In Ahmedabad, the Real Foot Soldiers of Swacch Bharat Battle a City's Apathy

Following a fire at the garbage mound in Pirana soon after Diwali, ragpickers and residents in the area continue with their livelihood at great detriment to their own health.

Iliyas Banu (mentioned in the story) with her children at work at Pirana. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Iliyas Banu (mentioned in the story) with her children at work at Pirana. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Ahmedabad: Iliyas Banu reaches her place of work at 10 am with her four children every morning and leaves at around 6 pm. This has been her routine for the past 10 years. Banu, who is 30, is a rag picker and a Bangladeshi immigrant.

Bangladesh-ni chali is a place on the periphery of Ahmedabad that is home to about 100 Bangladesh migrants, many of whom are undocumented. Like Iliyas Banu, their route to two square meals a day and not much more is rag picking at the infamous garbage dump of the city – Pirana.

Doing her own small bit to keep Bharat swacch and reduce her adopted home’s carbon emissions, Banu collects and separates anything that is recyclable from what the city throws out. For this, she earns Rs 500 every two or three days. “I have no complaints about what I do”, she told The Wire. “This is my livelihood, after all. It feeds me and my children.”

However, the past few weeks have not been good for her or the other rag pickers. “Pata nahin kaise aag lag gaya. Dhuan se aankh jalta hai lekin rozi ka sawal hai, aana to padega (I don’t know how the dump caught fire but now there is smoke everywhere,” she said. “My eyes burn but I have to come here, it’s my livelihood.”

Banu’s parents migrated to Gujarat 20 years ago and found work at Pirana. She was a teenager then and used to come along with her parents to assist them. Now her 14-year-old daughter helps her. While Banu works, her daughter takes care of the siblings, the youngest of whom is just six months. Pointing to him, she said, “Look, he keeps coughing.”

“Ghar pe rakh ke kya fayda. Wahan bhi dhuan se aankh jalta hai (There is no point in leaving the kids behind. The smoke burns their eyes at home too),” Banu, who lives just 3 kilometres away from the garbage dump, said.

Pirana has been a dumping site for garbage collected from all over Ahmedabad since 1982. Spread over 84 acres, the site comprises three massive mounds of stinking waste, each approximately 75 feet high and weighing some 69 lakh metric tonnes.  The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) collects a total of 4700 metric tonnes of solid waste every day and dumps it here. Out of this, 1700 metric tonnes come from the door-to-door collection of household refuse, 500 tonnes from medical waste and 2500 tonnes from construction debris.

The area bordering Pirana is home to those who were displaced in the 2002 riots as well as Dalits and Bangladeshi migrants. It has a total population of approximately 110,000 people.

One of the garbage dumps caught fire after Diwali last November when the municipal corporation dumped cracker waste at the site. The fire soon spread to two other dumps. The corporation brought in the fire department, which doused the blaze with water. Since then, the dumps have been belching thick toxic smoke, which has engulfed an entire three-kilometre radius.

Pirana belching smoke after fire. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Pirana belching smoke after fire. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“The Pirana smoke, like any burning landfill, may contain acids, nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, aldehydes, polycylic hydrocarbons, dioxins and other organic and volatised heavy metals. All of these are extremely hazardous,” said an official of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), who asked that his name be withheld.

However, the municipal corporation has done nothing for the residents of the nearby areas to mitigate the risks.

“As per the Solid Waste Management 2016 Rules laid down by the Union environment ministry, garbage dumps and residential areas must be at least 500 metres apart, whereas here you have a residential area within just 42 metres of Pirana,” said Kalim Siddique, president of INSAF Foundation, an NGO that works in Gujarat and Kerala. The NGO filed a PIL in the Gujarat high court in December seeking to shift the dumping site, following which notices were issued to both the AMC and GPCB.

“The area is mostly home to Dalits and Muslims and the AMC is not bothered about their health or living conditions. While gathering information before filing the PIL, we had filed an RTI in 2015 seeking information if the Pirana problem has been raised at all at the AMC meetings and we were not surprised to find out that no local councillor had raised the issue since 2000,” said Siddique.

