Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai
This event took place on Wednesday, November 17, 2021
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the latest edition of book talks with The Doorstep. This is an initiative of the U.S. Global Engagement project of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I will be your co-host for this evening. I am Nikolas Gvosdev.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin. Very excited today to welcome journalist, not-for-profit founder, and author of Castaway Mountain: Love and Loss Among the Wastepickers of Mumbai, Saumya Roy.
Thank you, Saumya, for joining us all the way from Mumbai. It is your morning. We are so grateful for you to start your day early with us. It is our evening.
Welcome to everybody who is joining us. Thank you for joining our book talk tonight. Here and wherever you are in the world, this book is so powerful. As you can see, I made a lot of notes, and I encourage everyone to buy this book. It is a great read for our time, coming out of the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26, when everybody is talking about the environment and how we can fix the environment.
One of the topics that didn't get much press was waste and waste management, not that that's all that this book is about. The book is about, as you pointed out today, wealth gaps, income gaps, health gaps, policy gaps, all as a result of how we are handling our waste, how we are growing cities, and as you often say, putting things in the shadows or having a "castaway mountain."
Thank you so much for coming and joining us and brining this issue to light. I would like for you to start out and share with our audience a little bit about your background and the genesis of the book because most of our audience won't have read it—Nick and I have diligently read it, and I love it and can't wait to talk about it—but if you could just tell us a little bit about how you came to this book based on your background and your experience reporting this.
SAUMYA ROY: Sure. Thank you first of all for having me here. It is an absolute pleasure to be here and to be talking to you about my very first book and really a labor of love if I may say so.
I studied journalism in the United States and worked in India as a journalist for many, many years, and I wrote on everything—stock markets, different policies, and, sure, some different kinds of feature stories and I wrote a lot about financial inclusion also. In 2010 I left and began my own non-profit, working in the space of supporting the livelihoods of micro-entrepreneurs, which is basically street venders, cobblers, people who made lunches, did embroidery, and so we began getting all kinds of different people in our office, and in 2013 we began getting the wastepickers of Deonar asking for loans.
They were earning some money, but it was as if poverty was on their person. They had cuts, they had bruises, they had bowed legs, but when you talked to them they would describe their business so eloquently. They described this as a place—because I was very curious, like, "What is this place, what is this business, what is this life, how are you going to repay us?"—of great opportunity. There is a part where this older woman who was the first person to have come to us said, "We are never going to run out of work, there is always going to be stuff for us to do, and don't worry about it."
At first, they began bringing photographs on their phones to show me, and then I began following them back, and really it was a mountain, although we would call it a landfill normally, a garbage landfill, physically it was not a landfill. It was rising up to like an 18-story building. Literally all the city's waste was mashed together with mud, so mountains that you physically just saw a little bit of mud and like everything we had consumed in the city from grain sacks to foil boxes to children's shoes with a plastic sunflower on them. I have seen canvases, paintings—I don't know they landed up there—clothes, and jewelry. Anything and everything you can imagine was ending up there.
I was immediately fascinated because it became like a mirror to the city, what we were using and how they were crafting their lives off of it. So I would follow them for several years just out of curiosity, but then in 2016 there were really epic fires on the garbage mountains and landfills due to the accumulations of methane and stuff like that, which is very combustible and so landfills are known for fires. So there were these huge fires in 2016, and wastepickers were getting arrested and detained for lighting these fires, which they may have lit, but I also was writing a magazine piece to show our connection with this place, that we made this combustible place.
So I started out thinking it would be a magazine piece, but then the research was just endless and fascinating and ended up in this book.
TATIANA SERAFIN: To our audience, we are talking about landfills, so you might think of a landfill here in the United States—I know you visited this place because we talked a little bit about it and it is in the book—Fresh Kills on Staten Island, which used to be the world's largest landfill and is now sprouting grass and trees and I think was recently supposed to be opened into a park. It is all so nice, except when you really start thinking about it—and this book really started me thinking about it—where does our trash go?
The average American produces five pounds of trash a day. Five pounds of trash a day! I became mortified by that fact, and then I started thinking, Where does it go? I actually have a friend who works in New York City sanitation, and he told me similar stories to you. He finds the strangest things in the trash, but he just picks it up. But where does it go? Our trash goes as far away as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, on what you described happened over time and history in Mumbai, that the trains would collect the garbage and the trucks would drive to this landfill, creating these towers.
I have to tell you, I don't know where our trash goes after it hits Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio, and I am embarrassed. I think one of the things that this book does is really asks us, as you say, to think about all that we consume and where does it go. One of my favorite parts about the book is that you show historically the development of this place, this particular landfill, and connect it to Mumbai's history. I was wondering if you could tell our audience a little bit about it because these things just don't happen from nowhere.
