Mumbai Vs Debris: City's construction waste problem is nowhere near a solution

Jul 29, 2018, 07:31 IST | Jane Borges and Laxman Singh

The HC has intervened, the SC was pulled into the issue and the BMC even submitted a plan to resolve the stand-off. Yet, Mumbai's construction waste problem is nowhere near a solution

Mumbai Vs Debris: City's construction waste problem is nowhere near a solution
Matunga activist Nikhil Desai (right) said that the absence of CCTV surveillance in areas below the Eastern Freeway and parts of Wadala, have made these spots easy targets for illegal dumping. For several years now, a woman, who goes by the name ‘akka’ (sister in Marathi), has been running a massive racket of illegal dumping of debris here. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Not very long ago — in 2005, to be precise — if you wanted to catch a glimpse of the sprawling mangroves of Dahisar West, you could do so, from the top floors of one of the buildings on the gentrified stretch of New Link Road in Kanderpada. Ganpat Patil Nagar slum, which overlooked this neighbourhood and which had, at the time, already made inroads into the wetland, was yet to cover enough ground. But slowly and steadily, as the slum mushroomed and grew thicker — from 1,000 hutments in 2000 to over 15,000 in 2018 — and the Metro 2A project reared its ugly head, piles of rubble that came from redevelopment, construction and digging, grew. Where did it go?

Environment activist Harish Pandey, who has lived in the area for nearly two decades, takes us to his terrace, which was once privy to the green spectacle. The view today is jarring and disconcerting, to the say the least. But, beyond the elevated Metro and the expansive slum, there is a vacant plot of land — once a mangrove patch — that Pandey revealed is "where for the last one decade debris has been dumped and levelled". Satellite images are unfortunately the only proof of this cruel and unlikely transformation. While hutments from Ganpat Patil Nagar will very soon expand their way into this "new land", a similar ruthless narrative is unfolding in several parts of Mumbai's suburbs. What's shocking is that, until very recently, it was all going unchecked.

Nikhil Desai
Nikhil Desai

In March this year, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on construction of new buildings imposed by the Bombay High Court in 2016, after frequent fires in Deonar dumping ground, had brought to light the sorry state of affairs of disposal of construction debris. The reason for the ban was made aptly clear — the HC, which had intervened after a PIL was filed by activist Rajkumar Sharma, wanted the BMC to come up with an alternative plan for the city to deal with its debris problem. Relief came when the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (MCHI), which had challenged the order in the SC, identified 12 new locations for dumping of construction and demolition (C&D) waste.

Even as the top court has directed the BMC to submit a report on the progress of dumping by mid-September, we examine how the C&D waste problem is uglier than we had imagined, and why we need a foolproof solution, before the city, now growing over its own debris, collapses under this rubble.

Activist Harish Pandey points to the Ganpat Patil Nagar slum in Dahisar, where slumdwellers have worked in cahoots with the debris mafia, to encroach land by dumping debris. Satellite images reveal the damage done in the span of 10 years. Pic/Sneha Kharabe
Activist Harish Pandey points to the Ganpat Patil Nagar slum in Dahisar, where slumdwellers have worked in cahoots with the debris mafia, to encroach land by dumping debris. Satellite images reveal the damage done in the span of 10 years. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

Unaccounted debris
C&D waste is used to describe solid waste material generated from the construction, demolition of buildings and civil infrastructure. The waste includes everything from bricks, rocks, concrete and other masonry material to wood, plumbing fixtures and glass. "Essentially, it is 100 per cent recyclable material," explained Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the Urban Design Research Institute.

Currently, of the 7,200 metric tonnes of garbage that the city generates daily — dumped at Deonar, Mulund and Kanjurmarg dumping grounds — 900 metric tonnes includes C&D debris. The C&D waste generated from infra and development projects is still unaccounted for. Before the 2016 HC ban on dumping, the BMC's role was only to give NOC to builders to transport debris outside city limits. There was neither an idea of how much construction debris the city was generating on a daily basis nor a check on where this was being dumped. This was the developer or contractor's responsibility. With the BMC being asked to monitor dumping at the new sites, an official said that they are likely to have an estimate soon.

