Don’t Blame Ragpickers for Toxic Fires at Deonar Field: Activists

‘They have mismanaged solid waste management from the start, and now they are blaming the ragpickers.’

3 min read
Don’t Blame Ragpickers for Toxic Fires at Deonar Field: Activists
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Mumbai residents took to the streets on Tuesday to protest toxic smog from a burning landfill site, while activists said the authorities should tackle the underlying problems and not bar ragpickers from the city’s oldest dumping ground.

Residents protest at Azad Maidan in Mumbai. (Photo Courtesy: ANI Screengrab)

The fires at the Deonar landfill, which broke out at the weekend, are the second major landfill fires there this year. Civic authorities said they would investigate and put in place measures including limiting entry to ragpickers.

They have mismanaged solid waste management from the start, and now they are blaming the ragpickers. Actually, it’s the ragpickers who keep the city afloat by segregating the garbage.
Dayanand Stalin, environmental campaigner at Vanashakti

Nearby schools were closed and the toxic fumes lowered the air quality in the coastal city, India’s financial hub.

Mumbai generates about 6,000 tonnes of garbage a day. Neither households nor businesses separate their trash for recycling, and the mixed waste – including household refuse and bio-medical waste – is taken in hundreds of trucks to one of three dumping grounds just outside city limits.

Deonar, which opened in 1927, is among Asia’s oldest and largest landfills. Spread across more than 300 acres (120 hectares) of land, the piles of trash are several storeys high.

Thousands of ragpickers live in slums abutting the site, making their living from picking through the rubbish for recyclables including steel and plastic, which they sell for small sums of money.

Skin Disease, Breathing Problem

Children often accompany their parents to the site, and few wear protective gear such as masks and gloves. Respiratory illnesses, skin disease and addictions are rife, activists say.

We suffer every day from handling the trash, but the city does not do anything for us. Now they are blaming us for causing the fires. Why would we do that? We are suffering losses. Who will sort the trash if we are not allowed to?
Dinesh Gupta, sorts and weighs the separated trash brought by ragpickers to his small shop across from the site
Respiratory illnesses, skin disease and addictions are rife. Photo used for representation. (Photo: Reuters)

Fires are caused mainly by gases from rotting garbage and other combustible material, experts say. The city can afford to enforce separation of garbage at source and treat it at the landfills, but the system is beset by corruption, Stalin said.

The landfills occupy prime real estate and builders would rather see the sites shut, he said.

Meanwhile, the city’s air quality has worsened and schools near the landfill have been shut. Children could still be seen playing cricket nearby, ignoring the thick plumes of grey smoke.

“It’s like the Apocalypse,” said Vinod Shetty, head of Acorn Foundation, which trains and organises ragpickers in the city.

A file photo of a young ragpicker. Image used for representation. (Image: The Quint/Sanjoy Deb)

There may be up to 200,000 ragpickers in Mumbai, mostly from the Dalit and other lower-caste communities, Shetty said. Women and children are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, picked on by men and police, who see them as criminals, he said.

The ragpickers are the collateral damage in this episode, everyone’s favourite whipping boy because they have no clout. The city needs to sort out its waste management and make the ragpickers stakeholders in the process.
Vinod Shetty, Acorn Foundation

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