SAUMYA ROY: Sure. Funnily, it began with a previous pandemic, which was the plague [epidemic] of 1896 in Mumbai. There are pretty strong resonances. That pandemic was supposed to have come on a trading ship from China riding on a rat. Mumbai at the time was also growing very rapidly. There was garbage growing with the city, and the rats were supposed to have traveled with the garbage, the plague traveling with the rats.
As the plague began to grow, the municipality again thought of quarantine to stem the spread of the plague. People were getting sick, people were dying. So they thought the best way to stem the spread of plague was quarantine. Soldiers began going into Indian homes, dismantling houses physically, inspecting people for plague buboes, which Indians thought was obviously intrusive because they didn't have much of a sense—this was an unknown disease and they were being physically inspected or they were being forcibly taken to hospital, etc.
So there was a lot of unrest in the city. There was migration, people were moving away to avoid this. Some grains that were piled up were taken away so that rats didn't infest them and also cause plague. Eventually there was so much unrest in the city, violence, all of that, that as a resistance to all of these plague measures in the end the municipality decided, let's just transport the trash away.
So they bought this 823-acre plot at the edge of the island city of Mumbai. At the time it was outside the city. It was a marshy swamp by the sea, and they decided to make a train line called the kachra train, which means literally the "garbage train," only to transport the city's garbage to this far edge to stay unseen. They thought actually at the time—the colonial administration, the British administration—that it would just fill up the swamp and would be a moneymaking scheme because they would rent it out to farmers and earn some money on this fertile, garbage-enriched soil.
As it happened, the city grew. This remained a forgotten corner, and it just kept growing and growing and growing, and when court cases began in 1996 the municipality kind of turned back. They found 12 million metric tons of trash lying there making garbage mountains, were taken as garbage mountains.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of the municipality coming in and looking at it in 1996, nothing happened for two decades. One of the things that really struck me in this was the bureaucracy really hindering any sort of fixes. They brought in a special company in the 2000s to try to create clean garbage and create safe ways to incinerate it, and that didn't work, and then nothing happened, and then nothing happened, and it kept going back to the court.
You have great characters trying to fix things—a doctor, an activist, a judge—and yet nothing happens. In all of this, what do you see and what does it say about India's system and how it treats the people that maybe need it the most?
SAUMYA ROY: Many cities struggle with this. Famously there was once a barge stuck outside New York City with garbage on it, and they didn't know where to send it, so it stayed stuck for weeks floating off of New York City. So many cities struggle with this, but certainly in Mumbai my entry point was obviously the wastepickers' lives, but then it was clear that the garbage mountains were imprinted in the wastepickers' lives. Certainly the fact was that they were not moving, that there was not a resolution, that they were 122 years old when they were supposed to be closed in 25 years, and that they had outlasted their life now by a century.
I began to look at why. Why were these mountains not moving? And I could see that there were attempts being made, all the plans for this big waste-to-compost plant, it's coming, it's coming, it's coming. It doesn't come. Then there are these fires, and then they plan a huge waste-to-power plant. It's coming, it's coming, it's coming, but nobody bids for it. And now they are planning a smaller waste-to-power plant, which is supposed to come in 2023.
I wouldn't say that there was no intention at any point. There was a court case going on. The court case is now 26 years old. I began to go see what was happening in this court case, and I became very fascinated. I attended something like 300 hours of court proceedings. Again, in court every time it felt like, Oh, my god, something is happening, this place is going to move, it's going to move, it's going to move, and then it didn't move.
You could just say that this is a pretty intractable problem. Now they say there is something like 16 million metric tons of trash, so it is not easy to move. It could just be that it is a genuine policy problem that cities around the world face, but having said that, it certainly has an impact. It has a human cost.
I would only say that any solution cannot only be a brick-and-mortar technocratic solution—"Here, let's make a plant"—but it must also include who are the people who have taken trash away from here all of these years and what really can we do for them also.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One of the things in reading the book that I found very interesting—and again, you have already discussed this, that a pandemic was the start of it—was that trash mountains around the world now create their own health issues for the people who live around them.
Going back to a point that Tatiana raised, this is a reverse doorstep issue in a way. We expect that we put trash out and that it gets taken away and then we don't think about it. One of the things is almost the intractability of some of this because we have seen certainly in the United States the push towards recycling—"Well, we will recycle more"—and then we find out that much of what we then send to recycling doesn't in fact get recycled; it gets sent to landfills.
There was the freecycle movement for a while, and I was struck by that because of the extent of people who lived on these and in these trash mountain communities essentially asking, "Well, what can we extract of value from here?" We had in this country the freecycle movement: "Don't throw it out. Put your broken table or a chair out, and someone will come along and fix it and reuse it," but again we have seen the limits of that.
