Fire at Deonar Dumping Ground: Theatre of the absurd and story of lurking scam


Preeti Sharma Menon

The Deonar Dumping Ground fire has become a whodunit of farcical proportions. The BMC, the Shiv Sena, the State Government, the politicians, the contractors, the ragpickers, the land grabbing mafias, the dumping vehicles lobby, the poor neighbouring residents, and the citizens of Mumbai are not to blame. The blame has been pinned on three unidentified minors who were seen fleeing the ground.

Welcome to the theatre of the absurd. Three poor children who did not find any better place to play are mentioned in an FIR! Three poor children set 326 acres of garbage mountains on fire and released a respiratory epidemic on India’s financial capital. Dennis the Menace, you have been retired, these three kids make you look like a nun by the sheer magnitude of their mischief.

If this is the collective wisdom of the BMC and the state government, then one must give up any hopes of them finding a solution. It is time for citizens to wake up and demand answers. Mumbai citizens are being misled by an apathetic media that is tom-tomming the shrill, senseless demand for shutting down the Deonar Dumping Ground. And then what next? Mumbai generates about 6,000 tonnes of garbage a day, what should we do with it?

Let us attempt to sieve through the maze of circumstances and controversies and seek solutions.

The truth about the fire

One of Asia’s oldest dumping sites, Deonar Dumping Ground was opened in 1927 and covers 326 acres. Today garbage mountains have reached several stories high. The dumping of wet, dry, and recyclable waste together, without any attempt to segregate and treat it, has led to toxic mix of combustible gases that have caught fire. These fires are embedded deep down and have travelled underground across the vast area.

"I shot this image to show that it might look like a posh ad for successful people chatting over a bonfire but that couldn't be farther from the truth. These four boys Meeraj, Sagir, Sajid,Naseem are standing on one of largest dumping grounds in Asia that has been engulfed in a self sustaining fire for many days and inhaling smoke that could make them very sick." Sugandha Garg - 23 March 2016
“I shot this image to show that it might look like a posh ad for successful people chatting over a bonfire but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. These four boys Meeraj, Sagir, Sajid,Naseem are standing on one of largest dumping grounds in Asia that has been engulfed in a self sustaining fire for many days and inhaling smoke that could make them very sick.” Sugandha Garg – 23 March 2016

BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, who clearly represents the state government, has claimed it to be an act of sabotage.

Well here is the truth – fires have been blazing in the Deonar Dumping Ground since ten years or more. They were small, mostly underground and the apathetic BMC as well as the state government did not care that they were building a volcano as they kept dumping more and more of the virulent waste, ignoring the fires.

The miscreant/sabotage theory

If indeed, however, these fires were stoked by miscreants, it is because the ground is not secure. There is hardly any security staff. The few security cameras do not work and the wall, well there is no wall. The poor children of neighbouring shanties play there all day. Drug addicts lurk in shady crevices. Municipal Commissioner’s tall claims about security and surveillance are totally unreal as there is no means to guard this 326 acres of hell. There are of course, various interested lobbies at work here – but have they caused the fire?

1. There is the garbage movement lobby that’s been cheating Mumbai as they have convinced the BMC to not implement segregation of garbage. Basically it makes their work simpler. Picking un-segregated waste and dumping it in one place is so convenient. Clearly they have no reason to harm the dumping ground as it is brisk business for them.

2. Then there is a ragpickers lobby, but they are the most keen that dumping continues as that’s their source of livelihood. A failed state has been unable to ensure segregation of waste and automated recycling processes. So we subject 200,000 of our fellow human beings, and many of them children, to manually sift through the filth and retrieve recyclable waste. If there has been some ecological sanity in this country it is because the poorest of poor are so desperate to eke a living that they are willing to even do this inhumane job in order to feed their hungry mouths.

It is even worse when boundless intellect suggests that we must not automate in order to protect their jobs. We should up-skill them and get them better jobs rather than condemn generation after generation to a life in hell. The moot point however is that the dumping ground is their source of livelihood – why would they, or their associations, set fire to the dump that feeds them. They have the most to lose.

3. The third is the lobby that’s making strident noises to shut down the dumping ground – the land mafia and their supporters, politicians like Abu Azmi. They are eyeing the 326 acres. This area is a vote bank for the Samajwadi Party, the Congress, and slum lords associated with them have made tons of money by occupying marshy land, then legalising it and selling it. However, the state government is not mentioning them at all. In fact it seems quite sympathetic to their demands to shut down the ground.

The real culprit

A vague FIR blames the contractor Tatva Global Environment (Deonar) Ltd for negligence – honestly there should be a full fledged inquiry against Tatva & their partner United Phosphorus Limited (UPL) for cheating, fraud, and attempt to poison all Mumbaikers. Tatva and UPL got a contract in 2009 to manage, recycle/dispose, and modernize waste management, that too at exorbitant rates. Negotiations that began at Rs. 40 per tonne for processing the waste, were finally agreed at Rs. 550 per tonne! Thus BMC paid Rs. 4,408 crores to Tatva & UPL.

