Ahmedabad: Citizen Nagar, a colony on the southwestern outskirts of Ahmedabad city, was established by the Kerala State Muslim League Relief Committee for families displaced from Naroda Patiya, a Muslim neighborhood where 97 Muslims were killed during the Gujarat riots in 2002.
Situated next to one of the city's dumping sites on the Pirana-Piplaj road, called the “Mount Pirana of Ahmedabad”, Citizen Nagar is now inhabited by over 100 Muslim families bearing witness to the sliding heaps of garbage, rivulets of toxic chemicals, and smoke billowing from burning garbage and chimneys of surrounding factories.
They are also under the constant threat of being evicted from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, a local civic body that claims any house within a 500-metre radius of the garbage site is illegal.
Relegated by the state of Gujarat to live next to a “mountain of garbage”, the Muslim residents of Citizen Nagar said they had been consumed by filth, disease and neglect for decades.
Twenty years after they fled to escape communal violence, they had no quality of life or hope for the future. Things had been so bad for so long that their children had internalized their unsanitary living conditions, even joking about it with strangers.
A recent estimate revealed that the Pirana mound had 1.25 crore metric tonnes of garbage as against an estimated 80 lakh metric tons in 2012, The Times of India reported in June 2021.
In January 2020, while announcing the draft budget of the Amdavad Municipal Corporation (AMC), former municipal commissioner Vijay Nehra gave a deadline of 15 August 2022 for clearing the Pirana dumpsite. A year earlier, AMC’s budget proposal dedicated an estimated Rs 30 crore for the project. The deadline has expired. At the current rate of garbage disposal, the Ahmedabad Mirror reported that it would take the AMC 10 years to clear.
A questionnaire was emailed to the AMC authorities. We will update this story if and when they respond.
The use of bulldozers to demolish houses deemed illegal by local municipal bodies in other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-run states, including in Gujarat, has added to their concerns in light of the hostility expressed by BJP leaders against Muslims in the state.
Home Minister Amit Shah, while campaigning for state elections in November, said BJP had established “permanent peace” in the state after the lesson they taught to the rioters in 2002. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time.
While Shah did not name any community, in the communal riots that erupted after 50 Hindu karsevaks were killed when the train carrying them was set on fire, 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed.
Residents of Citizen Nagar, who survived the riots, said they live in one of the smallest and “most unlivable” Muslim ghettos of Ahmedabad.
A group of neatly dressed children were playing cricket in Citizen Nagar, when they saw our camera approaching them. One boy in a yellow shirt stood in the middle of the road with his hands crossed and a broad smile as he waited to be clicked. “Please turn on the camera bhaiya,” he politely insisted. Another boy, in a red cotton-shirt, giggled and said, “This is our Mount Abu,” pointing to a towering heap of garbage at the end of a narrow bylane.
A third boy, who had returned from the Friday namaz, came into the frame and said, “This is our Mount Abu. We all visit it. Those who wish to go, should come as soon as possible.” As more children joined, they began to mimic TV reporters. Three mics—a block of wood and handles of two worn-out cricket bats—were placed in front of the camera and their comical coverage started.
“A king lives at the top,” said the boy in the red shirt, as the others requested us to zoom-in the camera towards a stray dog roaming on the top of the “mountain”. “If you want to meet the king, come tomorrow,” they said.
The mountain in question is not Mount Abu—a popular holiday destination in Rajasthan—but the towering garbage heap, nicknamed 'Mount Pirana', the most unstable and unsafe landfill site in the city, which has existed since 1982. Three 55 meter mounds of garbage are spread over 80 acres. Citizen Nagar, surrounded on three sides by the landfill, is one of the smallest Muslim ghettos in Ahmedabad but also the most unlivable, its residents said.
Over the years, the issue of clearing the landfill has been raised by politicians, social activists and the media but little has changed.
Citizen Nagar was established by the Kerala State Muslim League Relief Committee for the victims and survivors of the Naroda Patiya massacre in which 97 Muslims were killed. Other Muslim families kept migrating to the area in the coming years, inching closer and closer to the garbage dump.
In addition to the Pirana landfill, the colony is surrounded by over 5,000 factories of the Arol industrial hub, ranging from garments and recycling to pharmaceuticals and chemical processing.
On entering the colony, we had to put on our masks to blunt the unbearable stench and gray fumes coming from the landfill where garbage was being burnt.
Reshma Mayuddin Shaikh, who has been living in Citizen Nagar for the past two decades, looked curiously at our camera from inside her small house.
Shaikh was reluctant to talk but as the conversation shifted to her life before her family moved to Citizen Nagar, she vividly recalled how her life changed in 2002.
“It was also juma (Friday) and I couldn't meet my husband the whole day. He thought I had been killed and I thought he had been killed," she said. "Then we were picked up by police and sent to Salam, the riot victim camp. We came to Citizen Nagar from Naroda Patiya with nothing. We lost everything there. We didn't even have chappals to wear. Our children used to cry a lot even for water but we couldn't find water in this area back then.”
The situation seems worse to the residents after Covid.
“It wasn’t like this two years ago. Earlier, there was a road connecting to Gulab Nagar but now, the road has been completely blocked by the garbage,” said Sharif Khan Pathan, who lives in a lane named Simran next to the trash mountain. “The residents of this area took out a rally against this landfill site but the situation got worse with time. Candidates of all parties visit here with false promises of solving the landfill problem.”