So as you are talking about these solutions and you say we can't just have the technocratic bricks and mortar imposed, what do some of the people who live in these trash mountain communities want to see? You said at the beginning that for many of them they see this as a never-ending source of livelihood. There is always going to be trash. Therefore, they can always generate a living from it, but what would they see moving forward as a positive solution, or is it just a sense of, "We're here, we'll accept the health risks and other things, we just do this because this is what enables us to survive?"
SAUMYA ROY: I would say that they don't know any other life. Many of the characters in this book are second- or third-generation wastepickers. There is not a lot of social mobility from here. If you were to ask them, they would just say, "This should continue."
But having said that, I did think very long and deep about it. I personally I am not an apologist for this life. It is a dark life, a perilous life, a precarious life, and I certainly wouldn't want these garbage mountains to continue so that these lives or these livelihoods continue.
I think, however, this is skilled work, segregating and sorting garbage and reselling it. This is pretty skilled work. Even if this place—like in the United States this is what is called an MRF or material recovery facility, so even if a plant were to come, they could continue to have jobs around it, and they could continue to be segregating, sorting, and that sort of thing. Even in the United States there are many cities that still do single-stream rather than segregate the stuff, and often it is at the MRF that it is segregated.
I should also say that a lot of waste from the United States as well as other developed countries in Europe gets exported to other countries. For a while it was China, but now it is also India, East Asia, and different places like that. Paper, plastic, and those kinds of things do get exported to different countries.
What should happen to wastepickers? I think that this is skilled work and it can be included in any modern waste management system that any city would have.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Could I just ask—there was an anecdote or some of the things in the book that I just found fascinating—a little bit more about why, which is surprising because you have some people here, we have this expression of "dumpster diving," where people go and they say you find a Rembrandt in the trash.
Yet in this particular community, if you find a luxury good that people reject it, that if there is a Louis Vuitton bag or a pair of shoes or expensive electronics that could be fixed, people reject it. I found that to be interesting as well. Could you perhaps go in a bit more on those kinds of stories? How do these communities identify what they see as valuable, and why do they reject things that an outside observer might say, "You could make a lot of money, you can repurpose luxury items and resell them at low cost?" Here in this country we have consignment shops, second-hand, and vintage, but in your book there was this almost rejection, these communities turning away from dealing with the luxury items. For the people again who haven't read the book yet, I found that to be such an interesting description.
SAUMYA ROY: There is a difference between what they are saying and what they are doing in the book as well. While they say that if you get something expensive, they are just a little bit suspicious, and maybe it is that instinct that it is better to have sold it off rather than to be wearing any gold or silver that they find because they say that there must be some reason why it came here, which is a very natural thought to have. How could you have forgotten, say, a pair of gold earrings? It is not something that you would just forget, so maybe it didn't bring good luck to the person who had it originally, which is why it ended up here, and so it is better that we sell it than that we wear it. It is also probably a means of livelihood, so maybe that is also the rationale to this also, that it is better that we sell it than that we wear it.
That being said, anything other than luxury goods they pretty much wore it, used it, or ate it. Their houses are made of it. They wore the clothes that they found. They gifted pencil boxes that they found. They ate ready-to-eat mixes that came on the dumping ground right after expiry. They ate fruit and vegetables that came there. Sometimes it is also that there is a difference between what they say and what they do.
I really guess you want to buy your own gold, but if you find it there, well, why not?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Why not?
TATIANA SERAFIN: You mentioned the vegetables. I have to say this sentence—I circled so many sentences in this book, but this was one that just—this is one of your main characters if not the main character, and maybe you could tell me if I say her name correctly, I hope. Farzana?
SAUMYA ROY: That's right.
TATIANA SERAFIN: A main character in your book, and I won't give anything away because her story is surprising, shocking, and whoa, that is all I have to say, but that is for the audience. Buy the book, and you'll find out what happens to Farzana.
But one of the things she said was: "Farzana had heard that not everyone ate vegetables grown in trash." That sentence just, I don't know, was so powerful. And then the statistic here that 20 percent of our trash is food waste and thinking, What can we do about food waste here in New York?
New York is now trying to develop a compost program. We are trying, but that idea that here is this good food, and you mention the packets that are expired. Here she is eating vegetables that grow, pumpkins that grow in the trash, and I think that we don't really even realize how much food is wasted. Our default is, you're throwing away electronics or something that is broken, but it's actual food. Over a quarter of our waste here in the United States, and I imagine it's the same around the world. I think that was one of the shocking things when you are thinking about wastepickers.