December 2005
December 2005

Stalin Dayanand, environmentalist and director of NGO Vanashakti, argues that even the 12 spots suggested by MCHI to the BMC are "dubious". They chose plots where land-filling was required and where the owner was willing. "Such criteria can be problematic, especially when a developer wants to dump on a low-lying area, and has no objection," he says. In fact, this is exactly what happened — a public park and metro site, both in Aarey Colony, were among the list of areas chosen to dump debris, proving why BMC's attempt at finding a solution is a problem in itself. However, a senior BMC official from the solid waste management (SWM) department said the charges are baseless. "After the developers or builders gave information on location of the proposed site, the site was inspected by an executive engineer of the SWM department for its suitability for unloading of C&D waste," the official said.

Indiscriminate dumping
In November 2015, mid-day had highlighted how a 1.5 acre-stretch of mangroves behind Evershine Nagar in Malad was wiped out in three days flat by dumping it with construction debris, to clear the path for a proposed road, without any permission from the mangrove cell. Incidentally, the 1 km-long pathway built over the mangroves, has today been marked as a road in the Development Plan (DP) 2034 plan. According to Dayanand, the authorities are in cahoots with developers. "While preparing the maps for the DP plan, officials deliberately made changes to mark mangrove patches as non-CRZ areas," he said.

October 2014
October 2014

When we paid a visit to the site this week, the proposed road had been levelled with piles of sand to camouflage the ruinous attempt at reclaiming the land. Not only is this track abutting the mangroves — the CRZ law and HC order in 2006 mandate a 50 metre-buffer zone (for any kind of construction or dumping) from mangrove trees — it is exposed on the edges, putting it at risk of erosion and collapse.

"Despite this area being covered with mangroves, during the 26/7 deluge in 2005, water had entered the homes in Evershine Nagar," recalled 27-year-old Sharique Raza, an RTI activist, who has grown up in the neighbourhood, and had first complained about the illegal dumping. "Today, with no mangroves to hold the water flow, one can only imagine what will happen to this residential area if there is a repeat of that incident."

December 2016
December 2016

Not very far from here, in Malad West, another disaster is waiting to happen. Mounds of C&D waste have been dumped into the nullah at Mith Chowky, which is a few metres from a mangrove stretch. "Until 20 years ago, this nullah used to be a river. Today, even the nullah has dried up. This is all because of the construction debris that is being dumped into it," said Raza. He claimed that the dumping of debris has increased after work on Metro 2A — on the opposite side of the nullah — began here. It's not just the suburbs where dumping is rampant.

Isolated areas within city limits, especially the road below Eastern Freeway and parts of Wadala, have also been witnessing haphazard disposal of C&D waste in the last few years. According to locals of Sangam Nagar in Wadala, a woman, who goes by the name 'akka' (sister in Marathi), has been running a massive racket of allowing illegal dumping of debris below monorail lines between Bhakti Park and Mysore Colony station. A resident, who did not wish to be named, said, "This lady operates only in the night. She charges anywhere between R2,000 and R3,000 for each truck." She later sells this debris for R5,000 to people who need it for land-filling work. While mid-day tried to meet her, we couldn't locate her.

