In India, the tallest garbage mountain is a nightmare of 16 million tons.

PM Narendra Modi promised that waste treatment plants would soon replace the “mountains of garbage” dotting cities in India. A mountain of rubbish some 18 stories high rises in Mumbai, the western coastal town in India’s south, and it is the oldest and tallest mountain of garbage in the country.

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Farha Shaikh watches the garbage trucks ascend a more than the century-old rubbish mountain in Mumbai every morning.

It has been her lifelong habit to scavenge through these heaps in the suburb of Deonar.
She usually picks up plastic bottles, glass, and wire from the goopy trash in the city’s thriving waste markets. What she looks out for most, however, is broken telephones.

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The trash contains a dead phone every few weeks, which Farha finds. She spends her meagre savings to get the phone fixed. Her evenings consist of watching movies, playing video games, and chatting with friends after the TV comes on.

Farha’s connection with the world outside breaks again when the phone stops working days or weeks again later. Working long days, collecting the city’s remains to sell and looking for a new phone to repair, she is back to her old routine.

Deonar in Mumbai has an 18-storey-high rubbish mountain.

On a sprawling 300-acre site in Deonar, there are more than 16 million tonnes of trash in the country’s most enormous rubbish mountains. There are almost 38 meters of waste towering over the site. The sea forms the outer edge of the mountains, even though slums have been built into the garbage heaps.

By decomposing waste, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon monoxide are released into the atmosphere. Mumbai in 2016 was filled with smoke after a fire raged for months. Indian pollution regulators found in 2011 that landfill fires contributed 11% of the city’s air pollution from particulate matter.

In 2020, CSE, a Delhi-based think tank, identified 3,159 such mountains in India that will contain 800 million tonnes of garbage.

An ongoing court case in Mumbai aims to close the Deonar grounds, but waste is still dumped there.

On 1 October, Prime Minister Modi announced that almost $13 billion would be made available for a national cleanliness programme that would gradually provide sewage treatment plants to replace open-air rubbish dumps such as those in Deonar.

Experts are sceptical, however. Siddharth Ghanshyam Singh, deputy program manager at CSE, explains that it is harder to do it at this scale while it has been done in smaller cities.

The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a coalition of groups advocating for reduced waste, acknowledges a problem but agrees that if we live in big cities like Mumbai or Delhi, we will have to deal with garbage mountains.

In March 2016, Deonar’s rubbish mountains caught fire

The Indian government has passed legislation requiring municipalities to handle waste since 2000. Nevertheless, most states only report partial compliance, and the number of waste treatment plants is insufficient.

There is only one such plant in Mumbai, the nation’s entertainment and commercial capital with 20 million residents. An energy-from-waste plant is now planned for Deonar.
Several new green jobs are anticipated as part of Mr Modi’s plan. Farha, who has been picking up trash his whole life, is worried about this.

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Following the fires in 2016, accessing the waste mountains has become much more difficult. In the municipality, security has been stepped up so that waste pickers cannot light fires in the waste piles – the flames melt the lighter trash, bringing out high-priced metal.

In many cases, waste pickers who manage to sneak in are beaten, detained, and expelled. Many people enter before the security patrols begin at dawn by bribing the guards. Therefore, Denoar now has fewer segregated grounds – most waste is now kept in the city. As a result, less waste arrives at Deonar.

It has been months since Farha has had a phone.

To enter and work at the Deonar grounds, she must bribe the guards every day with at least 50 rupees ($0.67; £0.49). It even occurred to her to pick through the trash that began arriving from the city’s Covid hospital wards last year to recover it.

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The Covid waste is “harmful” to the environment, and her family asked her to stop picking it up. Thus, she watches pickers collect plastic for resale under protective gear in the rain.

The city sent new trash for years, and selectors had to collect and resell it because the mountains had to accommodate it.

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