You use the term "wastepicker." I also want to say it got me to thinking—and you are talking about people who sort stuff—every day in New York I see people looking through plastic bottles, and plastic was one of the key things before it became too cheap. Plastic was what everybody wanted in the trash pile.
It's the same thing here. It's literally the plastic bottles, and I just thought: Wow, it is not a problem like you had of developed world versus developing. It is a problem everywhere. I think that one of the brilliant things that this book does is get us to think about the way that we use trash or not use trash or think about trash. It shouldn't be this bad thing. It has this bad connotation.
I am wondering: Does it have that same bad connotation in India because your book was so fair and objectively reported that I didn't ever know. Aside from that conference where you were talking about how the burning piles spread the smelly air into Mumbai and then people started to notice the hill, aside from that one moment, I really didn't get the sense that people thought of it negatively or thought of it at all. Is that true?
SAUMYA ROY: Yes. I would say that places like this grow in invisibility, and it is an issue of class as well. Once we put it into our waste boxes, we don't want to think what happens. It has been from our tables and suddenly it becomes waste, and it has that negative connotation, and they don't want to think what really happens to it, where it ends up. It doesn't really go anywhere. It is there, and it does need to be dealt with all the same, which is one of the things that my book talks about.
Also, it is a sign of wealth and development of a country of what really comes in waste, and so food in India forms a very large part of waste. As countries get wealthier, we see more plastic from packaging, more cardboard, and less biodegradable stuff coming in trash, and the less wealthy we are you see just fruit peels and stuff like that. You see on the waste mountain this is happening. There is more plastic coming, more cardboard coming, and less of—food still is a very large part. I would say almost half of what we get is food.
So you can imagine it is like this mushy pile of everything mixed up, falling out of dump trucks on the garbage mountain, and with the rains falling on that waste sometimes those things sprout, and you have plants and you have vegetables and fruits and all kinds of things growing there, and just in that paragraph that you talked about there were also some poisonous plants growing. There were some that they thought were healing plants. If you had a cut and you rubbed the leaf on, it would get healed, or you could just eat a leaf and you could stay intoxicated for hours together.
So people were a little careful sometimes of eating them, but then if you found a big pumpkin somewhere mushed in trash, you would pick up the pumpkin and cook it also. This is all the stuff that was coming out of our dump trucks, growing there, and sustaining some kind of a life there.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think the idea that there was a life and people raised children, sent them to school, and had dreams of getting out of this system was really powerful, just to show that community. I think it is one of the things that you showed, and I am wondering how you felt about the community. How were you a part of it? Your entry in it was to give loans, but eventually you decided that this wasn't a good place to give loans because they weren't getting repaid, and you started moving your loans out to rural areas more. It said that in the book, but you still stayed involved with the community. Are you still involved in the community?
SAUMYA ROY: I am. At first they repaid perfectly which is also what got me very curious about this place. We literally never had a single missed installment there for years together because not many people were lending there. They knew they were not very attractive as borrowers to traditional lenders in the city, and so they just made sure that they were repaying us very perfectly.
At first they were repaying us. Then, when I began writing in 2016, when I began thinking of writing this book, I made it clear to all of the characters that this was not about money, this was just about sharing their stories, etc., so that was one of several reasons that we began tapering off loans here in Mumbai city. I talk about demonetization that happened, etc., so we slowly tapered off our lending in here but also in Mumbai City, and we continue to work in rural areas. Through the reporting of the book I made sure that we did not also have a lending relationship with them.
I would say now that the reporting is done and the book is out I have always had a wonderful relationship, and it is nicer when you don't have to keep going back and asking pesky questions like "did you really say this? and "did you really say that?" and you are just hanging out without any real—
But talking of the dump trucks and the food that spilled out, I did pick a small passage, just a small paragraph, to read on that that I thought you might want.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes, please do, and then we will open it up to questions from the audience.
SAUMYA ROY: Okay, great. As I mentioned, this is about the garbage-dumping ground, which is about 300 acres large. It rises to garbage mountains that are up to like 120 feet high, and the protagonist in the book is Farzana Ali Shaikh, who is a garbage picker, and this is about her.
"It was June 2008, and the school year had just begun along with Mumbai's monsoon rainy season. But Farzana had come to work on the mountains all day. Most mornings when she arrived at the trash peaks she started by collecting overripe tomatoes and eggplants that arrived with the discarded food or sprouted from it with the rains. She waited for her friends' hazy figures to emerge on the ragged slopes, and threw her pickings that were making dark wet splotches on their clothes. They swiveled in pain and confusion.
