In her first book Mountain Tales, Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings, author Saumya Roy follows the lives of a few scavengers, including Farzana Sheikh at Deonar, a landfill in Mumbai and one of the largest in the country. Megha Bahree, Al Jazeera’s South Asia editor, talks with her about the book as well as how Indians consume things today and the impact of that on waste disposal and the lives of those who care for them. Edited excerpts.
Al Jazeera: Tell us about Farzana Sheikh. This story is about trash in Mumbai, but it’s mostly Farzana, isn’t it?
Saumya Roy: Yes, it’s true. I’ve known Farzana since she was about 14 – lanky, full of energy, not very vocal. His father was a waste picker on the mountains of garbage. She was born right in the alley that ended at the foot of the mountains of garbage. She started her life learning to find toys, clothes, food in the trash. His life got involved. And that is why this book is his personal story of tremendous courage, but also a story that tells us something about our lives today. Because she lives at the foot of the biggest mountain of garbage in our city, one of the biggest in the world.
Al Jazeera: What fascinated you about all this?
Roy: I was a journalist for many years. Then I ran a non-profit organization where we gave microloans to micro-entrepreneurs in the city of Mumbai and in rural Maharashtra, and so I saw a lot of communities. But with this one, I was fascinated immediately when they told me what they were doing. And I started going to their house, and the houses were made of garbage that they brought, like plastic sheeting, cloth, they wore it, they found food, they ate it. I started walking with them towards the mountains of garbage and that’s when I realized it was this interaction of what our life is like today. The impact of everything we consume creates these lives, but also creates pollution, disease, greenhouse gases. So that provided a human dimension to say something much broader about how we live and what impact that has.
Al Jazeera: So when your book starts, is it in the 1890s? And was waste disposal in Mumbai very different from today?
Roy: 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 soldiers coming out to check if they were plague buboes on sick people in the city and these patients were forcibly taken to the hospital. And so there was a lot of unrest against the colonial British administration and there was a lot of rioting and violence in the city, and so the British administration decided that the best way to deal with that was to reduce waste. They bought this massive 823 acre space on the outskirts of town where all the trash was to be put – out of sight, out of mind. They thought that with it the plague, the riots and the violence would disappear. But in fact, about 100 years later, when authorities looked back, there were already mountains of trash that rose 120 feet, even then rising to 20-story buildings.
Al Jazeera: How was the trash at that time?
Roy: In the 1890s, there was glass, some metal, but mostly food scraps of fruit peelings, food scraps, scraps of fabric.
Al Jazeera: What is the trash in Indian homes today? How have consumption patterns changed?
Roy: It was in the early 1990s that economic reform began and with it the arrival of multinationals that this whole consumer boom took off. I have vivid memories of when Pepsi, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut came along and how the patterns of consumption or the scale of consumption suddenly changed. Since then, the scale and nature of waste has increased. We are seeing more plastic bottles, aluminum cans for food, and the new addition is now polystyrene cups for coffee.
For me, something Farzana said was the best example of how our consumption has changed. She always told me, you know, the apples we found in the dumps, they weren’t Indian apples because they’re so small. And I think she meant like Chinese and American apples because they are huge.
Al Jazeera: How has this changed the economic lives of waste pickers?
Roy: I have always heard of someone who became very rich through waste. I have never met these waste pickers. I feel like they don’t exist. And that’s because the lives of the poor are so fragile. So if they were to make money very quickly, there would be some kind of family emergency, someone’s dying, marriages, some kind of health emergency, which would then bring them back into that job , in this life
Al Jazeera: What role does Farzana and other waste pickers play in the dawn of big companies investing in garbage systems that use large incinerators? Can and should the latter replace pickers?
Roy: Historically, the mentality of officials was that waste should be removed from the city. He should leave the wealthy areas of the city. And the only thing left of the covered mountains was what the scavengers carried away with their bare hands. So if there was something that was resold, it was recycled by them.
