By Priya Singh, Christ University, Bengaluru.

Believed to have been inhabited since the Stone Age, the city of Mumbai houses approximately 12 million people. Mumbai is India’s most populous city and one of the most populous cities in the world. The reason for this is manifold but employment plays a major role in attracting people to this cultural conglomerate of a city. It is also the commercial powerhouse of India. Thousands flock to Mumbai every year to get a taste of the glamorous lifestyle that the city promises. The reality, however, is far from the image that many associate with the city. The city now crumbles under the burdening weight of thousands who come to the city, adding a huge pressure on the infrastructure of the city which is being used at maximum capacity.

Migration has several effects on the ecology of the city. Due to excessive influx of people, there is greater waste production. Between 1999 and 2016, there has been a 105% rise in the waste generated by Mumbai. It is the largest generator of waste in the country. According to the data published by the Central Pollution Control Board, Mumbai generated the most waste out of 46 cities in India. Increase in population has led to people settling near the dumping grounds. Such areas are mostly inhabited by migrants from the drought prone areas of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka who work as rag pickers in the nearby dumping grounds. The proximity to such areas exposes the residents to health risks. The average life expectancy of people living in this area is 39 while the urban life expectancy is around 73.5 years. Moreover, the city faces terrible plastic pollution. Last year, a high tide brought tons of garbage to the Juhu beach, highlighting just how much waste is not managed properly. Untreated waste also accounts for pollution and also contributes to the health problems that residents in slums face, after being directly exposed to the toxic elements due to lack of sanitation facilities. Due to the lack of waste segregation by the citizens, much of the waste that ends up in landfills is scavenged by the residents of slums that live near the areas. 

Dense population also poses a problem of water crisis for Mumbai residents. The city has limited water outlets and lack of rainfall in the recent years has augmented the scarcity. But water is not equitably distributed. Shortages in the city have become common as the city tries to accommodate more than it can sustain. Kaula Bandar, a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai receives no municipal support. Majority of the population in this slum has migrated from Tamil Nadu generations ago and yet the slum receives no formal water and sanitation benefits. The residents have to pay exorbitant prices for basic amenities. They pay up to 200 times the price of water to procure it in these areas, as it is a non-notified slum which means that it is not recognized by the local, state or central governments. This water poverty affects the people adversely. Women are often the ones tasked with lining up for water and as a result waste time that can be productively utilized in earning an income for the household. The lack of water also affects the overall wellbeing of the people, as it is related to poor hygiene practices which lead to diseases. The ever increasing unmet demand for water, which in turn leads to water scarcity, can lead to increased salinity, nutrient pollution as well as the loss of wetlands. As more groundwater recedes from the ground, to meet the excess demand, the salinity content of the remaining groundwater increases as salt residue is left behind. The loss of wetlands in another consequence of excess water consumption. As wetlands differ from other water or land forms and have a distinct ecosystem with vegetation growth, they act as natural sponges in absorbing excess water. Since these wetlands are disappearing, the city’s natural defense against floods, is failing. It is due to this failure of the natural defense mechanism against floods, that the city succumbs to heavy rains every monsoon. 

Soaring populations drive up the demand for land. But land is a limited resource and therefore very valuable. Majority of the migrants that arrive in Mumbai cannot afford the skyrocketing real estate that the city has to offer and end up living in ‘chawls’ or slums that provide accommodation for dirt cheap prices but lack proper infrastructure. More than half of the population of Mumbai, resides in urban slums, even though slums occupy only about 8.75% of the city’s land. There is great pressure on land as a resource in the city. As more and more trees are being cut down to make way for new infrastructure such as roads and buildings, the city’s capacity to hold water and neutralize the carbon emissions also declines. Wetlands, which once used to control the excessive rains, have been built over, resulting in floods every monsoon season. These wetlands and marshes were responsible for holding off the excess water whenever there was flooding. Now however, there is no stronghold mechanism that prevents water from clogging as these areas have been compromised in the name of urban development. The growing needs of an increasing population has led to more and more land being used as dumping ground, residential areas and public spaces. These wetlands are also essential resources of revenue as they help generate income for fishermen and contribute towards tourism as migratory birds flock to such areas. In 2017, a 100 acre wetland was found to have been turned into a construction debris dumping ground due to lack of state initiative.

Air pollution is another problem that the city faces due to excessive population. Due to more human activity, the carbon footprint of the city has continuously been on the rise, decreasing the air quality. The presence of several industries in the nearby areas also augments the already existing problem of air pollution in the city. The slums where biofuel is used to produce goods, contribute to the city’s smog problem. Since the poor employment opportunities and lack of proper air pollution standards for the slums pose a big problem, many slums take to producing their own goods to earn wages. This burning of biofuels releases chemicals in the atmosphere, which when mixed with other pollutants, further contributes to the pollution problem and the smog that settles in. The biggest polluters in the city is particulate matter PM 2.5 and PM 10, which can enter the respiratory system and have long term health effects. In Mumbai, the biggest pollutants include exhaust from vehicles, waste burning and fires in landfills.

In the annual report published by The Energy and Resources Institute for Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (2018-19), it was revealed that the concentration of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter in Bandra and Sion regions of Mumbai were way above the permissible limits as prescribed by National Ambient Air Quality Standards set by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) (the graphs I and II above provide visual data for the same). According to the data published by the Central Pollution Control Board, the two biggest pollutants in Mumbai were carbon monoxide and PM10. The Swiss company, AirVisual released data last year, where it was revealed that in 2018, the annual average for Mumbai was 58.6 micrograms per cubic meter (4.4 micrograms per cubic meter more than the previous year) which is more than five times the permissible limit of the World Health Organization. As more and more people migrate to newer cities, especially the upper middle class, the number of cars on the roads also increases. In the last five years, the vehicle count has increased by 56% in Mumbai alone. The exhaust from diesel fumes, greatly propels the pollution problem. As more people flock to the city, the amount of waste generated by the residents also experiences a rise. The lack of proper waste segregation and irresponsible dumping of ground, often results in fires in the dumping grounds which release toxic pollutants into the environment, further worsening the air quality in the city. Fires in the dumping grounds of Deonar in 2015, covered the surrounding areas in smog for days. It is due to this reason that, the citizens living near dumping grounds have a much lesser life span, developing respiratory problems like asthma due to constant exposure to polluted air.  

    Most of the migrants who come to Mumbai are Indians, with some influx in  recent years of Bangladeshi migrants, who have fled home and safety in search of gainful employment. The reality is far from ideal, however. Poor urban planning and lack of responsibility concerning the residential areas have wreaked havoc on the standard of living of the residents and disturbed the ecological processes that once used to keep problems of flooding away. Excessive urban development at the cost of environmental protection has led to a complex system of problems that can only be rectified when instrumental structural changes are put into place. Unless, protection policies are implemented properly, the city will continue to choke on the smog of forgotten dreams.