"When they spotted Farzana, her friends scrambled to look for their own tomatoes. They scoured through the trash that arrived overnight for bits of watermelons, tomatoes, or eggs, and hurled them back at her. Giggly tomato fights ensued, as they chased each other around the unsteady, sun-filled slopes, rotting fruit in hand. Laughter and light reflected in the halo of the forgotten mountains."
TATIANA SERAFIN: That is a great paragraph to read because it really shows the humanity of a place that you do say is forgotten but that is just so full of life and living, ideas, dreams, and hopes.
I invite our audience to put your questions in the chat, and I will monitor the chat as we continue our conversation, and I will read out the questions, so please feel free to ask questions about Castaway Mountain, the reporting process, or anything about the book, if you have comments about waste or waste management, or if you have seen any of these trash piles.
As we are waiting for questions to come in the chat, I want to take this in a little bit of a different direction, which is politics. You have a couple of pages on it, not that much, but you do talk a lot about policy as an undertone. You talk about how politicians came into the area, particularly in reference to hiring people to come to their rallies, which I thought was fascinating that people who needed money would hire themselves out to go to rallies of politicians, and then how politicians would go into the areas, but it was really telling.
For people who are not as familiar with the politics and class system in India, could you comment on why it seems that a lot of the pickers are Muslim, if I am understanding correctly, and why a certain party dominates in that area? That is it about the politics of the situation that we need to understand?
SAUMYA ROY: Very quickly, if you are in the United States, the book is called Castaway Mountain. The book is called Mountain Tales if you live in India, and if you live in the United States it is called Castaway Mountain.
Talking of politics, at first all the waste of the city was sent to pile up there, and then from the 1960s onwards all the people, migrants who had come to live on the city's pavements and railroad tracks were seen as extraneous, seen as something of an eyesore in the city, were also sent to live there. Migrants were people obviously from the bottom rungs of Indian society, belonging to certain castes and certain religions. It was a mixed area but more Muslims than Hindus.
You may have noted the 1992 riots across the country after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, so there were pretty violent riots in this area because it was known to house a lot of Muslims. There were some atrocities against the police and some violence between communities, between the police and the different communities, etc., at the end of which the city got segregated, and this place became a largely Muslim area because those could leave left. Those who did have social mobility, those who could afford to move out moved out, and now I would say about 85 to 90 percent of the people living here are Muslims.
There is a particular party that I talk about called the Samajwadi Party, and all the representatives, the counselors and the MPs, congressmen as we call it in the United States, are from the Samajwadi Party, which is seen as a Muslim party. They are not the party in power or ever have been in Mumbai, in Maharashtra, or in India.
So you would think that with representation they can bring the issues to light, but actually it's only an extension of the marginalization because even the party that represents them is not a mainstream party in the city, in the state, or in the country. So it is almost a symbol of their marginalization.
I should also add that while researching for this sometimes I didn't interact a lot with the politicians, but I would see YouTube videos of them saying, "Oh, we've brought water supply all over this place, and there's electricity all over," but every time I walk in the lanes you see all these very beautiful scenes of 12-year-olds, 11-year-olds still buying water, still bringing it back, but if you want to see any of the public statements they will tell you there is water in everybody's house. So sometimes that representation, even in a democracy or an election-based system doesn't work so well.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I see some questions coming in, but I will ask just as a follow up: You said that in 2023 there is supposed to be something. I think Modi has said, "Oh, we're going to change everything," and this broad, sweeping political statement. Do you have faith that that's going to happen? Do you see more movement? Or did COVID-19 kind of slow everything down?
SAUMYA ROY: This is almost a post-pandemic announcement actually because in this year's budget at the end of February they announced almost $40 billion to remediate garbage mountains. The prime minister launched formally just last month this plan to remediate "mountains of garbage" as he called it also.
I am hopeful because the first phase of this particular program, Swachh Bharat or "Clean India," they did end up making a lot of toilets. I do travel to rural India and I often see that toilets have been constructed all over through the first phase of that program, so I am very hopeful that something will come through and that that will come through.
He said that this will help to make green jobs and will help to create jobs for migrants, so I am very hopeful that something will happen on that front, not only in Mumbai but where garbage mountains are. Any city you see in India, like Delhi, Bangalore, I know that researchers are working on this and they have documented that there are wastepicking communities who also, by the way, are from the most marginalized communities of India, belonging to those castes and often Muslims who work as wastepickers. So I feel that the work of remediating pollution and the work of remediating poverty and marginalization are going hand in hand, and they should go hand in hand.
As you know, we just had the Glasgow climate conference, where also people talked about reducing the usage of coal and reducing the emissions of methane or carbon dioxide, which again suggests—or you move to clean energy or you think of it as a technological solution, but also there are coal workers and waste workers who work on landfills, and I think that those goals need to go together in Mumbai, in India, but also all over the world.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of methane, we have a question coming in from Martha Chen: "There is a major risk that the focus on methane gas after COP 26 will be a move to destroy dump sites. What would you recommend?"