Pankaj Joshi of the UDRI warns that unscientific reclamation could lead to disasters. Recalling the June incident in Wadala, where a portion of the car park at Lloyd Estate caved in, he says, reclamation that is not done scientifically could lead to a similar incident
Pankaj Joshi of the UDRI warns that unscientific reclamation could lead to disasters. Recalling the June incident in Wadala, where a portion of the car park at Lloyd Estate caved in, he says, reclamation that is not done scientifically could lead to a similar incident

A staffer at Mega City Debris Truck Welfare Association — one of the many associations that runs debris dumping services in the city — said that the debris mafia also operates in King's Circle, Matunga, Chunn-abatti, Dadar West, Parel Junction and Bandra East. Recently, after instructions from the BMC, they installed GPS on all their dumpers to track whether the drivers were dumping debris in an authorised manner. "But, there are still a few people who dump debris illegally within the city limits at night. They operate in connivance with the RTO staff and local BMC office," a member of the association said, on condition of anonymity. Matunga activist Nikhil Desai said that the absence of CCTV surveillance in these areas helps make the spots easy targets. "I have raised the issue of installing CCTV cameras on a few roads in King's Circle and Matunga with the police. There has been no progress yet."

The Metro menace
In May, activist Zoru Bhathena had filed a complaint with the secretary of the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) and Maharashtra Coastal Zone Management Authority (MCZMA) after locals alleged that Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) had been illegally dumping debris from the Metro 3 project on a low-lying open plot near the mangroves in Anik, Chembur. "Not only did they not take prior permission from MCZMA, they also erroneously showed certain areas as non-CRZ. The CRZ notification prohibits dumping of city waste including construction debris for the purpose of land filling within CRZ areas," he said.

Pankaj Joshi
Pankaj Joshi

When Bhathena filed an RTI query, to find out more about the dumping spots, the authorities cited five spots — all stone quarries in Navi Mumbai, Bhiwandi and Ambernath — for each of the seven packages (sites) from where earth was being excavated for the project. But a letter from the MMRCL to L&T, which was allotted the task of dumping, tells a very different story. In the letter, MMRCL clearly states that it has provided "temporary land" to L&T to dump excavated debris from Cuffe Parade area in Anik, when on paper it is actually supposed to be disposed of in Kalwar, Bhiwandi. The Metro 3 project alone is expected to generate a total of 25 lakh cubic metres of debris. "While the MMRCL, in its RTI reply, has claimed that it has already disposed of 1.36 lakh cubic metres of waste in these quarries, we all know it's a sham and where the muck is actually going," said Bhathena. An MMRCL spokesperson, however, had claimed that the allegations were baseless, and that they were dumping waste responsibly.

Damage is done
After mid-day reported about the rampant dumping at Anik in June, the dumpers suddenly stopped showing up at the spot. Locals said overnight, officials barricaded the dumping patch, again just inches away from the mangroves, to save face. But, by then, enough damage had been caused. Jamal Hussain Khan, president of the centuries-old Hazrat Sayed Gazi Shallar Malang Shah Qadri Dargah, which is close to the site and draws devotees in droves, said that the recent dumping of C&D waste near the nullahs, caused flooding during a heavy spell of rain earlier this month. "All our devotees were wading in knee deep water in the dargah. I have seen this happen for the first time in 50 years. These people don't even realise the havoc that they are causing," he said.

In 2015, a stretch of mangroves behind Evershine Nagar in Malad was wiped out by dumping it with C&D debris
In 2015, a stretch of mangroves behind Evershine Nagar in Malad was wiped out by dumping it with C&D debris

According to Dayanand, C&D waste is supposed to go into abandoned quarries outside Mumbai, which are in dire need of restoration. "The authorities will never do it because it involves transportation cost. They are trying to find the easier way out, by reclaiming low-lying areas, salt pans, and mangroves, which is highly unsafe," he said. "But, you can't just dump C&D waste into water," said Joshi of UDRI. While construction debris is suitable for reclamation purpose, Joshi insists that it can only be used as "infill material".

"There are certain elements that hold it together. The debris needs to first be broken into certain sections, before being dumped, and has to be stabilised with sheet pile divisions or diaphragm wall partitions. Also, you need to keep several factors in mind when dumping for reclamation — like, what portion of the debris will you dump, how are you going to dump it, what's the sequence of the dumping, the flow of water, the geology of the soil below, etc. Reclamation has to be done scientifically. But that's not happening at present. Nobody has even bothered to study it or invest on scientific approaches to reclamation in order to minimise the impact on the environment," added Joshi.

