Beyond cities - where the climate is challenged by heaps of garbage

Reading Saumya Roy’s absorbing account one wonders if the trillions that the world plans to spend on climate control would find a solution to the problem that cities like Mumbai are stumped by

Amb Rajiv Dogra (retd) Aug 17, 2021
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Mountain Tales; Author Saumya Roy; Publishers Profile Books

What happens when the leftovers of a city meet the discards of that society? This is what Saumya Roy’s quest is about in her eminently readable book Mountain Tales. She weaves together a story of peoples’ lives and livelihood as they struggle to make a living out of the city’s garbage.

The Deonar garbage ground in the eastern suburb of Mumbai is the setting for Mountain Tales. Set up in 1927, it is India's oldest and largest dumping ground. Spread over 132 hectares it receives 5,500 metric tons of waste, 600 metric tons of silt and 25 tons of bio-medical waste every day. As of 2015, the waste had reached the height of an 18-storeyed tower. This vast dump is also the reason why toxic gases rise to envelop those who pick the leftovers for a living. Saumya Roy describes its effect;

“Fine particles of toxic chemicals…hang thick in the mountain air, the level seven times higher than rules allow. They enter the lungs and blood-steams of pickers and residents nearby, making it hard to breathe and root themselves deep in their internal organs. The fires leave more than twice the permitted amount of lead in the mountain air, limiting the intellect of children who breathe in it.”

It is among these dumps that Farzana stumbled regularly to ferret out a syringe, a piece of metal, a cloth piece, or a half-eaten food item. Every little bit must be taken before a rival scavenger grabs it. Garbage is their sustenance. Sometimes this daily desperation hurts when they step over a shard of glass. Or when a piece of sharp wire enmeshes someone’s leg, as was the case with Farzana when she saw a bulldozer backing down from the higher reaches of the garbage dump she was working on.

Her cries for it to stop got louder as it kept creeping down; its driver deafened by the sound of the motor and the earplugs that were pumping loud music into him. Farzana fell, immobilized by the wire that wouldn’t let go of her legs, and fatalistically fearful of the machine that was backing down towards her. It rolled its tons once over her body and then as the driver realized what he had done, he moved it forward to take it past her body.

Twice, as the bulldozer went back and forth, it crushed her and broke her bones, but not her spirit. Nor did the wider community of scavengers abandon her as they kept a vigil outside her hospital. In the midst of the agony of her existence, she found ecstasy. Nadeem became the hope of her broken body and the reason why she had to live.

Saumya artfully blends together this story of grit with the frustration of civil society to get the government moving. This is the factually told, subtly conveyed, running thread about both the government and business establishment that just cannot be inventive enough to set up a plant to clear the garbage.

An age-old global problem

It isn’t as if the world is facing a garbage disposal problem for the first time. The issue has engaged attention from the very beginning. There is for example the case of Pompeii - the city that was buried under a thick carpet of volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.  

Recent research reveals that huge mounds of refuse dumped outside its city walls were in fact “staging grounds for cycles of use and reuse”. Rubbish was piled up along almost the entire external wall on the city’s northern side, among other sites. Some of the mounds were several meters high and included bits of ceramic and plaster, which could be reused as construction material.

In our age, there are other megacities like New York, London and Paris which have a huge pile of garbage every day to deal with. They have set up plants to reduce that enormity. Others have put some of the garbage to innovative use.

Saumya relates the case of New York city’s Fresh Kills garbage township. On a visit there she finds that authorities innovatively immerse broken washbasins and pots in the bordering ocean so oysters could breed in them. They have also diverted a stream to run through the garbage hills to detoxifying them. As if in appreciation by nature a tree has sprung up, giving hope.

Can global efforts bring change?

Reading her absorbing account one wonders if the trillions that the world plans to spend on climate control would find a solution to the problem that cities like Mumbai are stumped by. Or will those big climate change plans be defeated by the fires and the noxious fumes that keep rising to spread over Mumbai?

A related thought that strikes is this; if by some miracle the authorities at some future date find a solution to this problem will it change the lot of people like Farzana?

The parallel that comes to mind is that of the dabbawallahs (tiffin box carriers) of Mumbai. For over a hundred years they have been running a unique service of carrying hot food tiffins from homes across Mumbai to people’s offices in the city. They do this unfailingly throughout the year. In return, they are paid a modest amount. In contrast, a new trend started in recent years where services like Zomato brought people food from commercial outlets. Within a few years, these companies have become billion dollars empires. But the humble dabbawala still keeps counting his pennies.

Like the dabbawallahs of Mumbai will the fate of Farzanas remain stuck in the swamps of life, even after a private company spins the garbage of Deonar into big money? Roy’s absorbing book nudges your conscience.  The doubts that pop up linger as questions long after you have flipped the last page.

(Mountain Tales; Author Saumya Roy; Publishers Profile Books; Pages 304; Price Rs 699)

(The reviewer is a former Indian ambassador, author and strategic issues expert. He can be contacted at ambraja@gmail.com)