Sort of connected but not really Marty asks: "Also, do you know about, or have you been in touch with, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers?"
SAUMYA ROY: I have heard of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. I am not sure I have interacted with them except that I know in Pune there is an organization called KKPKP, which is affiliated with the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, and I have seen their work very closely and admire it tremendously. They are like a cooperative of wastepickers and really working to improve the lives of wastepickers.
It is just wonderful to see the women who work on that. They are given a small amount of insurance. We as users pay for them to pick up our waste every day, to segregate it, and they move around lanes of Pune with their handcarts, and they are given gloves, they are given insurance. Their work is really amazing, and I know they are associated with this Global Alliance.
On the question of methane, I think it is exactly what we spoke about earlier, which is, yes, I agree of course. Methane is concentrated in landfills. I do agree that just closing a landfill to control methane is one goal, but I think that goal needs to go with the human goal of what is to happen to these wastepickers. You cannot just close these places down without thinking of what the human cost of this is going to be because historically actually the only thing that left these places left in the hands of wastepickers. It did not leave in the hands of, say, the municipality or something.
So actually they have done the job of reducing the waste. I think there are some studies to show in India that about 30 percent of waste is taken away by wastepickers, which reduces the cost and the hassle of managing that waste or making that power plant or compost plant, etc. So it is imperative to include them, to rehabilitate their lives, and to provide them with new lives and livelihoods. I completely agree with her that you cannot just shut down a landfill without thinking of the people who lived off of it for so many years.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think part and parcel is looking at health if we are going to talk about methane, emissions, and all the bad stuff that is coming out. You see that in your book throughout, particularly with tuberculosis (TB), which, I don't know, sounds like it should not exist anymore. I had to keep pinching myself and reminding myself that you are writing this in the present day. This is not 30 years ago. Your characters are living today with TB, are living today with poor medical treatment, are going to the hospital and getting shunted around, or are not able to get to the hospital because it's too far away and they can't get there.
One of the things you mention is that health gap. I am wondering what sort of discussion, if there even is any, about closing that health gap. We have a terrible solution in the United States: we don't have one. I don't know if India is any better or if it is being talked about, especially considering all of the issues that you raised in the book with health.
SAUMYA ROY: Are there policies? Yes. Some hospitals are free. There is a large government hospital that I talk about repeatedly in the book, and I often accompanied wastepickers to where they can go.
Thank you, Dr. Chen, for your comments. I have followed Dr. Chen's work on the issue of wastepickers for so many years and admired it, and I am so very thankful that she is here today. I look forward to speaking to her on this issue.
In this hospital people can get free treatment. There is a special TB project that runs out of this hospital, and I interacted very closely with the doctors who work in that unit, and I just greatly admire the work that they do on tuberculosis. This is a global hot spot for multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Tuberculosis is not necessarily related to landfills per se but just being in very close contact because it spreads through air, and there are lots of people living in a small enclosed house, so if one person has it, they can transfer it on to other people very easily. There is not a very clear direct connection with landfill or waste and tuberculosis, but there is a connection with poverty and tuberculosis, so these are all very interconnected kinds of issues.
But, yes, lots of surveys have found they all suffer from—as you know, I talk about how life expectancy there was 39 years, so I tried to unpack that a little bit, and I found that even until 2017 life expectancy there had not risen by much, although it only was in an age range. I did not get an exact number, but it had not gone up by much.
So what was causing those early deaths? It was very much asthma, respiratory diseases, upper respiratory diseases, stuff like that, which are clearly related to pollution, related to the fires on the landfills, and related to inhaling a lot of poisonous or chemical gases that are emitted by such untreated landfills. That is certainly having an impact on their health.
When I looked at court documents over the years, doctors had submitted papers showing that there were collapsed lungs, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and interstitial lung diseases which cause hardening between the lungs, and these are fatal diseases that really shrink the quality of life and shorten life. So these are many illnesses related to living in the landfill, living in poverty, all of which come together. There is a high rate of infant mortality, teenaged mothers, so children already born with a nutritional gap. All of those exist.
Are there health facilities? Yes, there are. By the same token, did I see a lot of ill health? I did. As you know, three of the characters passed away during the writing of this book, including a teenaged girl, Salma Shaikh, who I write about extensively in the book and who passed away right after I reported the book. Farzana continues to suffer from tuberculosis. I do see ill health there. I can't deny that. Most characters in the book did suffer from tuberculosis at some point or the other.
