The woman is sitting alone on the ground, brushing her teeth with her index finger, rubbing a black powder vigorously. Once done, she rubs her finger on the sari which does nothing to erase the black colour. Her pinched face has a light covering of warts, the discoloured lips stretched across her face in a narrow line. She looks everywhere yet nowhere in particular. The printed sari covering her emaciated body had clearly seen better days. Some metres ahead, an open drain is overflowing with dark, viscous water, turning into a moss-covered patch close by. Flies are buzzing. There is an acrid stench in the air.
The woman continues to sit there, unfazed by her surroundings. Behind her, the landscape stretches into a maze of tall chimneys through which serpents of smoke coil into the sky. The heavy, smoke-laden air is like an impregnable veil, keeping the sun’s rays from reaching the woman and the ground she sits upon. A man walks out of a neighbouring building, jumps across the overflowing drain, chats with the woman and walks away.
It is a colony of buildings with faded, off-white paint. Once upon a time, the paint may have been brighter, but that was probably a long time ago. The small lanes running through the colony are carbon copies—narrow, potholed and strewn with filth. There is stinking garbage strewn all around. Stray dogs are furrowing through a dirty mound.
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To a newcomer, the stench is unbearable and makes one giddy. But it doesn’t seem to touch the woman. “What smell? It is now a part of our lives, like the filth and dirt,” she says.
Welcome to Mahul, a living hell, a gas chamber on Mumbai’s eastern outskirts.
Located 20 km from the mantralaya—the seat of power in Maharashtra—Mahul has long been forgotten not only by those in power, but also by those out of power. This was not always so. There was a time when politicians queued up at the doorsteps of Mahul’s residents, with promises of jobs, houses with concrete walls and roofs, better lives—all to be kept if they moved to the slum rehabilitation colony, located nearby. When the residents refused, they were forcibly evicted, their slum dwellings razed to the ground, along with their dreams and the promises that were once made. Once they arrived at the slum rehabilitation colony, their complaints got buried under the callousness of politicians.
Mahul is a former fishing village abandoned by the original inhabitants decades ago, when refineries and chemical factories started mushrooming in the vicinity. The pollution had become unbearable, so the fisher folk moved out.
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There are three refineries and 16 chemical factories in Mahul, including ones of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), Sea Lord Containers Limited (SLCL) and Aegis Logistics Limited (ALL). Despite the heightened air pollution in the Mahul-Chembur-Trombay areas, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) built a colony for rehabilitation of slum dwellers right there.
Smoke on the water Another view of Mahul’s skyline, from the sea
Today, nearly 40,000 dwellers are forced to live here after their slums along the Tansa pipeline were demolished by BMC. Industrial activity in the area has led to severe air and water pollution. So toxic is the air that even an hour spent here leaves an itchy feeling in the throat and a sheen of particulate matter on the face, body and clothes. Residents of this rehabilitation colony suffer from skin ailments, breathing problems, lung and stomach ailments, and general poor health.
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No one wears a mask in Mahul. It is as if the pandemic would be over before it reaches the colony. “If you can spend an hour in Mahul, you will be free of any virus. The smoke from those chimneys is the killer, not any virus,” says Shyam Verma, a resident who moved here in 2017. His experience of living in the area had consumed him with hatred for the system, the government and for politicians.
Verma and his family of five live in a ‘one plus one’ tenement along the 160 km Tansa pipeline—the main water supply line to Mumbai. When BMC started the demolition drive after a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed, citing that security and safety of the pipeline was under threat, the reluctant and protesting slum dwellers were forcibly shifted to Mahul. “When we came to Mahul, we were healthy. Now, everyone in the family suffers from lung and skin ailments, and breathing trouble. We have lost weight and are always sick. We cannot work as we are ill all the time,” narrated Verma.
The Vermas lost two children to the toxic living conditions in Mahul. While one child died after days of diarrhoea and severe vomiting, the other child passed away from breathing problems. “My wife has become very quiet, she does not talk much. We are sick all the time,” said Verma.
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There are so many like Verma with stories of personal tragedies to narrate. Losses have become commonplace and the crematorium located some distance away stands witness to the tragedies faced by the residents of Mahul.
For Chetana Bhole, 28, life turned upside down after she came to live in Mahul with her parents and sister three years ago. Today, her one-room tenement with a small kitchen, bathroom and toilet, has become her “living hell” as she puts it. In the three intervening years, her parents and sister passed away—all from breathing ailments and ensuing complications. At 34 kg, Bhole is emaciated and suffers from seizures and epileptic fits. “I was healthy. I was a DTP operator. I lost my job when we had to shift here. Now all I wait for is death,” said Bhole.
