about the dumping ground, all the residents we spoke to grudgingly agreed that without the garbage business, many of their families would have no source of income.The BMC has been planning to construct a plant to convert waste to energy in the Deonar dumping ground since 2016. But two years on, the civic body is yet to even find bidders who would want to take up the project. Most companies are allegedly shying away due to the scope of work and high risk involved with treating the extensive amount of garbage. Many also backed off for lack of clarity on the use of methods for treatment, like incineration.But urban planners believe the BMC’s solid waste management techniques are flawed in the first place. Despite allocating an annual budget of over Rs 2,600 for solid waste management in the city, Mumbai’s waste management is still in shambles.“You know that the current waste management is harming the city and it’s creating a Deonar monster, then why are we continuing with those practices?” asked urban planner Rishi Agarwal.In an effort to reduce the pressure on Deonar, Agarwal started the ‘Safai Bank’ initiative. Here, residents of housing societies can deposit the multi-laminated packages (MLP) generated by them. Multi-laminated packages are used most commonly in chips and biscuit packets, chocolate wrappers and tetra packs among other fast moving consumer goods.These banks, taken care of by the NGO Mumbai Sustainability Centre, would then dispose of the waste in a way that it doesn’t reach the dumping grounds. The collective waste would be used to either make roads or at a cement kiln. Despite seeking the BMC’s help to implement this on a large scale, the civic body is yet to adopt the initiative.“Our 20-year fight with the Municipal corporation has been that, you need to use your budget in a way that it supports innovation and green entrepreneurs. There is absolutely zero need for Deonar dumping ground. Where is the BMC money going if Rs 2,500 crores are being geared towards dumping waste and people like us who are doing ‘Safai Bank’ or those who are setting up waste minimisation zones. We are all doing these things in the interests of the city with our personal money.” Rishi Agarwal, Urban planner Waste minimisation zones are being set up by environmental activists who are collecting segregated garbage from housing societies. The plan is to turn the bio-degradable waste into compost and non biodegradable items like plastic, be used for purposes like construction of roads.“I noticed that it’s the easiest when garbage is handled at source. I soon started working with housing societies. Our idea is take up a particular area and first quantify how much of waste could be going to the landfills from there. Then look for solutions for dry and wet waste accordingly. The whole area can be converted into a zero waste zone and the garbage going to the dumping ground can be minimal,” said Kedar Sohoni, founder of the NGO Green Community Foundation.According to Sohoni’s estimate, his plan could easily reduce the garbage by 40-50 tons each day at just one area. Ajit Nair, an advocate for Deonar too agreed decentralisation by treating garbage at source could be the key solution to reduce the burden on Deonar.“A fair bit rides on how residents are educated and informed about composting. It’s also important to plan on handling construction debris and electronic items. This will have to be addressed at a citizen level and be distributed and disposed off. The same model of everything reaching one place can’t be sustained.”Ajith Nair, concerned citizen and Deonar advocateSoon after the fires in 2016, the BMC began setting up CCTV camera and watch towers to oversee all activities inside the dumping ground. A boundary wall was also built to keep trespassers at bay. But experts believe these measures are hardly enough to put an end to the garbage mafia that operates out of the Deonar dumping ground. We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.