“In the weeks after the fire, every morning when the residents of Citizen Nagar – the nearest residential area – woke up, their faces were black with the smoke and the pollutants in the air,” he added.

“There was no visibility for about a week due to the smoke. We could not go for work. Even now, our feet burn as we climb the garbage hill. It’s still hot from the fire,” said Rinaben Parmar, a regular rag picker, sharing her experience.

Rinaben’s husband used to work as a rag picker for about 10 years until he fell sick in 2015 and found it difficult to continue. That is when she took to rag picking. “He is being treated at the civil hospital, “ she said. “It’s been a year but we don’t know what he is suffering from.”

She smiled when asked how it was for a woman to work in place of a man. “I don’t know. The thought never crossed my mind. I come to work wearing a shalwar kurta, put on a shirt and trousers over it and take it off after work every day in the open and in front of everyone, like the other women here.”

Kids (minors) who also work as rag pickers. They melt the wires and extract the metal to sell. Metals yield a better price than plastic, they said. Credit: Damyantee Dhar

Kids (minors) who also work as rag pickers. They melt the wires and extract the metal to sell. Metals yield a better price than plastic, they said. Credit: Damyantee Dhar

Rinaben lives in one of the slums that house about 35 Dalit families displaced from all over the city at different times for various reasons. After the last Dalit hut, there is an open drain that stinks all through the year, and beyond that are 45 huts where Muslim families live. Despite this physical separation, the apathy of the government has led to the harmonious co-existence of these two communities in the area.

Citizen Nagar has no hospital or health centre or even an anganwadi. The nearest medical facility is the civil hospital, which is about 10 kilometres away. There are no streetlights or proper roads. There is, however, an AMC-run Prathamik Shala, or primary education centre.

“In case of medical emergency, we call for an ambulance on the emergency medical helpline, 108. But it always takes an hour or more to reach,” said Noor Mohammed, a resident of the slum.

“I have a one-room hut where my family of seven sleeps all crammed up. We do not have proper lavatories. We live smelling the stink from the garbage dump all through the year. When it rains, the water comes in. That is how we live,” he added, pointing to the roof of the hut made of waste hoardings and banners collected from Pirana and supported by poor quality bamboo sticks.

The AMC has never carried out a health survey in the area. However, a survey conducted by INSAF Foundation found that 19 people in 40 families had died due to kidney disorders and respiratory issues and two had died of cancer in recent years.

“We did a survey in the area in December 2015. Respiratory issues are not uncommon among the residents. Besides, there have been many cases of premature child delivery. Rotting garbage over the years emanates methane and these people have had prolonged exposure,” said Siddique.

A family of rag pickers take a break to have lunch on the garbage mound. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

A family of rag pickers take a break to have lunch on the garbage mound. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“The apathy of the AMC is appalling. Instead of providing facilities to the area and its residents, the corporation is in fact adding to the menace by releasing the stray dogs caught from all over the city in this slum area,” he alleged.

When The Wire sought a response from the AMC, Harshad Solanki, director of its solid waste management department, maintained that the civic body owed nothing to the residents of the area as they were illegal encroachers on AMC-owned land.

The corporation took up the Pirana issue for the first time in 2010 when it signed a contract for the recycling of dry waste. One company was blacklisted two years later for not beginning the mandated work. Eventually, only one company – Excel Industries – started work. It is still active in Pirana.

In 2012, the AMC planned an elaborate Rs 250 crore project to cap and turn Pirana into a garden. However, the plan never took off.

“This place has been my home for years. My son was born here and now he is married to a girl who also lives here. This is our world,” said Rehana, a rag picker, as she gathered a bag full of plastic waste – her collection for the day – that she will sell for Rs 10 a kilogram to the nearest scrap dealer.

For the residents of the slums that have grown around Pirana, the garbage dump is a source of hardship and succour, it robs them of life but is also their livelihood and their home. They have grown up, married, birthed children and watched them grow playing on the garbage dump.

We have made memories here, said Rehana. “Like it or not, the garbage dump has given me my livelihood.”

Damayantee Dhar is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to The Wire