In her first book, Mountain Tales, Love and Loss in the Municipal of Castaway Belongings, author Saumya Roy follows the lives of several rag collectors, including Farzana Sheikh in Deonar, a dump in Mumbai and one of the largest landfills in the country. Al Jazeera South Asia Business Editor Megha Bahree discusses the book and how Indians consume things today and the impact it has on waste disposal and the lives of the people who deal with it. Edited citations.
Al Jazeera: Tell us about Farzana Sheikh. This story is about garbage in Mumbai, but mostly about Farzana, right?
Saumia Roy: Yes that is right. I’ve known Farzana since she was about 14 years old – gang-like, full of energy, not too loud. His father was a garbage collector in the garbage mountains. He was born on the street that ends at the foot of the garbage mountains. She started her life by learning to find toys, clothes and food in the garbage. His life was intertwined with it. That’s why this book is his personal story, but also a tale of tremendous courage that tells us something about our lives today. Because it lives at the foot of the largest garbage mountains in our city, which are among the largest in the world.
Al Jazeera: What fascinated you with all this?
Roy: I have been a journalist for many years. Then I ran a non-profit where we gave micro-loans to micro-entrepreneurs in Mumbai city and rural Maharashtra and so I would see a lot of communities. But with that, when they told me what they were doing, I was immediately fascinated. And I started going to their house, and the houses were made of the garbage they brought back, like plastic sheets, cloths, they were wearing, they were finding food, they were eating. I started walking with them to the garbage mountains and that’s when I realized that our life today is this interplay. The impact of everything we consume creates these lives, but it also creates pollution, disease, greenhouse gases. So this provided a human dimension to say something much bigger about how we live and what impact it has.
Al Jazeera: So when your book started, was it the 1890s? And was waste disposal in Mumbai much different from today?
Roy: At that time there was a plague in the city and people were dying and there were similar quarantine measures. [as during COVID-19]. There were military personnel who went out to check if the patients in the city had the plague on them, and these patients were forcibly taken to the hospital. And so there was a lot of unrest against the colonial British rule and there was a lot of riots and violence in the city and so the British administration decided that the best way to deal with it was to reduce the garbage. They bought this huge 823-acre site on the edge of town where all the garbage would be dumped – out of sight, out of mind. They thought that with it the plague, riots and violence would disappear. But in fact, nearly 100 years later, when authorities look back, there were mountains of garbage rising 120 feet, even then 20-story buildings.
Al Jazeera: What was garbage like back then?
Roy: In the 1890s there was glass, some metal, but mostly fruit peels were leftovers, food scraps, scraps of cloth.
Al Jazeera: What is the garbage coming out of Indian homes today? How have consumption patterns changed?
Roy: It is the arrival of multinational corporations in the early 1990s that economic reform began and with it all this consumption boom began. I have vivid memories of when Pepsi, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut arrived and how consumption patterns or consumption scale suddenly changed. Since then, the scale and nature of garbage has increased. We’re seeing more plastic bottles, foil boxes for food, and the newly added styrofoam cups for coffee.
Something Farzana said to me was a prime example of how our consumption has changed. He always told me, you know, the apples we found in the dumpster weren’t Indian apples because they were so small. And I think he meant like Chinese and American apples because they are big.
Al Jazeera: How has this changed the economic life of waste collectors?
Roy: I’ve always heard of someone who is too rich by waste. I’ve never met those garbage collectors. There is a feeling that they do not exist. And that’s because the lives of the poor are so fragile. So if they were to make some money very quickly, it would be some kind of family emergency, someone was dying, weddings, some kind of health emergency, which would draw them back into this job, this life.
Al Jazeera: What role did Farzana and other waste collectors play in the birth of large companies investing in garbage systems using large incinerators? Can and should the latter replace adders?
Roy: Historically, the mentality of the authorities was to evacuate waste from the city. He should leave the wealthy parts of the city. And all that was left of the covered mountains were those the garbage collectors took away with their bare hands. So if anything was resold, it was recycled by them.
