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Of the lives made out of piles of garbage

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on November 06, 2021

It’s a reflection on a never-ending struggle to manage the cost of a city’s rapacious appetite and the garbage it generates

On the outskirts of cities, the man-made garbage mountains are attaining new heights. Becoming taller by the day, these democratic expressions of growth epitomise class and power of a consumptive society while providing substrate for the teeming others to search life and livelihood from the leftovers of the affluent class.

With an estimated daily inflow of over 250,000 tonnes of discarded stuff, these mountains have become a precarious lifeline for the forgotten community. In the flash between the trucks emptying garbage and the bulldozers scooping the trash exists life which has the familiar milestones of existence: babies born, love found, illnesses suffered and death encountered.

Who pays when the majority abandons them? Building life from among teetering piles of discarded waste are those others for whom the growing mountains offer survival opportunities. By sifting through it, by hoarding it, by selling it, by sleeping over it and by inhaling obnoxious fumes, the faceless families pay through their lives to squeeze life out of the abandoned stuff.

From tangled wires to squashed bottles and from dismembered limbs to even dead babies, these mountains offer an unceremonious burial to everything expendable around its windswept slopes. The ever-transforming physiography of Mumbai’s trash township at Deonar could be from anywhere, a reflection on a never-ending struggle to manage the cost of a city’s rapacious appetite.

The sociology of survival

As these rubbish mountains gain height, sometimes as high as 20 floors, a sizeable population identifies such slopes as their veritable homes, shaping human stories of existence with the unwanted outpourings from the world outside. Mountain Tales pieces together stories from the sociology of survival inspired by whatever can be recycled and resold.

The sub-stories around the kin of Hyder Ali and Farzana are as much about (in)human subsistence bereft of an agency as also about the political-economy of consumptive behaviour with its shady power deals. In the milieu of waste management what often gets missed out is the human face of its tertiary sector, whose devotion to getting rid of things remains central to the maintenance of capitalism. Ironically, for the policy and economic instruments of waste reduction these faceless people too get counted amidst the waste only.

Called human scavengers or rag pickers, decades of working on the rising tides of trash at the mountain slopes consumes a majority of them by tuberculosis only to be silently replaced by their young children. Like the unrestricted flow of garbage, the cycle of human engagement remains consistent. Saumya Roy walks through such lives less-lived, capturing the daily ordeal of those who live at the bottom of the ever-rising pyramids of human civilization. The writing is compelling, befitting its extraordinary subject, the stories and sub-stories presented are revealing, offering shocking surprises that get subsumed in the din of cries to close such waste dumps.

Crucial questions

As the country plans to process, shrink and remove these mountains, the book raises crucial questions worthy of careful consideration. Our neighbourhood waste dumps do impinge our senses but will the linear model of resource use that pushes the society headlong into the destructive frenzy of consumption ever get questioned in the first place?

Curiously, the terrible pressure of accumulation has turned waste into a commodity worthy of treatment by the same system that helps generate it in the first place. Isn’t this notion of waste reduction problematic as it ignores the more difficult socio-economic questions about the survival of the voiceless at the margins of the so-called civilized society?

Written with empathy and concern, Mountain Tales is built on the substrate that is most threatening to the self and is sought out of sight and mind as quickly as possible. Waste is a function of our pre-public individuality that loses its identity once it enters public arena, triggering public concern towards its management. Though the status of waste in public and private spheres seems incommensurable; the human relationship to waste recycling and reuse is markedly distinct. It is the subtlety of such relationships that is revealed through these tales.

Needless to say, the human side to waste management is in contrast to the modus operandi of efficient waste disposal, which hinges on the choice of technology that need not necessarily adhere to the ethics of safe disposal. Most people don’t get a sense of ideas currently under consideration to reduce and remove these mountains. What can easily be doubted is: if the sum of all waste management techniques will erase the garbage footprints of modern society with threatening clouds of climate change hovering all over.

Mountain Tales
  • by Saumya Roy
  • Profile/Hachette, New Delhi
  • Extent: 294, Price: Rs. 699.

Check out the book on Amazon

The reviewer is an independent writer, researcher and academic

Published on November 06, 2021

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