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Not Waste Pickers, This Is Who’s Responsible For The Fire At Mumbai’s Dumping Ground

By Bilal Khan

Slum children walk through a dried-up creek covered with wasted rubber sheets in Mumbai November 23, 2009. More than a third of India's population survives on less than one dollar a day, according to a 2007 United Nations report. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTXR1HE
Image source: REUTERS/Arko Datta

The recent outbreak of fire at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai has reignited the discourse around waste management system in the country. The unanimous demand from the elite citizens of the city is to shut down the dumping ground and replace it with a scientific waste management system. However, in the deliberations and coverage by the media after the fire outbreak around the issues related to waste management, nobody seems to have shown concern about the loss of livelihood of the waste pickers that find employment there, in case it is dismantled. It is only these waste pickers who were helping in the segregation of waste and facilitating the recycling of the dry waste until now in the absence of any decentralized waste management system. They have an important role in the recycling of the waste generated in the city. But the work done by these waste pickers and their contribution is not being recognized by the Municipal Corporation even after directions from the Central Government.

This is not to say that the waste pickers should remain engaged in the same activity that poses great risk to their health and well-being. The more appropriate approach would be to come up with an alternative plan in which the waste be managed scientifically by including the labour of these waste pickers in a healthy and productive atmosphere so that the livelihood of this community remains ensured.

As far as the reason for the outbreak of fire at Deonar is concerned, the blame cannot be entirely put on the waste pickers because they are the least likely to be the cause of fire. In fact, the presence of high level of inflammable methane gas becomes the cause of frequent fire on the dumping ground. The methane is spontaneously produced in large quantities as a result of decomposition of organic waste. Even a careless cigarette butt could provoke a fire.

This would not be the case if the rule laid down by Ministry of Environment and Forest in the year 2000 which states that “land filling shall be restricted to non-biodegradable, inert waste and other waste that are not suitable either for recycling or for biological processing,” was followed. But it has been observed that the uncontrolled dumping of the unsegregated waste is increasing by the day poses a multitude of risks to the environment and the people living around it. It is the one of the foremost responsibilities of the state government to manage and treat the waste generated in the city and prevent it from becoming an overwhelming cause of pollution and risk to health and life of the citizens. The current manner in which the BMC is handling the waste generated in the city is extremely inefficient and disastrous to the ecological system of Mumbai. In such a situation how sensible is it to blame the waste pickers for the fire accident when they are the ones that are to be worst affected in the case of a fire?

In such a risk-prone environment, it is imperative to have a functional and efficient disaster management system. According to Schedule III, rule number 15 of the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000, “Provisions like weigh bridge to measure quantity of waste brought at landfill site, fire protection equipments and other facilities as may be required shall be provided.” If any disaster management system is available at the Deonar dumping ground, it is inefficient or defunct. As soon as nearby residents expressed anger over the disaster management system, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, had announced that CCTV cameras would be installed in the dumping ground, which would apparently help in preventing the fire. A functional fire management system is the foremost need at the dumping ground, which can be aided and made more efficient with the help of CCTV cameras.

The biggest question is, who is responsible for the damage caused, particularly to the quality of the air, with this outbreak of fire at the dumping ground? Is it the responsibility of those three children that the Divisional Fire Officer’s report has accused of causing the fire? It is possible that they may have been accidentally involved in an activity that escalated quickly into a huge fire in an environment extremely combustible in nature. But this disaster was entirely preventable, had the BMC been following all the rules and regulations regarding the management of waste and disaster management. A fair enquiry as to the cause of the fire and the elements that led to its high intensity and impact is required, focusing on finding out whether all the rules were being followed within the management to check the situation in the wake of any tragedy.

Assisted by Priyanka Iyengar- social work student at Nirmala Niketan, Mumbai.


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