In her debut book Mountain Tales, Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings, author Saumya Roy follows the lives of a few rag pickers, including Farzana Sheikh in Deonar, a rubbish dump in Mumbai and one of the largest in the country. Al Jazeera South Asia Business Editor Megha Bahree talks to her about the book, as well as how Indians consume things today and the impact of that on waste disposal and the lives of the people who deal with it. Edited excerpts.
Al Jazeera: Tell us about Farzana Sheikh. This story is about garbage in Mumbai, but it’s mostly about Farzana, right?
Saumya Roy: Yes it’s correct. I’ve known Farzana since she was about 14 years old: lanky, full of energy, not very vocal. Her father was a recycler in the garbage mountains. He was born right on the road that ended at the foot of the garbage mountains. She started her life by learning to find toys, clothes, food in the garbage. Her life was intertwined with it. And that’s why this book is her personal story of tremendous guts, but also one that tells us something about our lives today. Because she lives at the foot of the largest mountain of garbage in our city, one of the largest in the world.
Al Jazeera: What fascinated you about all this?
Ray: I was a journalist for many years. Then I ran a non-profit organization where we give micro-loans to micro-entrepreneurs in the city of Mumbai and in rural Maharashtra, so I saw a lot of communities. But with this one, I was immediately fascinated when they told me what they do. And I started going to their houses, and the houses were made of garbage that they had brought, like plastic sheets, cloth, they were using it, they were finding food, they were eating it. I started walking with them towards the mountains of garbage and that’s when I realized that it was this interaction that is what our life is today. The impact of everything we consume is creating these lives, but it’s also creating pollution, disease, greenhouse gases. So this provided a human dimension to say something much broader about how we live and what impact it has.
Al Jazeera: So when you start your book, is it in the 1890s? And the waste disposal in Mumbai was very different from today?
Ray: There was a plague in the city at the time, and people were dying, and there were similar quarantine measures. [as during COVID-19]. There were military personnel going out to check for buboes of plague in the sick in the city and those patients were forcibly transferred to the hospital. So there was a lot of rioting against the British colonial administration and there was a lot of rioting and violence in the city, so the British administration decided that the best way to deal with this was to reduce litter. They bought this huge 823-acre space on the outskirts of town where all the garbage would be deposited, out of sight, out of mind. They thought the plague and the riots and the violence would go with it. But in fact, roughly 100 years later, when officials looked back, there were already mountains of garbage rising 120 feet, reaching 20-story buildings even then.
Al Jazeera: What was the garbage like at the time?
Ray: In the 1890s, there was glass, some metal, but mostly food scraps from fruit peels, food scraps, cloth scraps.
Al Jazeera: What is the rubbish of Indian households today? How have consumption patterns changed?
Ray: At the beginning of the 90s is when the economic reform begins and with it the arrival of the multinational companies that takes off all this consumption boom. I have vivid memories of when Pepsi, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut came along and how consumption patterns or the scale of consumption suddenly changed. Since then, the scale and nature of the litter has increased. We see more plastic bottles, aluminum food boxes and the new addition now is Styrofoam coffee cups.
For me, something Farzana said was the greatest example of how our consumption has changed. She always told me, you know, the apples we found in the dumps weren’t Indian apples because they’re so small. And I think she was referring to Chinese and American apples, since they are huge.
Al Jazeera: How has that changed the economic lives of waste pickers?
Ray: I always heard of someone who had become very rich with the waste. I never met those recyclers. I have a feeling they don’t exist. And that’s because the lives of the poor are so fragile. So if they were to make some money real quick, there would be some kind of family emergency, somebody’s death, weddings, some kind of health emergency, which would then push them back into this job, into this life.
Al Jazeera: What role do Farzana and other recyclers have in the rise of large companies investing in garbage systems using large incinerators? Can the latter replace the harvesters, and should they?
Ray: Historically, the mentality of the officials was that the waste had to be evacuated from the city. I should leave the rich parts of the city. And the only thing left of the covered mountains was what the recyclers took with their bare hands. So if there was anything that was resold, it was recycled by them.