Can Mumbaikers can their apathy?

 The dominating trait of Mumbaikers is apathy. As long as it’s not in my backyard it doesn’t deserve my attention. The burning fires have crept into my home and only now am I paying it some attention. Like I do every monsoon, when the water enters my car or skids my two-wheeler. I plant saplings in potholes to show my outrage, but the monsoon passes and I forget all about the roads. On January 27th 2016 the fire found its way into my lungs and I outraged a bit, and then as my “Deonar Flu” subsided, I kept quiet. Like the deluges and the blasts, it would go away, right? Wrong. It’s back and it is not going away.  Unless we demand answers, unless we make the BMC answerable we are not going to get away from this one. 

What is more shocking is that in 2010 itself a dispute arose between UPL and the BMC due to which UPL did not install the compost plant and other agreed technologies. So till the contract ended in January 2016, UPL charged BMC for allowing BMC to dump garbage in a BMC’s own dumpyard! No processing of garbage was done at all.

UPL has in the past had the temerity to demand that the land be leased out to them! Some of the issues related to this absurd contract were taken to court and the HC declared that the contract between them and BMC is full of irregularities. The stoic silence of the BMC and the state government confirms that there is some sinister scam lurking behind this contract – at the cost of the lives of Mumbaikers.

Prakash Javdekar did, by the way, find some valuable time to talk to the Municipal Commissioner on the phone and quickly concluded there was sabotage – thus exonerating both the contractor and the BMC for their outrageous negligence in sorting as issue that reached scary proportions over ten years back.

Eyewash Inquiries

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had ordered a two member probe into the fire and smog, and a committee under Ramesh Kumar, NEERI and IIT has been asked to study and suggest measures. But these probes and committees are so shrouded in secrecy, that we have no clue what they have done. This simply won’t do. What we need is a Special Inquiry Team (SIT) led by a serving or retired High Court Judge and inclusive of BMC officials, subject matter experts, activists & citizens of Shivaji Nagar to inquire into the cause of the fires, the failures of the BMC and then propose short and long term solutions, within 60 days.

False Promises

The new dumping ground in Taloja is unlikely to materialise. The 52 hectare land is inadequate and heavily encroached. The local villagers are already suffering due to the impact of the bio-medical waste that is burnt in that area – babies are born weak, children suffer from irritation in the eyes, respiratory problems, diarrhea and they don’t even have a primary health care facility. The contamination of the ground water has led to failed crops. The villages are determined not to allow Mumbai’s waste to be dumped there. And why should they? If Mumbaikers say “not in my backyard” for their own waste then why should villagers accept Mumbai’s waste.

Blame it on the citizens

The chief minister has also stated in the assembly that all residents will now segregate garbage. Just great but where is the segregated collection system? The dumpers mix all the garbage during collection – in fact this mafia needs to be checked, there have been complaints of extortion wherein they refuse to collect garbage from societies unless they are paid in cash.

It is highly illogical that the corporation and the state government are asking citizens to dispose/recycle wet waste. The BMC is one of the richest corporations in Asia; instead of using these funds to do its duty it is forcing citizens to do it! And while many fancy pants have found this righteous sounding but impossible to implement solution appealing, the citizens’ responsibility is to separate garbage, full stop.

Disposing that garbage is BMC’s responsibility. The citizens are being told to recycle/dispose wet waste because the corrupt BMC staff refuses to do its job and has failed to install waste segregation and recycling/disposal infrastructure. At best one can nudge citizens to participate in it, and that too provided the BMC was doing its job earnestly. Instead the BMC is trying to abdicate its responsibility! Next the CM will expect the citizens to police their own areas as well!

The way ahead

There is no quick fix solution to this mess, but here is what Mumbaikers want:

  • Punish each and every BMC official, politician and contractor who has had a hand in letting this problem assume gargantuan proportions.
  • Give immediate orders to citizens to segregate garbage, such that non-compliance results in heavy fines and punishments. Provide encouragement to those citizens who voluntarily set up their own recycling mechanisms.
  •  Strict orders to garbage collection staff and contractors to ensure that they collect segregated garbage and drop it at separate recycling/disposal centers. They should be made accountable for failures.
  • Setting up ward-wise recycling plants on a war footing
  •  Invite proposals from world-class firms for stopping the fire and making Deonar Dumping Ground usable again
  • Create dumping grounds across the city to manage non-recyclable waste and ensure that no dumping ground is shut down and handed over to the land mafia.

On 22 March Tuesday, the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), stated that the air quality index (AQI – a pollution indicator) at Chembur was 319 which is “very poor” and Mumbai was marginally better at “poor.” Wind speeds are poor in summer, so the pollutants caused due to the fire will keep sticking to the ground – we have really lethal months ahead. This has to be a fight to the finish and Mumbaikers have to hit the road in protest, to ensure that we find a comprehensive solution that’s lasts for the next century.

Preeti Sharma Menon is a Mumbai-based AAP spokesperson. Views expressed here are the author’s own. doesn’t subscribe to them