TATIANA SERAFIN: It is also a very traditional society. I am going to say that I didn't expect that either. I don't why. This idea that, yes, you have a life expectancy that is 39, so by 18 if you're not married, that's it, your life is over. By 19 you are an old maid. I couldn't comprehend that.
I'm wondering how you report that—you did it in such an objective way. How did you not include any of your biases in the book, or did you find it hard?
SAUMYA ROY: I suppose some of those biases are there. I say this in the book somewhere, in the introduction and in the first person I do say that. My own relationship, my own attachments, they do form a part of the narration of this. For example, when Moharram Ali abandons his children and goes away, I certainly felt for those children. I feel they need a book of their own, his daughter being eight and stuttering and stammering because her father has left and gone away. So I wouldn't say that my biases are not there. I feel that my attachment was very much there. Having said that, I think as writers it is good to just acknowledge that so the reader can know. It is possible that in some way my biases have creeped into this.
Having said that, is it a traditional society? Yes. They do marry early, have children early. Farzana, for example, is now 23 and has three children.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Oh, she had another child? That was after the book.
SAUMYA ROY: Yes. Just two weeks ago she had a third child, although she suffers from anemia, tuberculosis, and stuff like that. She now has three children.
I feel it is not my place to judge them because I did see—I would say it's the dance of life. You see her also pushing against these boundaries. Like when her brother tells her not to go there, she is there the next day. If she is told not to do something, she will do it. Her family didn't always want her to marry Nabil [phonetic], and yet when they said no, it was almost like she had to do it. So, yes, you see tradition, but then you also see them fighting against tradition at different points of time.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes. It was really interesting how they went to get the blessings from the healers. It was almost like going to a revival meeting here in the United States. And then they are like, yes, no, that's not going to work, forget it. It was like this balance between the old and the new.
We have mention of a film but not the name of the film. So maybe, Luanne, if you remember the name of the film, we can maybe ask Saumya what she thinks.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Federico asks about the global trend of dumpsite closures and the lack of alternatives. What happens to the workers?
Again, you alluded to that earlier about we have material sorting sites and the like, but if we say we are going to close this down, what happens to the people? Just based on his question there, given the global trend of dumpsite closures and the lack of alternatives for wastepickers who depend on their work in these dumpsites. We often hear that here. When people say, "Well, we lose an industry, you'll just do something else," except it's easier to say on paper than it is—
Luanne says she thinks the film is called Garbage Pickers that was on the festival circuit several years ago, and if you have seen it if you thought it was a good representation of what you wrote about in the book.
SAUMYA ROY: I have not seen it, but I have heard of several such films that were made on landfills and several books. I have heard about movies though, one about Brazil, I think it was called City of Angels because the landfill site there is called something like the "city of angels." I have heard about a movie made about imported waste in China and a child growing up there. I think that was quite popular. So I have heard about those movies. I am not sure about the one exactly that you are talking about.
On the issue of landfills and what is to happen to wastepickers, I think that question has to be integrated with the question of what happens to landfills. I don't think that it is a fair idea to just shut them down without thinking of what happens to these people.
It may have been Brazil, right, right. So I think it is based on the landfill of Sāo Paolo or Rio, and it is called City of Angels, and I have heard that it is a fantastic movie.
I don't think that you can just close them down without thinking of what really these people, what can be—
In India, for example, there are rules since 2016 that say that wastepickers must be included in the waste management systems of the city, but actually the rules in real life are going in like two different worlds. They are still thinking of what is a technocratic solution, so even for the plant that is supposed to come up now, they say that nobody lives here and no relief is required to be given to anybody because nobody lives here.
But these are people who have made their living off of this place for so many years. They have been doing the most hazardous, perilous, precarious work, putting their lives on the line to shrink this garbage mountain that we create, that we send out, that we don't want to see. So I think how their skills can be used, how they can be integrated into waste management systems is something that is really important and a crucial part of how we remediate landfills.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think we saw some of it when some people were trying to get municipal ID cards and tried to become garbage truck drivers, and then you saw other people trying to get cast like players in a protest or a rally, but what I wanted to ask about because I think—I don't know; are you working on your next book, or is this it?
I forget the character's name, but she is going for medical trials, and you say Western companies come to places like India to use human subjects because you can't do that here, but they test their drugs on human subjects, and they pay them money, and they use that money to pay bills or to help their children. It was something I had never thought about. It was shocking to me and sad, especially because I don't know if that was a result of her anemia and poor health as a result of all the drugs that she had taken, all the trials she had been a part of. I don't know if you felt it was.
Did you look more into that? You included a little bit about it as part of a side hustle, but is that something you're looking more into? What is your next book?
