Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced earlier in the month that India will soon have its “mountains” of trash replaced by waste treatment plants. Saumya Roy, author of this report, reports from Mumbai’s western coast city. It is the 18-storey tallest and oldest mountain of garbage in India.

Every morning, Farha Shaikh stands on top of a more-than-a-century-old rubbish mountain in Mumbai, waiting for garbage trucks to make their way up.

Since she was 19 years old, the waste picker in Deonar has been digging through heaps of trash for all her life.

She often picks up plastic bottles and glass from the trash to make wire for the city’s vibrant waste markets. She is especially concerned about broken phones.

Farha discovers a dead mobile phone every few weeks in the garbage. Farha digs through her small savings to repair the phone. After it turns on, she can spend her evenings playing video, texting, and calling friends.

Farha is able to reconnect with the outside world again when the phone ceases working days later or weeks later. Her days are filled with collecting debris from the area to sell – then she searches for the right phone.

Deonar’s trash mountains, which contain more than 16 millions tonnes of garbage and eight that cover a 300-acre area are India’s oldest and largest. The highest waste piles are up to 120 feet (36.5m). The ocean forms the edge of the mountains, and the solid heaps full of trash have become slums.

Decomposing waste can release noxious gasses such as methane and hydrogen sulfide. The fires started in 2016 and lasted for several months, causing smoke to rise in large parts of Mumbai. A 2011 study conducted by India’s pollution regulator found that landfill fires caused 11% pollution, which is the main source of urban air pollution.

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Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi think tank, conducted a 2020 study and found that 3,159 mountains contained 800 million tonnes each of garbage across India.

Mumbai: A 26-year-old court case is being brought to close the Deonar grounds. However, waste continues to be disposed of.

India’s vast waste mountains have been a source of concern for politicians and officials. On 1 October, Mr Modi announced nearly $13bn (£9.54bn) for a national cleanliness programme that would include setting up a number of sewage treatment plants to gradually replace open air rubbish dumps such as the one in Deonar.

However, experts remain skeptical. Siddharth Ganshyam, CSE deputy program manager, says, “While it’s been done in smaller towns, it’s hard to provide an answer for waste mountains on this scale.”

Dharmesh Shah is the country coordinator for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. He says that while there is an acknowledgment of this problem, it is also something we accept.

India passed regulations in 2000 requiring municipalities to dispose of waste. However, most states only report partial compliance and do not have enough waste treatment facilities.

Mumbai is India’s capital city and the entertainment and commercial hub. It has one plant. Deonar has a plan to convert waste into energy.

Modi stated that he expected the plan to generate new green jobs. Farha, a waste picker who has been working this job for their entire lives, is worried.

After the 2016 fires, it has been much more difficult for them to reach the mountains of waste. It has been made harder for them to access the mountains of waste after the fires in 2016.

Many waste pickers are detained and beaten if they manage to sneak into the building. Some bribe security guards to allow them in before dawn, when the patrols start. This means that very little is done at Denoar’s grounds. Instead, much of the waste in Denoar is separated within the city, so what gets to Deonar has decreased over time.

Farha hasn’t used a smartphone in months. She has to bribe guards at least 50 rupees ($0.67; £0.49) every day to get in and work at the Deonar grounds. She even considered picking through all the garbage that had been arriving at the Covid hospital wards in the city last year to recover the money.

However, her family insisted that she pick up any “harmful Covid waste.” She watches the pickers in rain, and she keeps her distance, so that they can continue collecting plastic for resale.

New trash was being sent by the city, which, as it had done for many years, required that it be deposited in mountains. Pickers were then responsible for collecting it and selling it.

Farha said, “Hunger will kill you if we don’t have illness.”

Saumya Roy, a Mumbai journalist and author is most recently of Mountain Tales. Love and Loss In the Municipality Of Castaway Belonging (Profile Books/ Hachette India).


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