Mumbai’s garbage dumping grounds frequently make headlines for unpleasant reasons. For the past two and a half months, the reason has been fire. Since the end of February, at least four separate blazes have been reported from the massive dumping grounds in the eastern suburbs, posing health risks for already irate residents.

On February 26, a fast-spreading fire at the massive Deonar garbage dump engulfed several surrounding areas with smog for a day. The fire took more than a week to control, but another minor fire broke out in the same ground while the cooling operations for the first conflagration were still under way.

Three weeks later, on March 30, a major fire broke out at the Mulund dumping ground and raged on for more than four days, with residents around it complaining of breathing problems, skin rashes and irritation in the eyes. The latest fire to hit local headlines was on May 13, at the Mulund ground once again.

Five days since the blaze, the smoke billowing from the mounds of trash is not yet under control, and civic officials are yet to officially announce the cause of the fire. The previous fires were blamed either on heat and wind setting off inflammable materials dumped in the garbage, or on scavengers setting off fires as they sort through the garbage.

“Since the dumping grounds are not walled off, rag pickers can easily enter them for their work – that is why the fires are happening,” said Prakash Patil, the deputy municipal commissioner for solid waste management at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Waste management experts, however, have plenty to say about the many reasons – both immediate and deep-rooted – behind the frequent fires in the city’s garbage dumps.

A mafia at work

However, Rajkumar Sharma, the president of Almanac, a federation of resident groups in Chembur, close to the Deonar dumping ground, claims that the fires are the result of a mafia. He is actually referring to slum dwellers and ragpickers who scavenge for waste in the landfills that they can sell. When the civic authorities try to clamp down on their activities, they set off fires in retaliation, Sharma says.  The methane generated by tonnes of mixed garbage rotting in the open helps fuel the fires.

While many activists admit that ragpickers do spark deliberate and accidental fires, environment activist Rishi Aggarwal points out that the real mafia at play is perhaps quite different.

“We don’t have any solid waste management in Mumbai – what we have is more like solid waste transport,” said Aggarwal.

Mumbai generates more than 8,000 metric tonnes of garbage every day, which is almost never segregated into the wet and dry categories that it is supposed to, according to the central government’s Municipal Solid Waste rules of 2000. Instead, the mixed waste from across the metropolis is transported in thousands of trucks, every day, to one of its three dumping grounds – at Deonar, Mulund and Kanjurmarg. “The transport companies contracted by the civic body benefit a great deal from this,” said Aggarwal.

Unsurprisingly, each landfill is being made to bear a burden much heavier than its capacity, but there are few other options on offer. The Deonar landfill, for instance, was intended to handle just 2,000 tonnes of garbage per day, but more than half of the city’s garbage is dumped there.

Segregation fail

“There is so much waste that ought not to go to a dumping ground at all," said Aggarwal. "Plastic can be recycled in so many different ways if it’s segregated. Food waste can yield biogas for electricity instead of generating toxic methane in a garbage dump.”

Sharma lists some more – green waste from trees and plants, sludge extracted after de-silting drains, debris from construction and infrastructure renovation, biomedical waste that ought to go to a separate plant. “Officially, none of this is supposed to be in a dumping ground, but it is dumped there illegally at night anyway,” said Sharma.

According to the MSW rules of 2000, it is the municipality’s duty to educate citizens and get them to segregate their waste at the very first level itself – the household. On the face of it, the BMC has installed separate dustbins to collect wet and dry waste in public places across Mumbai. Occasionally, it sends out some separate trucks to collect the dry waste, although not in every ward.

“Why would citizens bother to segregate waste at the household level if the BMC does not even have separate trucks to pick it up?” asks Sharma.

If garbage was truly segregated, the city would have very little use of dumping grounds – each kind of waste would be sent for processing separately and would be made useful for various city needs.

“The Mulund dumping ground was supposed to get a bio-methanisation plant 10 years ago, but that was never done,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environment activist at Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based non-profit.

‘We are trying’

At the BMC’s solid waste management department, deputy municipal commissioner Prakash Patil has a vague response that is delivered with complete confidence.

“We are trying to start the scientific processing of Mumbai’s waste – orders were given to start biogas plants in all three dumping grounds since 2008-'09,” said Patil. “We are trying to give the contracts. And we have tied up with ragpicker NGOs in 32 places to ensure segregation.”

Sharma does the maths implied in Patil’s statements and does not seem happy. “Each ward produces at least 30 to 35 tonnes of dry waste in a day," he said. "Can an NGO manage that amount along with spreading that awareness? Is it even an NGO’s job?”

Not just Mumbai

Burdening saturated dumping grounds with unsegregated waste that should ideally be treated at a plant is hardly a problem unique to Mumbai. In metro cities across India, managing waste efficiently has been a lasting problem.

Delhi has just four landfills stuffed to capacity with more than 9,000 tonnes of garbage every day. Sites for more dumping grounds have been identified by are still not functional, while pollution levels in the areas around the existing grounds have shot up in the past few years. Bangalore dumps all its garbage in 500 daily trucks to its only main landfill in Mandur village, where residents have heavily protested dumping any more waste.

What is probably unique to Mumbai, says Stalin, is the powerful real estate lobby that colludes with the BMC to ensure that dumping grounds don’t turn into useful biogas plants.

“There are builders in Mulund who have started developing plots near the dumping ground and want the dump to be shut down,” said Stalin. According to MSW rules, residential buildings cannot be located within 500 metres of a dumping ground, and builders must wait at least 15 years after the closing of a garbage landfill before starting construction on it. Both these rules are blatantly being flouted, says Stalin.

“Our fire department is equipped well enough to handle a garbage dump fire,” he said. “So why have the recent fires gone on for days?”