“They even dump medical waste and industrial waste here. We protested during the pandemic against dumping of Covid waste but no one heard us,” said Mohammad Irfan, a resident and auto driver who lives near the landfill.
Every year, there are accidents due to “garbage landslides” as large debris of trash slides over into their houses, residents said. Many houses in the lane nearest to the landfill site have been abandoned.
When we asked residents why these houses were locked, Md Imran, an auto driver said, "They left due to the garbage problem, waterlogging and diseases borne out of the landfill site. But not everyone can afford to shift somewhere. We are only living here due to constraints.”
Showing the damaged staircase and walls of a recently abandoned madrassa next to the landfill, buried three feet in trash, Imran said, “This door is 6.5 ft tall. How much is left out of those 6.5 ft now?”
Residents recalled that in 2004, the height of the landfill was much less than what it is now. Roads and localities on the other side of the landfill were visible back then.
“It has become a garbage mountain now. Earlier we used to cross the landfill to take an auto to the hospital, market and other places in the city," said Reshma Shaikh, a resident of Citizen Nagar. "Now it's impossible to cross this.”
“Authorities have promised to solve the problem but nothing has happened yet," said Pathan. "You can still see garbage trucks coming from the city and rag pickers working. The dumping never stops.”
Residents said they are forced to live here because of the socio-economic situation of Muslims in Gujarat. An elderly woman told us to leave the place saying nothing would change the situation in Citizen Nagar.
Noorja Bano, a resident, explained their frustration at the media. “We were ruined in Naroda Patiya in 2002 and then we were displaced here to live in this garbage,” she said.
“Eight family members of my aunt were killed in 2002. They are still rotting there without getting any justice," said Noorja Bano. "You can see how bad the roads are in Citizen Nagar. If someone gets sick, no cab or ambulance wants to come here. There was a marriage during the rains this year but it got ruined after food items got destroyed due to the water logging."
Residents complained about the “chemical drain” that flows inside their houses during the monsoons.
“As you can see this drainage which has been constructed here is for the toxic water," said Irfan, the auto driver. "But after rains, water from the dumpsite flows down to our streets. All this black water is contaminated.”
Pointing to our masks, Irfan said we couldn’t walk here for an hour without a mask but this is where they have to live and breathe all the time.
Sheena Bano, who was living a comfortable life before the 2002 riots, gave a tour of her two small rooms and a kitchen, explaining how her house becomes unlivable during the rains. Pointing to the water logging marks on the damaged walls of her house, Sheena Bano explained how the toxic water has dissolved the paint and plaster to a height of four feet.
“I keep praying to God for no rains,” she said.
Recalling when her daughter fell in the water while fighting with her sibling, a decade ago, she said, “The water was so toxic that we had to take her to a hospital. The doctor cured her by taking water from her stomach using tubes.”
On 3 October 2020, the body of 12-year old girl Neha Vasava, who got buried in a “garbage landslide”, was found after a week of rescue operations. Anil Marwari, who went with Vasava to the landfill to salvage scrap they could sell, also fell in but was rescued by locals soon after the incident. In August 2019, a five-year-old Mohammad Sahil, a resident of Citizen Nagar, slipped in a chemical pit while playing, and died from the injury to his lungs.
The year-long burning of waste and the smoke clouds from the chimneys of the nearby factories has engulfed the entire neighborhood and is a cause for the falling air quality index of the city.
“Due to this pollution from the Pirana landfill my husband's one lung is damaged, our doctor told us so," said Reshma Syed, a resident of Citizen Nagar. "He is currently surviving on a machine.”
Residents said there is no proper medical facility in the locality.
“They keep saying that you'll get a school, hospital and other facilities but I have been living here for 20 years and where are those facilities?” said Imran, the auto driver.
In December 2016, a public interest litigation was filed by social activist Kaleem Siddiqui in the Gujarat High Court saying it “violates the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, causing severe pollution in the nearby areas. The garbage dump is causing serious health issues for people staying in the areas and may even have led to deaths.”
In January 2020, the former municipal commissioner Vijay Mehra, said the rubbish dump would be cleared by August 2022. Siddiqui, who filed the petition in the High Court, said the new deadline is August, 2023.
Earlier this year, Vinod Moradiya, the minister of state for urban development and urban housing said in the state assembly that 42.4% of the Pirana rubbish mound has been cleared by the AMC. Of the 1.25 crore metric tonne of garbage at Pirana, about 53 lakh metric tonnes has been processed.
“So far, 14 acres of land has been cleared of garbage,” said Moradiya. Officials of the AMC, The Times of India reported in June 2021, claimed to have cleared about 19 acres of the same land.
Residents of Citizen Nagar alleged that the clearing of the site has started from the other side of the landfill. “The authority has started to clear the landfill but from the opposite side of our locality which is not even a residential area,” said Reshma Syed. “If they have put 15-16 machines there, they can also start working with two to four machines from here," said Imran. "But there is nobody to speak with or listen to us. Why will they care whether somebody dies or not?”
As their mock reporting came to a halt, the children shouted, “Pahad hatao. Pahad hatao” (Remove the mountain. Remove the mountain).
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(Aquilur Rahman is a freelance journalist based out of New Delhi. Vipul Kumar is a freelance journalist and student at Faculty of Law, University of Delhi).