For over 6 days now, the denizens of Mumbai have been cry copious tears over the thick smog that has enveloped large parts of the city. The Air Quality Index (AQI) has fallen to pitiful levels, hovering over the 300 level, and rated as potentially dangerous. The current smog has been caused by a thick pall of smoke that has emanated from landfill site of Deonar, where a fire was supposedly set by careless rag-pickers. Dubbed as the #MumbaiSmog, a foggy atmosphere has been hanging over the city.
As a preventive measure, authorities shut down schools in the immediate vicinity. The Chief Minister of the state, Devendra Fadavnis tweeted about it. In fact, lot of people have taken to the social media, posting pics, tweeting incessantly about the smog. As usual, the media has taken a kind of belated interest into the issue, and now we have the print stories and television talk shows on the issue of smog. Finally, there are experts, the NGO-wallas, who have arrived on the scene with vengeance, raising hell and high water over the issue, pulling up the government and the authorities on their lackadaisical approach and so on. #MumbaiSmog has been trending on Twitter, over different days.
But there is some hope at the end of the smoggy tunnel. According to authorities, the fire has been extinguished and the MET department predicts that climatic conditions favorable for the smog will change in the next few days. This means that the smog will gradually reduce and vanish from the skies of Mumbai. And once all things are normal, the memories and trauma of #MumbaiSmog will vanish from public memory as well.
Now, that will be the real tragedy, because the #MumbaiSmog will disappear but the reasons that led to very much remain. The reason that is the world over known as Solid Waste, a problem that India has been refusing to face, even as it stares back at our face.
The waste bubble
With a burgeoning population and rapid urbanization, Indian cities are steadily becoming vast dump yards of waste and garbage. The fact that most of the municipalities in India still follow the archaic methodology as had been implemented by the British over a century earlier, is a sad state of affair. For instance, the Deonar dumping ground has been in continuous use since 1927. That’s almost 90 years, and now the piles of garbage are almost 20 metres high, almost like a 20-storey tower.
Yet, there is much more to the issue than what meets the eye. The real problem is not only of the waste that we generate, but rather the way that we dispose it, something that is known world over as Solid Waste Management or SWM. Take the case of Mumbai, a city of around 22 million people generates more than 10,000 MT of garbage daily. As things stand now, there are only two dumping grounds at Deonar and Mulund, with the former getting 6,000 MT of waste and the latter getting 4,000 MT. There is another landfill site in Kanjurmarg, which is not yet operational as it is caught in litigation. With the two sites on the verge of spilling over, the problem of stray fires is not something that can be easily discounted
All the waste across the city is collected by private contractors, especially in compactors and then dumped in the landfill. These contractors get paid by the weight of garbage they collect. The problem with this methodology is that both organic and inorganic matter is intermixed and dumped without a care. There’s just no method to this archaic madness. A proper scientific way would be to segregate the waste into organic and inorganic, and then treat the two differently. The organic matter can be used by bio-gas ingesters to generate energy, while a large part of the inorganic could be recycled and rest dumped. In fact many countries have taken waste management to such a level that they are now running out of it. Take the case of Sweden, which uses waste to generate electricity, and since all the waste that it generates is consumed, the country is now actually importing waste.
Contrast this to India, the trouble is that we have never paid sufficient attention to the issue of waste management. It has just been dumped it in the landfills. The trouble with this approach is that there is no solution to it. Decades in the past, Deonar and Mulund used to be on the outskirts of the city, but now thanks to a burgeoning population that are bustling suburbs. Despite the fear of pollution and the stray fires that causes smog, there are sky-scrappers that spawn all around these dumping grounds. In an over-populated city with crumbling infrastructure, where real-estate is at a very high premium, finding vast amount of land for dumping waste is certainly not feasible, nor practical. Result, the tower at Deonar and Mulund gain height with each passing day. Just a matter of time, when the physical limit is crossed for good.