Studies show that one-third of waste is reduced through the efforts of waste pickers. So they played a very important role and in the future they have a role to play because of their skills. They know this job, and not everything goes to incinerators.
Al Jazeera: What type of waste does India import, from where and why?
Roy: India imports waste from the United States, United Kingdom and Europe. For many years, China has been the dumping ground for waste from around the world. And they would recycle it and use it in different ways. It was the original circular economy until they realized it was causing pollution, which led to a redesign, and they banned waste imports. But it moved with Chinese traders to Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, etc. When these countries started banning it, European waste started moving to Turkey. And now Turkey has banned the waste. And so, we have seen over the years that imports of waste have increased in India. India has also said that if this is not regulated, we may ban imports of certain types of plastic and paper. It just moves from country to country as regulations change.
Al Jazeera: Has the pandemic affected waste disposal patterns and pickers? How?
Roy: Yes it is. Because the confinements in India were difficult, they found it difficult to work. And also, there was COVID-related waste coming into the dumps. When they were desperate to work, they worked on this trash, whether it was food trays, bottles, not necessarily medical or infected stuff. They wore used PPE kits to protect themselves from the rain. During the pandemic, our consumption has also increased. We don’t go to restaurants like we used to. But instead, we order food, which comes in these wrapped boxes, we buy things online, which creates more and more waste.
Al Jazeera: Was there enough work for them during the pandemic, especially with the lockdowns? Did they also get sick?
Roy: None of them had COVID, or so they knew. But their desperation was to keep working. I remember one of them telling me that if it wasn’t for this disease, hunger would kill them.
Al Jazeera: At first it was hard for me to skim through a few pages of the book, just imagining how all the things smell. But when you talk about the gatherers and how they look at this mountain, like income, like finding potentially buried treasure, it took me a chapter or two, but I started thinking about that too. Is it something you did consciously?
Roy: I thought of it as a kind of interaction between life and death. And that’s how this place kind of came to me. It is a dump and people consider it a place of desolation. But when you talk to waste pickers, they tell you it’s a place of opportunity. A place where you’re only a handful away from finding treasure, where you could almost get rich with something someone forgot. I first heard about the dump from the waste pickers, and they never told me it was a terrible place to work. They thought it was awesome. They had wonderful memories of birthday parties, romance, summer treats and it was the interaction that needed to be shown. It would be incorrect to fetishize it and say it was a wonderful place, because it was not.
Al Jazeera: What, if anything, is being done to lift pickers out of poverty and move the country towards a more sustainable, humane and equitable throwaway culture?
Roy: The Indian government has announced a sweeping plan worth around $13 billion to address various measures related to air pollution, one of which includes fixing what the Prime Minister has called moving mountains of waste . They said it would create opportunities for people who lived off mountains of trash, but it’s not yet clear what those opportunities are for waste pickers. I think policy makers look at this from two angles. First, how fast can we eliminate waste? And second, from the slight technical point of view of how quickly we can incinerate it, turn it to ashes, reduce it to zero. But what is the impact on the air, on water pollution? What is the impact on the quality and lifespan of the waste pickers, on the people who live around these mountains of waste? There is no point in having, say, a biomedical waste incinerator if it affects the health of the people living around it. It is also a measure by which waste management should be assessed.
Al Jazeera: What do waste pickers want?
Roy: They know no other life than this. I followed them for eight or nine years. And the only people who left the mountains of garbage were one or two characters who died, and one of whom is in prison. The others continue to work. It’s hard to leave. They are also not equipped, not well educated, to do these jobs in brilliant India. A picker tried to take a job as a taxi driver with ride-sharing company Ola. But he couldn’t follow the on-screen instructions and was rejected. Many of them have tried to leave and take jobs in the gig economy, but have been unable to keep those jobs. Waste pickers live very precarious, difficult and unhealthy lives. It is therefore important to create opportunities for them, to enable them to seize these opportunities.