18 stories high and still burning, fire at landfill exposes India’s growing trash crisis

Every day after school, 15-year-old Inamul, usually clad in flip-flops, spends an hour or two wandering the giant landfill near his house. Ignoring the stench and the colonies of rats, he collects plastic bottles, cheap jewelry, glass, bits of wood and anything else that he can resell to a scrap dealer or recycler.

Inamul said he never returns home empty-handed: Mumbai’s dump sites, like those across India’s bursting cities, are overflowing with items that shouldn’t be thrown in the trash.

Last weekend, the century-old landfill where the boy scavenges caught fire for at least the third time this year, clouding India’s commercial capital with noxious smoke and underlining the fast-growing country’s mounting garbage crisis.

City authorities are investigating the cause of the fire at the Deonar landfill, Mumbai’s largest, which began Sunday and sent the city’s air-pollution readings soaring to unhealthful levels. Despite firetrucks working to douse the blaze, smoke was still rising Wednesday afternoon from the stinking, fly-ridden dumpsite that looms like a small mountain at the city’s eastern edge.

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Trash pickers scavenge inside Delhi's 70–acre, 100–foot high Ghazipur landfill.

Trash pickers scavenge inside Delhi’s 70–acre, 100–foot high Ghazipur landfill.

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

A similar blaze at the landfill in January set off plumes of smoke so vast that they were captured by a NASA satellite camera.

Deonar, which was established under British colonial rule in 1927, was due to be closed years ago. Instead, one-third of the 22 million pounds of waste that the city generates every day — roughly one pound per resident — continues to find its way to the dump site, which now stands 18 stories high.

Unlike in other cities, little of the garbage is treated or segregated before being dumped at Deonar. Mounds of organic waste release highly flammable methane gas as they decompose in the searing heat, and when trash pickers like Inamul comb through the dump, officials say it raises the risk of fire.

The scavengers sometimes toss cigarette butts or set small fires deliberately to make it easier to collect metal scraps. But the bigger risk may come from Mumbai’s so-called garbage mafia — gangs that employ the scavengers and often fight over turf in the landfills, where hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of scrap is believed to arrive every week.

Experts say the problem stems from Indian authorities’ inability to implement policies to prevent recyclable goods from ending up in landfills, or to keep trespassers out of the dump sites.

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City officials barred anyone from entering Deonar following the most recent blaze, but on Wednesday afternoon, several scavengers continued to roam the dump just yards from a handful of police officers sitting under a tin-roofed shed.

“I think India is the only country in the world where you need to protect a garbage dump to keep people from going in,” said Ajith Nair, a local resident who has advocated for reforms at Deonar.

“But the garbage mafia is very well known and powerful. There is a huge supply chain around scrap. The people who suffer are the pickers, who have to go in with their bare hands.”

Residents near the dump site, which covers more than 320 acres, also complain of poor health, chronic coughs and high rates of tuberculosis. Tasneemun Nisar Khan, 32, said the recent fires have engulfed her narrow neighborhood of tin-walled homes with an early-morning fog of foul smoke.

“You wake up with a cough, Your eyes are burning and swelling,” Khan said. “It’s like the fog you might see in the mountains, but it’s hurting us.”

Residents and activists say the city has failed to implement many of the changes it promised after the massive January blaze, including installing closed-circuit cameras and a boundary wall around Deonar, covering fresh garbage with debris to reduce methane levels and arresting members of the so-called garbage mafia.

When students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai — a top flight-engineering school — proposed a plan to capture the methane by digging a well, some city officials raised concerns over safety.

“It’s an alarming situation when you have a global embarrassment for Mumbai, and yet over the past 60 days, you’re seeing no action from the municipal corporation” that runs the city, environmental activist Rishi Aggrawal said.

Under federal waste management rules introduced in 2000, municipalities are required to segregate food waste from plastic, paper, glass and other recyclables. The policies would help reduce the growth of landfills, but authorities in Mumbai — one of the country’s most congested cities — have not penalized residential buildings that flout the law.

India’s trash problem is only growing worse as its population surges past 1.25 billion and more people flock to cities with weak infrastructure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasized the need to improve sanitation and build modern “smart cities,” but activists say his government has failed to make progress on a basic idea like recycling household waste.

“The need was recognized very well in the 1990s, and it was clear that we could not continue business as usual, which was just picking up garbage and dumping it,” Aggrawal said. “This is the need of the hour in India, and it’s really unfortunate that even though it’s something so simple, we have not been able to do it.”

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