There are studies that show that a third of waste is reduced thanks to the efforts of recyclers. So they have played a very important role and in the future they have a role to play because of their ability. They know this job, and not everything goes to the incinerators.
Al Jazeera: What kind of garbage does India import, from where and why?
Ray: India imports waste from the US, UK and Europe. For many years, China was the waste receptacle for the entire world. And they would recycle it and use it in different ways. This was the original circular economy until they realized it was causing pollution, which led to a rethink and a ban on waste imports. But he moved with the Chinese merchants to Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, etc. When those countries started banning it, European waste started moving to Turkey. And now Turkey has banned waste. And so we have seen over the years that waste imports have increased in India. India has also said that if this is not regulated, we can ban imports of certain types of plastic and paper. It is simply moving from country to country as regulations change.
Al Jazeera: Has the pandemic affected waste disposal patterns and collectors? How?
Ray: Yes, it does. Because the lockdowns in India were harsh, they found it difficult to work. And also, there was some COVID-related waste going into landfills. When they were desperate to work, they worked with this waste, whether it was trays of food, bottles, not necessarily medical or infected material. They were wearing personal protective equipment used to protect themselves from the rain. During the pandemic, our consumption also increased. We don’t go to restaurants like we used to. But instead of that, we’re ordering food, which comes in these packaged boxes, we’re buying stuff online, all of which creates more garbage.
Al Jazeera: Was there enough work for them during the pandemic, especially with the lockdowns? Did they get sick too?
Ray: None of them had COVID, or at least that they knew of. But his desperation was to continue working. I remember that one of them told me that if it weren’t for this disease, then hunger would kill them.
Al Jazeera: At first, it was difficult for me to read some pages of the book, just imagining the smell of all the things. But when you talk about the collectors and how they look at this mountain, as an income, as a discovery of potentially buried treasure, it took me a chapter or two, but I also started to think of it that way. Is it something you did consciously?
Ray: I thought of it as this kind of interplay of life and death, so to speak. And that’s how this place presented itself to me in a way. It is a dump and people think of it as a place of ruin. But when you talk to recyclers, they tell you that it is a place of opportunity. A place where you are a handful away from finding a treasure, where you could almost strike it rich with something someone forgot. I first heard about the dump from recyclers, and was never told that this was a horrible place to work. They thought it was cool. They 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 it and say that this was a wonderful place, because it wasn’t.
Al Jazeera: What, if anything, is being done to lift scavengers out of poverty and move the country toward a more sustainable, humane and equitable waste disposal culture?
Ray: The Indian government has announced a huge plan of around $13 billion to remedy various measures related to air pollution, one of which includes remediation of what the prime minister called moving mountains of garbage. They said it would create opportunities for people who lived off the mountains of garbage, but it’s not yet clear what those opportunities are for recyclers. I think politicians see it from two perspectives. One is how fast can we get the waste out? And secondly, from the light technical perspective of how fast can we incinerate it, turn it to ash, reduce it to zero. But what is the impact on the air, on water pollution? What is the impact on the quality and duration of life of the recyclers, of the people who live around these mountains of garbage? There is no point in having, say, a biomedical waste incinerator if that is affecting the health of people living around it. That is also a measure by which waste management should be evaluated.
Al Jazeera: What do the waste pickers want?
Ray: They know no other life than this. I followed them for eight or nine years. And the only people who came out of the mountains of garbage were one or two characters who died, and one of whom is in jail. The others keep working. It’s hard to leave. They are also not equipped, not highly educated to take on such jobs in brilliant India. A collector tried to get a job as a taxi driver with the transport company Ola. But he couldn’t follow the instructions on the screen and was rejected. Many of them have tried to leave and take jobs in the informal economy, but have not been able to keep those jobs. Waste pickers live very insecure, difficult and unhealthy lives. And that’s why it’s important to create opportunities for them, to make them capable of taking advantage of those opportunities.