Decoding the goldmine that’s Mumbai’s Deonar dumping ground.
Decoding the goldmine that’s Mumbai’s Deonar dumping ground.Photo Courtesy: Arnica Kala
  • 1. Who Are The Kingpins?
  • 2. Modus Operandi and How Did It Raise A Stink?
  • 3. How Does It Affect the Locals?
  • 4. What’s the Solution?
Garbage Gangs of Deonar: The Kingpins and Their Multi-Crore Trade

“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.

  • 1. Who Are The Kingpins?

    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. 
    Decoding the goldmine that’s Mumbai’s Deonar dumping ground.
    A massive fire that broke out at the Deonar dumping ground in 2016
    (Photo: Reuters)

    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 dealer

    Besides, 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 dealer
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