Mumbai Is Overflowing with Garbage

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The Deonar Landfill Site

Boys play as cows graze through garbage at the Deonar landfill site in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Which global city uses prime real estate nearly the size of New York’s Central Park simply to dump trash on?

Mumbai.

The land-starved peninsula currently discards 11,000 metric tons of refuse every day in three dump yards that together occupy more than 740 acres. At going market rates, that land would be worth as much as $4.4 billion if it were sold and used for housing. Meanwhile, 6.5 million people, or half of Mumbai’s population, live in slums without basic sanitation and safe drinking water.

Mumbai’s landfills underscore the need to put scarce resources to optimal use if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to succeed in his goal of building everyone a home by 2022. He aims to create 100 smart cities while tidying up the country under his Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, which translates as Clean India Mission.

“Dump yard redevelopment is very crucial,” said Anshuman Magazine, chairman at realty consultancy CBRE South Asia Ltd. “The only way to check prices in Mumbai is by increasing supply. There is no other magic to it.”

An average Indian would need to work for three centuries to pay for a luxury home in Mumbai, a study by Knight Frank LLP had found by comparing home costs with average annual incomes, making it the least affordable city in the world for locals. Shanghai buyers would need 233 years, according to the latest-available study in 2012.

Affordability Gap

“Housing in Mumbai is more of an affordability gap than scarcity per se,” said Ashutosh Limaye, Jones Lang LaSalle India’s national director of research.

Half of Mumbai households earn less than 20,000 rupees ($313) a month, a report by the non-profit Praja Foundation and supported by the Ford Foundation had found in November. The state agency is so slow in building homes for the poor, the study said, that it would take 140 years to provide for all.

A man walks towards housing at the Deonar landfill site in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
A man walks towards housing at the Deonar landfill site in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Meanwhile the Deonar dump site, Asia’s biggest and arguably oldest that opened in 1927, sits on 326 acres in eastern Mumbai and takes half of the city’s daily refuse. Its trash mountain is so high it could bury the White House -- twice over.

A smaller landfill in Mulund occupies about 62 acres while a 353-acre one is further north in Kanjurmarg. Initially on the outskirts of Mumbai, the landfills over time got incorporated into the city limits and now occupy expensive, strategic real estate.

According to land prices provided by an annual state government estimate, these sites could be worth as much as $4.4 billion combined.

Steep Discount

Yet the land, if redeveloped, must price in a steep discount, as it would take years of cleanup and land preparation before anything could be built on it, said Jones Lang LaSalle’s Limaye.

Rustomjee Group, a real estate developer with more than 10 million square feet of completed projects across Mumbai, skipped opportunities in Mulund and Deonar, despite the areas’ connectivity to the downtown area by rail and highway.

“We consciously stayed away as we believe it is unhealthy ground, and living close to that will cause nothing but pain and heartache for the people,” said Boman Irani, Rustomjee’s chairman.

The office of Rajendra Wale, deputy municipal commissioner at the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, said Wale declined to comment.

Polluted School

Dump yards contaminate air and leach into the water table, making life hard for those who live close by.

A state-run primary school across the road from Deonar dump resorted to having municipal water tankers bring in drinking water a few months ago. The tap water became yellow and smelly, said a teacher at Gayak Rafi Nagar Urdu Municipal school where 700 students ages five through 13 attend.

A waste-picker walks through the Deonar landfill site in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
A waste-picker walks through the Deonar landfill site in Mumbai. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Many children accompany their parents into the dump to pick through the waste and scavenge for recyclables to sell. They frequently get boils, sores and respiratory ailments, the teacher said, refusing to be identified as he is a municipal employee not authorized to speak to the media. Every student is given a tetanus shot once a year as a precaution, he said.

Nawab Ali Shaikh, a sponge recycler on the fringes of the Deonar landfill, takes these injections several times a year. The 62-year-old separates sponge sheets from the mixed waste he buys from the landfill and often pricks himself with a needle or glass shard.

Keeps Happening

“It keeps happening,” said Shaikh holding up the bandaged index finger of his right hand while cutting sponge, mostly from cushions inside discarded furniture, into tiny cubes that get sold to local toymakers as stuffing material.

He has seen fires blaze for days as combustible gases spew from disintegrating garbage and cover Deonar in smog. And he has swept out blackened water that enters his one-room shanty during monsoons. Shaikh wants the landfill redeveloped even if it means shuttering his recycling business.

“At least I will breathe clean air and won’t have to pick out needles from the garbage,” he said.

India’s financial capital produced 3,200 tons of waste a day in 1981. That climbed to 5,355 tons in 1991 and has since doubled, according to People’s Vision Document released by 88 non-profit organizations in September 2013.

No Separation

Most Indian households don’t separate garbage for recycling. What reaches the landfill is a mix of kitchen refuse, plastic, glass, paper, metal and construction debris, requiring hundreds of waste pickers to trawl through it. Separated garbage would result in less mass and require less space.

Redeveloping dump yards wouldn’t just free up space to build homes, it would mean more roads, parks or hospitals in a city with already-burdened infrastructure.

The real challenge in redeveloping dump yards, according to CBRE’s Magazine, is the “huge upfront capital” needed to clean the land, make it safe for habitation and then build sewage, water and electricity lines. The government could start by offering it to developers at low rates, he said.

“Basically there should be enough incentive, enough margin of profit, for a developer to really go after this,” he said, pointing to Mumbai’s sporadic success at slum redevelopment. “It shows that when you get to clean up and sell, there is a market out there.”

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