Life in Baba Nagar, a slum in close proximity to the city’s main garbage disposal site, is far from pretty. But for its residents, that’s the least of their concerns.
Text by Tarishi Verma
Photos by Anand Gautam
Cover photo by Vishal Langthasa
Wherever you stand in Baba Nagar, you cannot escape the gut-wrenching smell of garbage. Even if one meticulously covers one’s mouth and nose, one still ends up gagging. A swarm of flies leads one through the narrow lanes of the colony perched at edge of the Deonar dumping ground, ostensibly Mumbai’s largest garbage dumping site. Chicks waddle past, children defecate in corners of the lane and a tune from nearby radio set catches the ear. A girl silently sits and sews sequins to a beautiful black blouse seemingly unaffected by the putrid smells that engulf the whole area.
Running since 1927, the Deonar dumping ground is the primary site for disposing off the city’s garbage. Reports suggest that Mumbai generates 9400 tons of municipal solid waste and 1000 tons of debris waste daily, a number that is constantly on the rise. People have built their homes around the dumping area in Shivaji Nagar, Rafiq Nagar, Baba Nagar and Matti Ward among others. These areas fall under Mumbai’s M-Ward, which is the most neglected ward of the city.
According to the M-Ward Transformation Project, initiated by Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2012, development in M-Ward is worse than the whole of Mumbai. About 77.5% of the population in the M-Ward is slum population as opposed to 54.1% in the rest of the city. While the city’s infant mortality is 34.75 per 1000 lives, M-Ward’s infant mortality is 66.47. Baba Nagar, located right next to one part of the dumping ground, is one of the worst affected. Although it is an extension of Rafiq Nagar, locals call it Baba Nagar. According to an independent study conducted by the students of Disaster Management at TISS, Baba Nagar, with a predominantly Muslim population, is one of the most contaminated areas because of its close proximity to the dumping ground.
In the area where the houses and roads are still pakka, Maqsood,* Rafique and Shabnam sit chatting. “That dumping ground is our rozi-roti. How can we have a problem with that?” says 37-year old Maqsood, born and brought up in Rafiq Nagar, who collects scrap from the dumping ground. So what is the most difficult thing about living here? “Our main problem is water and electricity,” says Rafique who has lived here for 15 years and does odd jobs for a living. Every morning, drums of water are delivered from Ullhasnagar to the neighbourhood – each costs Rs. 30 and every house requires at least two drums. “With all the scrap dealing, I’m able to earn about Rs. 9000 a month. Out of that, Rs. 2000 goes in buying water. How do I run a house with the remaining amount?” asks Maqsood.
The complete lack of electricity meters causes major problems. “Half the things work with stolen electricity that we get for an hour or two,” rues Maqsood. The residents are also worried about the lack of schools for children. “I send my children to school but I don’t know till when I can do that. Gundas are always around making life hell for us,” says Shahbudhi Khan, mother of three. There are hooligans who trouble the women around here and most cases of molestation and rape go unreported.
Shabnam, a middle-aged woman who sews designs on clothes for a living, is also concerned for the women of the neighborhood. “There are goons around who trouble women,” she says. With lack of police enforcement, goons are able to have their way. Rafique says, “There is an increase in harassment of women and crime in general and no measures to keep a check on them.” For toilets, they pay Rs. 2 per visit.
Jyoti Thakur or ‘Nani’, one of the oldest residents of Baba Nagar, says, “Forget hooligans, even the young boys of the locality are doing drugs and nasha and creating a nuisance for all.”
Dispensaries and hospitals are not readily available in M-ward with the nearest hospital (Sion Hospital) being about nine kilometers away. “I lost my six-month old daughter even after I managed to arrange money for her treatment. If an immediate service was available, she’d still be here with me,” says Maqsood. Even though the dumping ground poses a huge health hazard, residents rarely complain about that. “We don’t have diseases because of this dumping ground. We are used it. If you were to stay here for a long time, you will definitely fall sick. We all are immune,” Maqsood smiles and adds, “A lot of my food comes from the garbage dump. I’m fit as a fiddle.”
Though they don’t grumble as much as they should about the actual site where they stay, clearly there is anger at how they have been abandoned by the state in almost every way. “Yahan avam ki koi nahisunta (no one here listens to be the people),” Maqsood says angrily. They also believe that they are not given any priority in water, electricity or other basic amenities because they are a Muslim community.
The houses built earlier are owned by the people living in them. “We had access to land and material, so my husband and I built this together,” says Shahbudhi about her house at the dumping site. “Now at least I have the comfort of a home.” But that sense of security is false as in actuality there is no security of land tenure for most families here.
“They can come anytime…but they can demolish all they want, we will build back our houses again and again…it’s not like they are giving us an alternative.”
Going deeper into the lanes, the sound of the television, fans and sewing machines fades away and the road gets kaccha. A piercing silence fills your ears in this part of Baba Nagar.
“My house has been demolished twice,” says Mohammad Khan, a middle-aged man who lives at the edge of Baba Nagar, where one side of the dumping ground starts. “See that notice there? Now my house is going to be demolished for the third time,” he says with a smirk. Khan has been living there for ten years moving around in the same area. He works with metal scraps but has stopped his work because the demolition can happen anytime. The houses are completely makeshift, made of tin sheets and covered by blue tarpaulin sheets.
Saira Shah’s house has been demolished once in the five years that she has stayed there and she is very scared this time round. “What is worse is that the notice was given to us on 23rd February when it actually came out on 20th February. The delay in the notice reaching us does not let us save our belongings,” she says about a demolition notice given a few months ago. In an act of protest the residents tore down that notice and no one has come to demolish the houses – yet. “They can come anytime,” says a worried Khan. “But they can demolish all they want, we will build back our houses again and again,” he says resolutely. “It’s not like they are giving us an alternative.”
A few meters from there, some people are playing cards in a tent. But I’m warned not to go there and speak to them. “Those are the house mafias,” says Irfan Khan, whose house was once snatched by them. “They demand houses at will and can throw you out anytime. The local politicians support them and we are powerless in front of them,” he says.
Most people’s homes are also their workplaces but because of the fear of demolition, they can’t start anything until they are sure it won’t be uprooted. These lives have no surety, no comfort and no relief. Yet, as I leave the place, three children are laughing without a care in the world. In the stench that fills the silence, humanity may seem to be dead but hope is still lurking around.
*Name changed on request