There are studies showing that one-third of waste has been reduced by the efforts of waste collectors. That’s why they played a very important role and they have a role to play in the future because of their talent. They know this business and not everything goes into incinerators.
Al Jazeera: What kind of garbage does India import, from where and why?
Roy: India imports waste from USA, UK and Europe. For many years, China was the landfill for the whole world. And they would recycle it and use it in different ways. This was the original circular economy until we realized it was causing pollution and prompted a rethink and banned the import of waste. But with Chinese traders, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia etc. moved to other countries. When these countries started to ban it, European waste started to be transported to Turkey. Now Turkey has banned waste. And so, over the years we have seen the import of waste increase in India. India also said that if this is not regulated we may ban the import of certain types of plastics and papers. It varies from country to country as regulations change.
Al Jazeera: Has the outbreak affected waste disposal models and collectors? How?
Roy: Yes there is. They found it difficult to work as the quarantines in India were difficult. Also, there was some COVID-related waste coming to landfills. When they were desperate to work, they worked on this waste that didn’t have to be food trays, bottles, medical or infected stuff. They were wearing used PPE kits to protect against the rain. Our consumption has also increased during the pandemic process. We don’t go to restaurants like we once did. But instead, we order groceries that come in these packaged boxes, we buy things online, and all of this creates growing garbage.
Al Jazeera: Was there enough work for them during the pandemic, especially with lockdowns? Are they sick too?
Roy: None of them had COVID, or at least the ones they knew. But their desperation was to keep working. I remember one of them telling me that without this disease, hunger would kill them.
Al Jazeera: At first it was difficult for me to read a few pages of the book imagining the smell of everything. But when you talk about the gatherers and how they look at this mountain as income, potentially uncovering buried treasure, it took me a chapter or two, but I started thinking that way too. Is this something you do consciously?
Roy: I thought of it as this kind of interaction of life and death as it is. And that’s how this place presented itself to me in a way. This place is a dump and people think of it as a place of disaster. But when you talk to garbage collectors, they tell you this is a place of opportunity. A place where you’re just a handful of away from finding a treasure, where you can almost get rich on something someone forgot. I first learned about the garbage collectors dump and they never told me it was a horrible place to work. They thought it was great. She had wonderful memories of birthday parties, romances, summer treats, and that was the interaction that needed to be shown. It would be wrong to fetishize this place and say it’s a great place because it wasn’t.
Al Jazeera: What is being done to lift collectors out of poverty and move the country towards a more sustainable, humane and equitable disposable waste culture?
Roy: The Indian government has announced a grand plan of around 13 billion dollars to improve various measures related to air pollution; one of them involves remediation to move mountains of garbage as the prime minister said. They said it will create opportunities for people living in the garbage mountains, but it is not yet clear what those opportunities are for waste collectors. I think policy makers look at it from two angles. First, how quickly can we remove the waste? Secondly, from a slightly technical perspective, how fast we can burn it, turn it to ash, reduce it to zero. But what is the effect on air, water pollution? What is the impact of the people living around these garbage mountains on the quality of life and life span of the garbage collectors? There is no point in having, for example, a biomedical waste incinerator if it affects the health of the people living around it. This is also a measure that should be evaluated in waste management.
Al Jazeera: What do waste collectors want?
Roy: They know no other life than this. I followed them for eight or nine years. And the only people to leave the garbage mountains were a character or two who had passed away and one was in jail. Others continue their work. It’s hard to leave. They are also not equipped to undertake these jobs in shining India, they do not have a good education. One picker tried to get a job as a taxi driver at the ride-hailing company Ola. However, he was unable to follow the instructions on the screen and was denied. Many have made attempts to leave and get jobs in the gig economy, but they have not been able to hold on. Garbage collectors live very insecure, difficult, unhealthy lives. And that’s why it’s important to create opportunities for them, to enable them to seize those opportunities.