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A mountain of trash

Mumbai’s dumping ground continues to be an eyesore

A mountain of trash

Health hazard: City dwellers are exposed to all forms of diseases, chiefly tuberculosis. Reuters

Julio Ribeiro

The girl who stays on the floor above mine is going to be a renowned writer. Her talent has been revealed in a book I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed. She is the daughter of a respected junior colleague who moved into his proprietary flat soon after he retired some years ago.

Saumya Roy is the elder of Anami Roy’s two daughters, both delightful girls, highly intelligent and focused on whatever commands their interest. After a stint in journalism, Saumya took to social entrepreneurship, with her father as a partner, in a non-profit company that gives micro loans to individuals living on the fringes of poverty, doing small businesses, like running private taxis, hawking vegetables and fruit on handcarts, picking rags or selling Mumbai’s popular street food, the ‘vada-pav’.

Father and daughter set out every morning for their place of work, from where Saumya ventures out to visit clients at work. Her book ‘Castaway Mountain’ is the story of Mumbai’s best-kept secret, the disposal of the city’s solid waste, picked up every morning by the municipal trucks and then dumped on a mountain of trash in Mumbai’s eastern suburb of Deonar.

As Commissioner of Police of the city from 1982 to 1985, I had accompanied my friend, Datta Sukhtankar, then the Municipal Commissioner, for a massive demolition drive of illegal hutments that had come up alongside those waste dumps. The huts were hampering the movement of trucks hired to deposit waste, and more importantly, exposing the dwellers to all forms of diseases, chiefly tuberculosis. Little did I know that entire families of ragpickers had returned to that occupation for lack of any other sustainable means of making a living! She has brought it out in her book. The fancies and desires of the well heeled who live in luxury in high-rise buildings, finally find their way to the Waste Mountain in Deonar, where an army of ragpickers wait from dawn to dusk and beyond to pick plastic, glass and metal, which they sell to middlemen, who, in turn, sell to those who recycle the castoffs.

Sometimes, on rare occasions, the pickers find something valuable which fetches more money than usual. They live for the day of such finds. The finder’s luck is the ‘breaking news’ in the small township. The finder becomes a celebrity for that day, or if the find is something extraordinary, like a wallet thrown away carelessly without checking its contents, which included some high-denomination rupee notes, the finder is feted for days together.

The great bulk of these pickers are Muslims of the lowest economic bracket. Since the women are illiterate or early school dropouts, the average size of families is very large. Saumya writes about one such family with compassion and understanding. Their struggles for existence are described in minute detail and their stories interwoven with the municipality’s losing battle to compress solid waste to meet the Bombay High Court’s directions to eliminate the putrid air released through untreated waste. The respiratory health of the residents for miles around was being threatened by the smoke belched continuously by the fires emanating from the natural combustion sparked in the innards of the dumped waste.

Justice Abhay Oka, who presided over the High Court Bench hearing the PIL for almost a decade, is now a judge of the Supreme Court. One of the court’s most competent and fair-minded judges, this matter hung like an albatross over his head, defying a quick solution.

Saumya’s tale moved me for another reason. Farzana Shaikh, the central character in this true story, had an accident while she was out picking from the waste on the mountain. She had been the object of unrequited love of another rag-picker, not much older than her. He kept her company in the municipal hospital right through her stay there of several months and the series of surgeries she had to undergo to mend her broken bones. After her ordeal, he married her and they have two children. A true love story if ever there was one!

Another book I recently read was ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, a fictionalised account of how five young volunteers, two from Kerala, one from Chennai and two from Mumbai were infiltrated by our intelligence agencies into Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Toiba, thereby foiling a few suicide bombings by jihadis. The book is co-authored by DP Sinha, an IPS officer of the 1979 batch, who has spent the major part of his active service in anti-terrorist operations. He has done so with great diligence and panache. Such work is not usually spoken about. And that is how it should be.

But as a personal beneficiary of such selfless work by a few unheralded colleagues, I salute Sinha and many others like him of whose identity I know not a thing. I would have liked to personally thank the operatives who planted a Trojan Horse in the Khalistani unit that operated out of Zurich and was sent out on a mission to Bucharest in 1991 to assassinate me.

If vital information about the assassins had not been communicated to me days before the attempt on my life, I would certainly have turned up a dead duck!

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