It could’ve been just another day at work for Mukesh, with his eagle-sharp eyes scavenging for something worth a day’s square meal near the mountain where all the rich men discarded the things they no longer needed. The mountain was growing higher every day as the rich people’s graves dug deeper on their road to development.
Mukesh had seen this mountain as a kid – it wasn’t so much of a mountain back then. Just about the size of a hill maybe. He used to come here with his father when it was his duty to win the bread for his household. Over the past three decades, he has seen the hill grow into a mountain alongside him, as he grew into a man himself. Calling him a man though would be a bit of a mistake – his kind were never considered worthy of that title by the society. They were lesser, always destined to be lesser. The impurest creation of ‘heavenly creatures’ that were given the opportunity to be put on this earth just to clean up after the rich were done defecating.
Something was different that day – he could sense it with every step he took. This was his playground, his hideout, and now his workplace (talk about being passionate about your job); he knew this mountain like the back of his hand. He saw something glittery – it was probably a discarded phone, and he knew what a fortune that could be! Those things could get him enough money to buy a week’s food for his family. But it was further up the steep slope, and he had never trekked up those altitudes before. In his community, they say a ghost eats up those who try to reach the top of the mountain – and anyone who tried to be ambitious and trek up, never returned. Mukesh wasn’t one with a faint heart – in fact, his mother always told everyone that he was the prophetical saviour for their community, and that one day, he would save all of them from misery.
So Mukesh started trekking up and got pretty close to his trophy, and then, just when it seemed like he could grab it, the earth below him broke and the mountain came tumbling down on him. This happened in a fraction of a second – and nobody saw him getting crushed under the weight of 2,5000 metric tonnes of waste. But there was another burden that caused his death by crushing him underneath – and sadly, nobody saw it happen probably because it transpired over centuries of exploitation.
When the mountain further tumbled down on one of the vehicles of the wealthy, the authorities heard about it and put the disaster on priority. Then, by accident, they found Mukesh’s body while finding the rich person’s. They started investigating who exactly they needed to blame. Who had the time to investigate the real causes anyway?
Apparently, the mountain was deemed unsafe 15 years ago, but nobody bothered to warn Mukesh and his kind. Instead, they gave them more garbage to scavenge through – so much so that the mountain overshot its optimum height by four times! At 60 metres, it is only a little smaller than the Qutub Minar. This is a 21st-century monument indeed. This is what the civilisation will be remembered for – the garbage that we produced that consumed us in the end.
The world has already forgotten Mukesh. It never knew him in the first place. He and a lot of his friends from the community were collectively given one identity: “kachre wala” or the garbage people. The rich weren’t rich enough to give them more identities. Mukesh, the prophetic messiah that he was promised to be, had heard of a different world where workplaces didn’t stink of dead meat. He’d also come to know that in order to get to those workplaces, one must first go to another place called a school. So he sent his children to those places – and very recently, his daughter Munni told him that there is a certain place called ‘Swedesh’ or Sweden (she wasn’t sure about the name) – but they ran out of garbage, and so they import it now from other countries. She asked her father if he could send them some of the garbage from their mountain so that they could earn some money and he wouldn’t have to toil through the day.
What she probably didn’t know was that, in a country like Sweden, his father wouldn’t have a job because they seemingly don’t have the concepts of a ‘higher case’ or a ‘lower caste’. In Sweden, her father too could have demanded for his right to a humane workplace.
The Ghazipur landfill site that collapsed under heavy rainfall on September 1, 2017, is one of the three landfills where the National Capital Region’s garbage is dumped. These landfills, already functioning beyond their capacity, are a ticking time bomb under which the city’s development rests. They exist, not because there isn’t a better way to deal with our shit (literally), but because there is a structure that was made aeons ago that put the responsibility of cleanliness on the very people that they disregarded and termed impure. They found a way to put the blame on someone – a way to ensure that the responsibility did not fall on their backyard. It’s hard to believe that while we found a way to send 164 satellites up in space in a single launch, we still haven’t found a way to relieve the “kachre wala” of their job and make the process of waste disposal a sustainable one.
The Ghazipur mishap wasn’t a stand-alone incident – last year in January, Mumbai’s Deonar landfill caught fire owing to the poisonous gases emitted by the garbage rotting there for decades. And we clearly didn’t learn anything. We probably won’t, because one day, the mountain ghost won’t just eat up those who climb up too high. It will reach out to the silent spectators at the base and engulf them all in the mess they made.