Another glaringly visible factor is the unhealthy pallor of the residents. Their skin is dotted with warts, black spots, dark patches, eczema and psoriasis. Many of them also suffer from various bone ailments and have swollen limbs. Stinging and irritable eyes and burning throats are common problems.
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So toxic is the air with its smell of chemicals that all those one met were either coughing or wheezing. There are no schools, hospitals or medical shops in the vicinity. Considering the filth and pollution, residents say that no one wants to set up even kirana shops in the area. With no options for schools, many local kids have dropped out and turned to rag-picking for a living.
The closest suburban railway stations are Kurla and Chembur. While Kurla is 12 km away from Mahul, Chembur is 8 km away. The public bus system too is not regular. The high cost of travel has become a deterrent, and many livelihoods have been lost due to this. There are some children who go to schools in Chembur and Kurla. However, they go only on days they can afford bus travel.
During the pandemic, when online schooling became the preferred way of education, only a handful of students here took classes. “If we don’t have jobs and money for daily survival, how can we afford mobile phones? Our priority now is survival,” says Jaishree Parkhe.
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The government-run Rajawadi Hospital, which gives free treatment to the poor, is about 12 km away. Though there are some clinics outside Mahul, those in the know say that many of them are run by quacks. In the absence of medical stores, residents depend on homeopathy and “jadi-booti” clinics for treatment. Many of them do not have the money to seek any form of medical help when they are ill.
A study conducted by the chest department of the Mumbai-based KEM Hospital in 2013 found that respiratory morbidity in the Mahul settlement was very high. Tests done in the Chereshwar building in the area found that 86 of the 97 residents suffered from severe breathlessness, 84 from eye irritation, while 78 were severely affected by the foul stench in the area. Since 2013, the situation has only worsened, say sources.
In 2020, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed four companies—HPCL, BPCL, SLCL, ALL—to pay Rs 286 crore, holding them responsible for the air pollution in the area. NGT had likened the situation in Mahul to “a gas chamber”. The tribunal had directed the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board to prepare a comprehensive action plan for the control of air pollution.
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In April 2019, Bombay high court directed the Maharashtra government to provide rent for Mahul residents to relocate out of the polluted area. The order had stated that those unwilling to stay in the slum rehabilitation colony in Mahul should be compensated—Rs 15,000 a month for 12 months, along with a one-time payment of Rs 45,000 as security deposit, respectively. The court had ordered BMC to transfer the entire amount at one go to the evicted families. It also recommended that a survey be done, and those who wanted to leave the colony should be compensated.
Life, interrupted where there’s any empty space in Mahul, there is a mound of garbage
However, residents said no such survey was carried out. Instead, the Maharashtra government got a stay order from the Supreme Court in May 2019. Earlier, the 2017 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) mentioned that rules were bent in favour of a private builder who benefited illegally from the Mahul Slum Rehabilitation Project to the tune of Rs 158 crore.
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Speaking to Outlook, Suresh Chopane of the Green Planet Society says, “Corruption is the major reason for rising air pollution. Though the laws are equal for all, the poor are marginalised. The poor are not considered party to the urbanisation process. It is builder-driven implementation.” His organisation is part of the Clean Air Collective, which campaigns across the country for citizens’ right to clean air.
Bhagwan Kesbhat has been actively campaigning against the rising air pollution in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. His NGO Waatavaran puts up installations of lungs covered with white cloth at important points in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. A week later, these are removed, the contamination on the white cloth is tested and the results made public. “The policies are never from the bottom to the top. It is always the other way around, and the poor bear the brunt of the one-sided implementation of these policies,” tells Kesbhat to Outlook.
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According to the Mumbai Clean Air Action Plan 2019, about 33 per cent of the air pollution is caused by industries located at Mahul, Chembur and Trombay. According to Kesbhat, civil society has to unite to find ways to tackle the rising air pollution in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and eastern and western suburbs of Mumbai.
BMC has grand plans to build a cycling and jogging track near the Tansa pipeline, over the area where the erstwhile slum where present-day Mahul residents used to live. Some kilometres away from Mahul, swanky high-rises equipped with air purifiers have come up in Ghatkopar, Vikhroli, Sion and Chembur. Moving around in the filth of Mahul, one realises that all these are means adopted by successive governments to push the underprivileged to the outskirts, and to create housing for the affluent.
For the hapless residents of Mahul, every day was the same as yesterday. Tomorrow will be like today.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Where the Streets Have No Name")
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By Haima Deshpande in Mumbai