India’s one-billion-dollar slum

“I strongly believe that the west has much to learn from societies and places which, while sometimes poorer in material terms, are infinitely richer in how they live and organize themselves as communities”  Prince Charles.

Featured in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire movie, Dharavi is one of the world’s most infamous slums. The film depicts a cliché of Indian squalor: dirt, overcrowding, and dangerous living conditions. Located in the heart of Mumbai, the roughly 2.5-square-kilometer slum – barely two-thirds the size of Central Park in Manhattan – is a maze of narrow lanes, dilapidated buildings, open sewers, and makeshift houses accommodating roughly one million people. But Dharavi also has a churning business environment, the only one of its kind in the world.

Goodtrance | Wikimedia Commons

In many ways, Dharavi is a self-sufficient and self-sustaining village community, like a city within the city of Mumbai. The slum runs on the entrepreneurial energy of the slum dwellers to support themselves. The residents have established many successful companies, and thousands of people make a living through sweatshops and family businesses. Hidden in the labyrinthine streets of the slum are factories, wholesalers, retailers, showrooms, repair shops, tanneries, potteries, garment makers, furniture makers, and even accounting firms, hairdressers, and dance bars. Products manufactured in Dharavi are not only distributed all over India but are also exported worldwide. The annual economic output is estimated to be between 600 million to more than one billion dollars.

As the slum grew, recycling has become one of the largest businesses in Dharavi. Known as the 13th Compound district, Dharavi’s waste management industry concentrates on over 1200 units dedicated to sorting and recycling Mumbai’s waste – India’s second most populated city with over 19 million inhabitants. Most of the recycling units operate illegally, without government oversight or regulation. Several types of waste flow through the slum such as plastic, cardboard and paper, glass, leather, and electronic waste, including computer parts and car batteries. 

Dharavi plays a central role in Mumbai’s waste management systems. The mega-slum is estimated to recycle about 80 percent of the dry waste discarded by the city and 60 percent of the plastics. The two developed countries of Singapore – 5 million inhabitants – and Australia – 25 million inhabitants – have a plastic recycling rate of 4 and 9.4 percent, respectively. It may be just a slum, but some analysts have described Dharavi’s remarkable performance as an informal recycling hub as “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia.”

Lecercle | Flickr

While in the West, recycling practices are encouraged to protect the planet’s natural resources, in the developing world, recycling is often a necessity of life. Dharavi’s recycling industry employs thousands of people who segregate and process several tons of plastic every day. The labor force mainly comprises impoverished migrant workers from India’s northern states whose principal objective is to earn. Some laborers work from morning to night; the more they do, the more money they will acquire to send back home to support their family members. Unconsciously, the workers of Dharavi help the world to become a greener place while making a living. 

The materials are brought to Dharavi by informal workers, also called rag pickers, who collect recyclable materials to earn a small wage daily. In the 13th Compound district, each plastic item is sorted and dismantled according to its grade, color, and quality. Then, sorted plastic waste is sent to crushing machines to be converted into chips. The recycled plastic will be melted down and made into plastic tablets or pellets, then sold to external plastic manufacturers to create new plastic products. This unique approach to innovation is called Jugaad by Indians. This Hindi word means finding a flexible approach to solve a problem that innovatively uses limited resources and an impressive level of collective intelligence.

In a few decades, the mega-slum has developed one of the most impressive recycling industries in the world. Fareed Siddiqui, the general secretary of the Dharavi Businessmen’s Welfare Association, stated: “We are cleaning the dirt of the country.” Dharavi’s waste management industry far outperforms Mumbai’s formal waste management systems despite the complete absence of government support. 

As India is a developing country with a population of over 1.3 billion, there has been a steady increase in the use of plastics. According to a report conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), India generates over 25 000 tons of plastic every day, of which 50 percent is discarded by four metropolitan cities alone – Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. Most waste is dumped at landfill sites, causing many environmental and health issues. In Mumbai, the richer class’ waste is Dharavi’s treasure. India urgently needs to adopt a more sustainable development model, and Dharavi’s 13th Compound district could be a role model for the country.

Lucile Guéguen


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