Sunday, 1 March 2015

Smoke signals...

Several times last week I smelled burning plastic.  
My first question was: is something burning in the house? A quick look around each time showed nothing amiss, and so I assumed it came from someone burning something outside.  I was right about that… sort of.
The smell did come from outside, but it wasn’t a local person disposing of the extra Styrofoam packaging from their new fridge by making a bonfire of it.  The folks who collect our garbage don’t accept large pieces of Styrofoam – and so we see these large white bits chucked into gutters – or burned up in little fires.  My normal way of getting rid of unwanted light-white packaging is to break it up into small pieces and blend it in with our garbage over a few days.
So the smell of burning plastic is not particularly odd to smell.  But what was odd was smelling it off and on over the week.
Then I stumbled across the reason for the intermittent burning smells.  
In  far-away Deonar – a good 25 kms away from us as the crow flies (if it is not distracted by some tempting tid-bits) lies the Deonar dumping ground – a large open garbage land-fill.  A significant proportion of Mumbai’s garbage is hauled there – and dumped in the open.  Groups of ‘rag pickers’ swarm over the fresh refuse as the trucks trundle up and dump.  A hellish place that is basically out of sight - though not out of smell – like other landfills, Deonar stinks to high heaven and the pong is palpable if you happen to be driving be within a kilometer of the site.
View image on TwitterWhat has happened is that somehow the garbage has caught fire, and it has been burning for days.  A big fire deep underground, working its way through tons of garbage.  The result is a huge blanket of smoke – garbage-soot which has been blanketing the eastern suburbs – and sending the pong of burning all the way to Thane on the odd waft of air.  The fire department has been trying to put it out – but seems unable to quench it as the fire is deep underground.  Water is being poured on the surface, but the fires continue below.  And the smoke continues to belch forth.
Yesterday it rained.  Unseasonal percipiation.  So all the stuff that was in the air was brought down through the rain drops.  Our staff member Vikas was out on a motorcycle.  His shirt ended up stained grey from the deluge.
When asked about the hazard of this huge thick curtain of smoke – a senior fire official said: “it’s not dangerous, it’s only garbage.”
Today’s paper mentioned that it might be ‘sabotage.’  When asked who would have started it, the official said there were gangs of garbage-pickers who may have started a fight about access to the garbage … and burned tires to start the fire.  
Whatever the start of the fire, it points to a deeper issue: the immense amount of garbage we generate – and the mountain of refuse that refuses to go away.  In our aspirational society, our shiny lives are packed by ever more packaging, our appetites are larger and we generate more and more waste.  Whatever plans there are to treat waste fall pitifully short of the mark.
And at a local level our roads and gutters continue to overflow with refuse.  The Prime Minister’s ‘clean India’ campaign tries to address our lack of civic cleanliness, and there are lovely photo-ops of leaders great and small wielding brooms (and strangely wearing what seem to be surgical masks).   In a heartening way I have come across the odd cluster of volunteers who are swishing the brooms themselves (also wearing those masks).  But what I noticed was that the ones that I saw at least were sweeping stretches of the road where little else than leaves from trees fall down.   I have yet to see folks cleaning up the real filth which clogs the shanty-towns were so much of our folks live – especially in our revenue-generating dream cities.
So here's to the waft of burnt garbage, reminding us of the filth we are generating (and trying to hide) as we plunge forward into aspiration...

Welcome to Marlboro country.  This is what goes into our lungs...

p.s. both pix are from the article - here

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