India’s Dharavi Recycling Slumdog Entrepreneurs

india-dharavi-ragpickersFor the past three decades, there has been a transformation of the recycling psyches that has been experienced across the globe. New consumerism heaped atop rapid urbanisation and population growth has left municipalities with overarching concerns regarding waste management. For this reason, recycling has become a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry and is set to increase as our consumer culture continues to accelerate.

In the West, we recycle because of our understanding that in doing so, it is essential for conserving the planet’s resources. However, for some of the poorest people in the developing world, recycling often isn’t a choice, but a necessity of life.

Sprawling over 550 acres of land in the heart of India’s third largest city, Dharavi’s maze of dilapidated shacks and narrow, odorous alleyways is home to more than one million people. In this small area of Mumbai’s sprawling slum, hidden amid the warren of ramshackle huts and squalid open sewers are an estimated 15,000 single room factories, employing around a quarter of a million people and turning over a staggering £700 million ($US 1 billion) each year. Despite the poverty, Dharavi has been described by the UK’s Observer as “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia”. And all from one process: Recycling. It’s difficult to find something here that is not recyclable.

Could it be that these informal, shanty room enterprises are actually leading the city’s green movement?

Dharavi: A Recycling Miracle

Dharavi, a place filled with dirt, filth and sewerage and what may be see as an eyesore for most of the city’s residents is also a recycling marvel. Labelled as the recycling centre of India, Dharavi is one of Asia’s largest slums and is situated at the heart of India’s financial capital.

The country has witnessed a substantial growth in the consumption of plastics and an ever increased production of plastic waste which has become an overwhelming environmental, health and aesthetic hazard for many urban areas. Mumbai alone generates almost 7,025 tons of waste on a daily basis and for this reason Dharavi remains a land of recycling opportunity for many rural Indians.

In India, the people who make their living by recycling waste are known as “ragpickers” and Mumbai homes almost 300,000, many of whom are India’s poorest and most marginalized groups. The ragpickers primarily wade through piles of unwanted goods to salvage easily recyclable materials such as glass, metal and plastic, which are then sold to scrap dealers, who then process the waste and sell it on either to be recycled or to be used directly by the industry.

Most of these processes take place in what is known as ‘Dhavari’s 13th Compound’; a place where over 80% of Mumbai’s waste is given a new lease of life.

The seller and the buyer both make money thus making it a true revenue-generating idea. In fact, wages in Dhavari are well above the monthly average at 3,000 to 15,000 rupees per month. This fascinating world of generating revenue out of trash has earned the industry the label ‘Dharavi’s Recycling Miracle’.

Extraordinarily, India has no municipal waste management policy or program of recycling which makes the work of the ragpickers indispensable to the city.

Due to the lack of formal systems of waste collection, it falls to the city’s ragpickers to provide this basic service for fellow citizens. Without them, solid waste and domestic garbage would not be collected or recycled, let alone sorted.

Dharavi’s Influence and Paperman

Inspired by the ragpickers of Mumbai, Paperman, a non-governmental organisation situated in India’s eastern city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) helps to promote and create awareness about recycling and organises campaigns to combat many of the social problems India’s urban areas are rife with.

Founded by Keralan-born and environment conscious Matthew Jose in 2010, Paperman is a social venture aimed at creating a paper recycling revolution, inspired by the ragpickers of Mumbai. The program has reached over 100 schools and 2 million students in Chennai, educating them about recycling but also laying emphasis on the role Paperman plays in India’s bigger recycling picture.

Paperman now has the support of various corporate and governmental organisations and it appears it has already generated a ripple effect, having spread its campaign to 66 cities across India. It is these grassroots movements that, we hope, will make India a role model for the world in dealing with environmental issues.

A lesson to be learnt

Recycling is still very much the focus of many developed countries, who continuously strive to improve their recycling endeavours. Despite many of the social and ethical controversies surrounding the recycling industry in India, Dharavi has carved a reputation for itself as the ecological heart of Mumbai, recycling up to 85% of all its waste material produced by the city.

This compares strikingly to the UK recycling figures. Over the last decade, less than 20% of the waste produced has been recycled. The UK produces 30.5 million tonnes of waste each year. This is equivalent to a staggering 23.9 million tonnes of waste in landfills each and every year.

If the UK could match the recycling rates of Mumbai, it would leave only a quarter of existing waste entering landfills per year (around 6 million tonnes), but also costs in sourcing materials would be dramatically cheaper. This reduction in sourcing costs could potentially create higher profit margins, followed by generous reinvestment opportunities into crucial areas responsible for re-booting the economy.

With an accelerating consumer culture and population numbers on the rise, waste management will continue to be a pressing issue of today’s environmental climate. Resources are limited but wants are unlimited.