The track is now exposed on the edges, putting it at risk of erosion. Pics/Sneha Kharabe
The track is now exposed on the edges, putting it at risk of erosion. Pics/Sneha Kharabe

Unscientific reclamation could lead to an environmental disaster is a forgone conclusion. "There is a risk that certain plinths or the area around the reclamation site could settle. I wouldn't be shocked if a nearby compound wall were to collapse," he said, making a reference to what happened in Wadala recently.

Money from debris
Delhi, however, seems to be toeing the line. The capital set up India's first debris plant in 2009 to recycle construction waste, and is looking at achieving 100 per cent processing of waste by 2020. Environmentalist Rishi Agarwal said that he doesn't see any reason why the BMC — the country's richest municipal body — cannot follow suit. "C&D waste can be recycled to create high quality material like paver blocks, cement, bricks, etc. Instead of identifying spots where we can set up such plants, Mumbai is busy getting rid of our mangroves, which actually come to our rescue during monsoon," he said, while pointing out that there has been "deliberate mismanagement of the city's construction debris". "In fact, the BMC can also hand over contracts of setting up processing plants to entrepreneurs, and become a steady purchaser of this recycled material, especially paver blocks, which it anyway needs in such huge quantities to build foothpaths," he added.

Jamal Hussain Khan
Jamal Hussain Khan

The BMC, however, claims to have already started efforts in this direction. In 2015, to prevent the accumulation of construction debris on the streets of the city, the civic body had started a service called "Debris On Call" and had appointed separate agencies to man the task in its 24 wards. As part of the service, citizens can make a call on the numbers provided for each ward on the BMC's website and specify the location where they see debris or need debris to be picked up. The work gets done within 24 to 48 hours. For residents and societies that need their debris to be picked up, the civic body charges R400 per tonne and additional 15 per cent supervision charges.

Meanwhile, eyeing a permanent solution for illegal dumping of debris, the BMC has planned to set up a crushing plant. A senior official from the SWM department said, "We are planning to set up a huge debris crushing plant with a capacity of nearly 5,000 metric tonnes per day either in Airoli or Taloja. Once the plant is set up, crushed debris can be used for making paver blocks, sand, dividers and other things." However, the plan is yet to materialise. As far as the monitoring of the dumping of C&D waste is concerned, Sunil Sardar, deputy chief engineer of SWM department, said, "The land owner and developers are supposed to keep records of whatever quantity they are dumping on designated sites. We are working on an online system to monitor the disposal." Also, under Municipal Solid Waste Management Bylaws, 2006 if anyone is found dumping debris illegally the person can be fined up to Rs 20,000.

At present, the 12 new unloading sites have a capacity of 25.12 lakh metric tonnes. Figures available with the BMC show that after the ban on construction activity was lifted in April this year, permission for dumping of 7.71 lakh metric tonnes had been issued. This only goes to show that it wouldn't be long before new sites would be needed to dump waste. The question to be asked is if we have any more vacant sites in the city. "We don't," said Raza. "And, that's the biggest problem. Until then, illegal dumping will go on, and the city will continue to be built on its own filth."

Citizens can help fight debris mafia
Sudhir Mungantiwar, minister of finance & planning, and forests, Maharashtra said, "As far as Mumbai is concerned, a lot of these mangrove patches are currently under the purview of the revenue department. We are, however, trying to bring together all the stakeholders in order to prevent rampant dumping of debris. In fact, we have started a 24x7 toll free number (1926) for citizens to register complaints in case they are privy to such incidents. We are also rallying a green army, comprising citizens who could play an active role in saving the environment."

Lessons from Delhi, Denmark and New York

  • In 2009, Delhi established its first C&D waste processing plant at Burari in North Delhi.
  • Denmark has recycled concrete and wood produced during expansion of the Copenhagen Metro. It is being used to build homes.
  • As of 2015, New York State has over 86 C&D debris processing facilities.

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