SAUMYA ROY: That family actually fascinated me tremendously just because at one point it seemed that the family of Moharram Ali would do very well. He was very charismatic. He was constantly taking loans, doing lots of different businesses. It seemed like he would do very well, but then, as the poor often do and possibly the rich often do, he got into a tremendous debt trap. With every loan he took he actually had more spending plans than he had repayment plans, and he ended up really collapsing, leaving his family and five children in a very precarious situation.
The mother then, as you often see in families like this, women really taking that role of stepping in in this crisis situation and trying to provide for her children, literally putting her body, her life, on the line to provide her children some kind of—she really wants her children to study, to provide them an education, she is constantly trying to send them back to school although they have dropped out, so for that, to give them a life, to give them a safe life, a secure life, give them schooling, she becomes a subject for medical trials. She continues even today to be a subject for medical trials.
She does suffer from ill health even now. Some of it has taken a toll on her. One day I write that she fell at a train station getting off a train and broke her front teeth, so she is a little bit toothless. She has had tuberculosis.
Is it related to the medical trials? I am not entirely sure that I can connect those dots, but the two are both correct, that she does go for medical trials and she does suffer from ill health. And she continues to go because it is the only way that she can make money. She is constantly repaying moneylenders, and she doesn't know at what rate she is repaying that interest. She continues to repay. I am not sure she has ever reached even the principal; it is just the interest amount that she is repaying.
At the same time, in order to have some quality of life, she needs to be earning, so she always tells me: "I don't need a small amount of money. I need a lot of money." And the only way to earn a lot of money is to do something really dire like medical trials.
TATIANA SERAFIN: That was shocking to me.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Listening to all of this, and as this conversation is moving forward, I am struck by something we've been charting at Carnegie Council through The Doorstep, that the ethos of the 2020s is very much governments around the world are charged with improving living conditions. Whether it's China to the United States, different forms of government, it's all about getting more people into the middle class. The middle class is defined by consumption. You are defined by middle class by what you consume.
What does that mean for the pickers? Is this sustainable? As more of this trash comes in and as they see more people are enjoying a lifestyle, is there potential for social unrest down the line? Is there a point where for the city, the people who live in the city who say, "We want a middle class lifestyle, but now this waste mountain is impinging on our quality of life because of air, smell, and other things." How sustainable is this?
You give us the origin. This was to get trash out of a city to deal with the plague. It has worked seemingly for the last hundred-plus years, but are we reaching a point where in Mumbai specifically but around the world that this approach to waste management combined with people wanting a more consumptive lifestyle that we are going to reach points where we're not going to be able to square this circle anymore?
SAUMYA ROY: This is a question that I explore as much as I possibly can through this book. I don't have a very perfect answer for you, but I do think that for me these garbage mountains were a symbol of inequality, like the people who make them. We are making these mountains, and wastepickers are people living off these mountains, so it almost became a physical manifestation of the growing inequality. As you know, India is one of the more unequal societies in the world, but certainly this is not only in India but in many different countries.
Is there a particular system that perpetuates a certain lifestyle, that encourages consumption, that encourages a life also then of waste? Yes, there is, and that is something that really needs to be rethought.
For example, gadgets. You are encouraged to keep buying them rather than to keep repairing them, reservicing them, or refurbishing them, and they are often landing up here. India is the world's second-largest cellphone market, and cellphones are often getting thrown out because companies are not allowing you to replace, say, batteries or different things like that. As you know, Apple made a large settlement on this count recently.
Often it is difficult to repair, to service parts, and so within months—and we also, of course, thanks to advertising, thanks to demand that has been created, we want the shiny new things. We are encouraged to want the shiny new thing, and so we are throwing away phones or whatever else it might be. I am just using that as an example, but it could also be a television, it could also be—lots of televisions come to the landfill that I have seen—it could be plastic bottles of water.
All of this is landing up there a lot. We are encouraged to consume. Society, companies, advertising are encouraging us to consume more, buy more, and waste more, rather than to reuse and repair. Society encourages us to do that, and that is causing landfill waste to grow. Is that causing inequality? Yes, of course it is.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think this book, Castaway Mountain here in the United States—I think I have another version because I was so excited to get it that I got an early version. Castaway Mountain is the name of the book and Saumya Roy is the author. Thank you so much for joining us. This is a beautiful book.
We have a lot of thank-yous coming in in the chat and a lot of stories that I think need to be told. For me this is one of the important ones of our time related to climate and related to a topic that we don't often talk about, but looking at how we can solve issues of our day from inequality, from medical inequality, all related to how we consume or not consume and the people who are in the rungs that are taking our trash. I just think that that is so important.
Thank you so much for your time, Saumya. This is such a pleasure. We really appreciate it, and happy morning to you in Mumbai.
SAUMYA ROY: Thank you. Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure and an honor to be here.