Mumbai votes for a new general body of the municipal corporation on February 21. From a large pile of civic issues and areas that must be highlighted, we selected the forgotten fringe of Mumbai, its M-East ward. This is the first article in a series on the poorest part of India’s wealthiest city.

Nine-year-old Ashraf and 11-year-old Shahrukh are neighbours, friends and partners-in-crime. They, like other children here, have been working ever since they can remember. Sometimes, they work alongside their fathers, uncles, and mothers, and at other times, they bear the workload all by themselves. Some days, they head to school. Then there are days when they cannot be in school because they must work. The school building is so dilapidated that they believe they are safer at work. Except that they are not, no one can be.

Their workplace, their home, in fact their world is Mumbai’s oldest and bursting-at-the-seams landfill at Deonar in the city’s eastern suburbs. With their little hands already calloused, grime under their nails and in their hair, and clothes that have seen better days, Ashraf and Shahrukh walk around the skirting of the landfill, sometimes sneaking into its inner zones, avoiding the security cordon, to sift through the city’s garbage for metal, e-waste, and other waste that fetches a price in the scrap market.

“Purey Bombay ka kachra idhar aata hai aur mere haath se ho kar jaata hai,” said Shahrukh, laughing. (All of Mumbai’s garbage comes here and passes through my hands.) His ambition is to shake hands once with his namesake, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan.

But he grimaced, and added: “He won’t shake my hands, see how they smell”.

Ashraf, like other boys here, can rattle off names of perfumes, colognes and after-shaves whose advertisements he repeatedly sees on television.

“But none of them will work, we will stink,” he said, with sangfroid beyond his years.

The residents of the Rafiq Nagar slum have easy access to the Deonar dumping yard. (Photo credit: Venkatraghavan Rajagopalan).

The forgotten fringe

The stench hangs heavy here. It defines Rafiq Nagar, the slum that is separated from the landfill by a competitively stinking nallah. It provides olfactory directions to the slum. Once there, all one can see is the landfill – mounds and mounds of garbage that stretch far and rise high. This is where half of Mumbai’s daily garbage output of 9,600 metric tonnes is carted to.

Created in 1927, it was the city’s only dump yard for decades. Much later, two other landfills were opened – in Mulund, further north east, and Gorai in the north west of Mumbai.

At the last count, the Deonar landfill was spread across 111 hectares, towered more than eight storeys high and had an estimated total volume of 16 million tonnes of garbage – wet, dry, domestic waste, medical waste, industrial trash, construction debris and everything in between. The landfill has seen minor and major fires. The last three major fires in 2016 led to a thick smog over Mumbai and an alarming decline in its air quality.

Rafiq Nagar, like other slums in the vicinity of the Deonar landfill, or dumping ground as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation calls it, is a human settlement that should never have been here. Those who worked here or could not find the standard one-room tenement elsewhere found their way to this place. Bastis expanded, their numbers grew.

A few, like driver Ali Sheikh, 47, have been living here for three decades, when Rafiq Nagar was a cluster of “only 12 to 16 hutments” as he remembers it. Many are second-generation residents.

“The stink is my strongest memory of growing up here,” said Ishaq, 22, a self-taught electrical repairman. “That and the constant battle to get water and power.”

These slums, mini-slums and large shanties in Bainganwadi, Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Cheetah Camp, Vashi Naka, Mandala and Mankhurd, with a smattering of middle class homes in Chembur and Trombay, form the M-East ward of the city’s municipal corporation. It is one of its 24 administrative wards, but is like no other. The “M” is a randomly assigned tag (A ward is the tony South, for example) but it could well stand for “muck”.

Spread across 32.5 sq km on the north east fringe of Mumbai abutting the Thane creek, it has remained literally on the periphery of the city’s consciousness as well as its governance systems.

Mumbai’s bowels

Visually, there is little in M-East that is Mumbai – none of those gleaming towers, commercial and retail buzz spots, industrial pockets, gated communities with manicured green patches and swimming pools, not even the typical ground-plus-four residential buildings or chawls. Nothing.

Think Dharavi. This is a poorer Dharavi, much poorer.

Remember Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire?

M-East is that film unspooling every day, in parts even worse. Nearly 78% of the ward’s nine lakh residents live in slums.

As far as the eye can see, except for a few middle-class apartment blocks and institutions such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, it is slums and garbage. Or garbage and slums.

But it is not only the nauseating odour of the landfill that hangs heavy here. It is the stark poverty, abysmal living conditions, lack of civic and social amenities, influx of migrants – legal and illegal – the absence of colleges and hospitals, lawlessness, prevalence of mafias and gangs who control everything – from property to water and power – high incidence of drug abuse and crime that sets it so far apart, spatially and socially, from the rest of Mumbai.

M-East is simply the poorest and most wretched part of Mumbai, India’s financial capital. If Mumbai is the country’s wealthiest city – home to 28 billionaires and 45,000 millionaires and a total wealth of $ 820 billion, according to New World Wealth report, 2016 – M-East is its stinking bowels.

“All across Mumbai except for perhaps a few hand-picked areas, there are civic issues and lack of amenities,” said Sabah Khan, who works at the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “In M-East, every civic problem becomes multiple times worse partly because of the sheer numbers and density of population, but mainly because it is not on Mumbai’s agenda except for the dumping ground problems. M-East has been reduced to the Deonar dumping ground.”

