After four in the evening, you wonder how it is that the dogs sleep so serenely in Kumbharwada, Dharavi. Smoke, slowly swirling and darkly stinging, engulfs the place as the potter community set fire to their kilns. People move into the interior of their houses, shops pull down tarpaulin curtains and ends of sarees become futile gas masks. It looks dismal but it is the smell of livelihood in the air.
Ashwin Solanki, a potter, makes little terracotta pots for a dairy farm in Marine Lines. He makes 300 of these everyday and fires them in the evening. A typical firing involves a stacking of the following: a metal sheet in the base, a crowd of the pots, cotton, mill waste and leather waste. The fuel used is highly toxic as the mill waste is soaked in oil and chemicals. After a firing, Ashwin says he is so nauseated by the fumes that he can hardly have dinner and simply sleeps it off.
Daksha, his relative, has been dealing with an affected throat for the past three months. Her larynx burns and she has developed a husky voice. She has visited a doctor once but medicines have not helped due to the constant exposure to the fumes in the environment. And this is not the first time this has happened to her. She now sounds a lot like Rani Mukherjee, but misses her own voice.
Longevity is affected among the kumbhars, what with many of them developing tuberculosis, cancer and asthma. Spells of cough and cold are a common affair here. There is local talk of a pregnant woman who complained to the police about the fumes affecting her, but the police allegedly supported the potters. While firing, the men are not provided with any masks. Malaria, on the other hand, is not a threat here as the smoke clears the air of the diminutive mosquito. During the monsoon, however, it is a different story.
The current method of firing followed by the kumbhars is one they have followed for generations. They are aware of the non-hazardous gas kilns but are slow to switch over. The earthen kilns or bhattis are lethal but they are also the most efficient method of firing. Products are fired in bulk whereas in a gas kiln fewer pieces can be loaded. 10 kgs of industrial waste cost Rs. 60 whereas a commercial gas cylinder costs Rs. 1300. Domestic gas cylinders, which cost Rs. 400 apiece, are not permitted for commercial use. The ratios are self-revelatory for the potters’ fidelity to traditional kilns. No smoke gets into their eyes.
While cleaner fuel could be a solution, Ashwin knows that a government subsidy on commercial gas cylinders is the key. This could relieve the toxicity levels of the place by encouraging the potters to adopt gas kilns. This means that primarily gas kilns will have to be introduced into their process but they are financially thwarted to do so.
When Ashwin looks at his two year old niece, he worries about the future. He says that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to leave this line of business. The little girl plays around in the street and rubs her eyes red as evening sets. Till the dawn of better provisions and subsidies, a potter dreams on.