Blame the people, not the politician
Sadly, in India the easiest thing to do is blame the politicians and the authorities for the mess. While, undeniably they have a major-major role to play in the current mess of waste management, the general public too carries it share of blame in this instance. Indians, by nature are generally very careless and callous about the environment or issues of degradation. So, when mangroves around their buildings turn into dumping grounds, they will not object, but rather start dumping their domestic waste in the same place. They will indiscriminately dump religious waste in plastic bags into the sea. And then they will not utter a single word when a tree or a whole lot of them are cut in the name of road extension or just about anything else.
Spoke to Mumbai Municipal Commissioner. He assured that no stone will be left unturned to control the smoke at Deonar.
— Devendra Fadnavis (@Dev_Fadnavis) January 30, 2016
BMC Commissioner informs that smoke at Deonar is substantially under control.I've askedCP,Mumbai to enquire into possibility of a sabotage.
— Devendra Fadnavis (@Dev_Fadnavis) January 30, 2016
It is because of this very “chalta hain” (let it be) attitude, that the problem has come to such a pass. I mean, when you elect leaders based on their caste and political insignia, rather than their merit or proposals for change, what else can you really expect?
Housing colonies, the biggest and the very best, have no mechanisms or ideas for managing waste. For instance, in all the top colonies like Palava, where I live, the waste is not segregated in dry or wet, and I have often seen smoke billowing from outside the colony (possibly the waste is being disposed by fire). People are generally ignorant about issues of waste management. The schools don’t teach anything about it. There are a few NGOs that have taken on the onus and have been knocking on the doors of judiciary but with limited success. And then there is the vast majority of these NGO experts that are present only to leverage the catastrophe to advance their own agendas.
Till the lay man, each and every citizen is not sensitized and involved in the whole process, the scenario won’t change. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and all the rest is great, but proper disposal of waste is a much bigger issue that needs to be tackled. Posting images and tweets is good thing, but ensuring that your own personal waste is segregated in wet and dry, that there is lesser content of plastic in the waste, is a far more important thing.
The carcinogenic fumes from the fire at Mumbai’s largest waste dumping ground at Deonar spreading over the city will fade away, but the fire should wake up the layman to the core issue. Namely, it was not the fire that was to blame for the #MumbaiSmog but it is our stupid lifestyle and complete ignorance on important matters.
Remembering the Great Stink
The smoggy and stinky Mumbai reminds me of an old incident that I had read in the history books about a Great Stink that had descended over the city of London in 1858. In those days, there was no proper sewerage all the human waste and industrial effluent was directly dumped into the river Thames. Because of some unusually hot weather in the month of June of 1858, the river Thames turned into a virtual sewer, that smelled so bad that even the Parliament had to sit up and take notice.The authorities first attempted to mask the stink with tons of lime being dumped in the river, but it proved useless. Driven by the Great Stink, and from the public outcry it generated, the authorities had to set things in order. The British government coughed up millions and set up an extensive sewerage and water network in the city of London. It was the genesis of modern municipality in many ways. Thus, in a way the Great Stink actually was the catalyst to a great thing.
One can only hope that the smog plays a similar role in Mumbai. It wakes up the people to the issue of solid waste, makes them more conscious of their own lifestyles and how they can contribute positively. The real fact is that even though the scenario might look bleak, it is not really so. India as a nation, with 17.9% of world population, still generates only 3.1% of world’s trash. It means that our per capita waste is much below the global standards. Considering that almost 30% of the waste in India is organic in nature, it has a great potential to be composted. With sound planning and investment, India can truly solve its waste problem. After all, it is not a great thing to visualise an India with 100 of smart-swanky-smart cities, with equivalent towers of garbage on the outskirts. That is not an India that we wish to see, and let’s hope that is how it turns out to be. It is the time to make the change, and there could be no better reason to do that than the #MumbaiSmog.
— Shashwat DC