Khan is a key resource person in the institute’s M-East Ward Project that was started in 2011 to document and facilitate development in the area.

BMC workers handle approximately 3,000 metric tonnes of refuse daily at the Deonar dumping yard. (Photo credit: Venkatraghavan Rajagopalan).

Deonar landfill

The Deonar landfill is a civic challenge. When it was picked 90 years ago as the site to dump Mumbai’s waste, Deonar was a remote area. In fact, large portions of the northeastern stretch of Mumbai were not even habitable at that time. But as the pressure on the city’s land increased and institutional areas were established in the vicinity, new lower-class migrants found Deonar a cheaper alternative to, say, Dharavi, or other slum pockets. Now, both the landfill and the slums that have sprung up near it have become intractable issues.

For years, as Mumbai generated more and more waste, all of it, without being segregated, was simply dumped here. Even after the Mulund and Gorai landfills were created, the bulk of the city’s waste was trucked to Deonar.

Mumbai should have had a comprehensive waste management policy that did not require all waste to be driven to landfills in the first place.

But waste segregation is a standing joke. Even today what is separated as dry and wet waste at the household level in a few areas is all shoved together into one large compactor and dumped at landfills. The landfills then become the source of revenue for rag pickers, scrap collectors and scrap merchants. They work on or near it, and find it convenient to live in its vicinity. Besides, other slum dwellers do not want them as neighbours.

“We wanted to get out from here to give our kids a chance at a better life,” said Shaukat Sayed, 45, who is employed as a domestic worker in Chembur. “We checked out many rooms in Sion and Dharavi slums but nothing worked out. Then an old woman told us that they don’t want kachrawallas [garbage collectors] around them, that we stink.”

The contents of the Deonar landfill have now leached into the groundwater presenting a number of health hazards. Its fires pollute the atmosphere. These fires are caused by either the combination of combustible material and methane trapped in the landfill, or are lit by miscreants and the scrap mafia to glean saleable scrap. The small fires are noticed often by middle-class residents in Trombay and Chembur who call the Fire Brigade. The major fires, of course, are so big that they are picked up by satellites as they were last year.

“The toxic fumes caused by the fires last year choked all of Mumbai,” said a senior M-East ward official. “That’s when many Mumbaikars discovered the Deonar dumping ground. The problems here are evident and the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation] is working to create a larger landfill site at Taloja.”

The residents of the slum in Kamla Raman Nagar comprise mostly of immigrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. (Photo credit: Venkatraghavan Rajagopalan).

Pollution risk

The ward has well-meaning officers but their best plans are undercut by factors beyond their control. They must follow orders of the Bombay High Court – civic activists took the issue of pollution caused by the Deonar landfill there in 1996, and there have been a total of 16 petitions so far – which directed that the landfill be shut down. But then where should the municipal corporation take thousands of tons of waste every day?

Last year, from January to March, as Mumbai choked on particulate matter, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, residents of buildings and slums around the landfill were worst off. They could not open their windows or step out of their homes for days. In the slums, people could not see beyond their noses.

“We lived in a haze those months, a filthy haze that left many of us sick”, said Aftab Alam Ansari, car cleaner and resident of Shivaji Nagar slum.

At that time, the civic administration ordered all schools in the ward shut and clinics saw long queues of patients with respiratory and stomach illnesses.

An inquiry report later recommended a number of steps to tackle the fires. These included enhancing the security around the landfill and not allowing rag-pickers near it. The recommendations may have been well-intentioned but it meant a drop in the daily wages of the boys and women whose livelihoods came from it. This, in turn, led to the outbreak of regular fights between slum dwellers, and more time for drug abuse especially by boys.

“We have to do drugs,” said Usman, 15, a school dropout whose parents came either from Bengal or Bangladesh. A number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh find their way to the slums in M-East.

Garbage dump, people dump

The M-East slums may not have multiplied as fast if not for the push that came from the rest of the city.

As the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the Maharashtra government, and a clutch of autonomous agencies such as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority executed their plans for the city’s infrastructure – road widening, new roads to link the western and eastern parts of the city, flyovers, freeways and metros, and the upmarket Bandra-Kurla complex – the people displaced by these projects were packed off to M-East.

No authority has a comprehensive count of how many people have been displaced over the last decade in Mumbai, but the spread of slums in M-East, especially in Mandala and Mankhurd, point to large numbers possibly in lakhs.

“These are the internal refugees of Mumbai, displaced for the sake of the city, thrown from one slum in the city to another much worse slum on the city’s fringes,” said Simpreet Singh, urban researcher and activist with the Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, who works closely with social activist Medha Patkar.

But even in the new bastis, civic amenities are poor or non-existent. It is as if the municipal corporation does not exist for us, said residents in Mandala. These words are heard ever so often in Rafiq Nagar.

When the civic election is round the corner as it now is – Mumbai votes on February 21 – the discarded lot on the city’s fringes is back in demand.

M-East now has 15 seats in the 227-seat Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the largest number for any ward. In the multi-cornered contests now on the horizon, all it takes for a candidate to win is about 20% of the votes cast. This has led to parties and candidates marking out their own territories best placed to give them the numbers.

It is clear that politicians and administration cannot arrive at answers to the challenges in M-East. From the Deonar landfill to Mankhurd’s newest slum settlement, M-East is, in fact, Mumbai’s challenge.

This is the first part of a series on the poorest part of India’s wealthiest city.