In India, the fact remains that recycling has helped reduce the ever-increasing volumes of trash, fill less landfills, produce bio gas and provide cleaner societies, as well as conserving resources and reducing costs.

The scavenger mentality, grassroots recycling and sheer necessity of Dharavi’s ragpickers have led to imaginative leaps in deploying waste and a growing number of environmental campaigners recognize Dharavi as becoming the green lung stopping Mumbai choking to death on its own waste.

by Victoria Moore

About the author

victoria-mooreVictoria Moore holds a first class honours in Geography and an M.Sc. in Environmental Governance from Manchester University. She has worked as a geography tutor and recently returned from a six month journey through Asia. Victoria is passionate about the environmental movement and aspires to have a positive impact on the planet through her work and play!

What one slum can learn from another

Urbanists from India want to import ‘Brazilian way’ to the slums of Mumbai

FROM BBC BRAZIL (via FOLHA)

A group of Indian architects wants to import lessons learned in Brazilian favelas to Mumbai in order to improve living conditions in poor regions of the Indian city.

Architects and planners from the Institute of Urbanology – a foundation based in Mumbai dedicated to research and dissemination of ideas on urbanism – believe that several of the Indian government’s initiatives to rebuild housing ended up producing only corruption, decrepit buildings, and miserable neighborhoods.

In some cases, the living conditions of residents in the new blocks even worsened when they swapped their shacks in the slums for these new apartments.

The Indian architects visited the Paraisópolis favela in São Paulo this year and grew excited by what they saw. Instead of destroying existing homes and building new housing, the majority of slum dwellers applied a jeitinho (a uniquely Brazilian expression, meaning ingenuity born of need; or taking advantage of flexible rules) to their own homes.

According to professionals at the Institute of Urbanology, it is much more effective to improve housing conditions than simply to destroy entire slums.

‘TOOL-HOUSES’

Matias Echanove, a member of the academic urbanism collective Urbz, involved in the Paraisópolis trip, identifies four problems in the construction of new housing to replace slums.

First, to keep the apartments affordable, builders need to greatly reduce work costs, a factor which compromises the quality of material used.

Another problem is that the housing ends up with what Echanove calls “tool-houses” – homes that double as business establishments.

“When people lose their homes in the communities, they also lose their businesses. For the local economy, this may be a bad thing,” said Echanove to BBC Brazil.

The third factor is social interaction, which is compromised as people interact in residential buildings less than in communities like favelas.

“(In public housing) it is possible to feel even more insecure than in the favelas. The informal communities in Mumbai have something planners call ‘eyes on the street’. That is, there is always someone roaming the streets,” says the urbanist.

“One thing that caught our attention in Paraisópolis is that in parts of the favela we had a greater sense of security than in other parts of São Paulo, like downtown, where there were a number of drug dealers and drug users. In the favelas, there are more families and workers circulating, which makes the environment more enjoyable. ”

Finally, the urbanist believes that formal building construction leads to corruption.

“The construction industry is always one of the most corrupt in the economy. In general, it is always the same players who win public contracts.”

ADVANTAGE

Another advantage observed by planners on their visit to Paraisópolis is what professionals call “incremental development” – residents using their incomes to improve their own houses, building more floors on a house and puxadinhos (irregular additions).

“We have seen pretty curious cases in Paraisópolis, such as a resident who (incrementally) improved his home over an 18-year period. This forms a much richer cycle of urban and economic development.”

He recognizes that there are serious problems in the favelas, especially when the government does not provide good roads, sanitation and electricity. Another flaw is that the favelas without any urban planning – especially those built in areas at risk – are more vulnerable to environmental events like flooding. To Echanove, however, this can be resolved with works from authorities and not with the removal of favelas.

Lessons can be harnessed in places like Dharavi, one of the five largest slums in the world, whose total population is estimated at between 600,000 and 1 million people.

DHARAVI-PARAISÓPOLIS SCHOOL

The Institute of Urbanology plans a series of workshops and discussions in June 2013 on the experiences of architecture in India and Brazil. With the support of the City of São Paulo and the cement multinational Lafarge, professionals will spend two weeks in Dharavi and two weeks in Paraisópolis for an event named Dharavi-Paraisópolis School of Urbanology.

“Construction workers and slum dwellers will teach planners, architects and politicians some of their techniques. We want to reverse the traditional hierarchy of public authority and show that we have things to learn as professionals,” said the director of Urbz.

This year, the Indian organization took students from the prestigious college Sir JJ College of Architecture, from Mumbai, to Brazil, where they spent time observing the techniques developed by masons in Brazilian favelas. This week an exhibition was launched with photos taken in the São Paulo favela.

What makes a slum exactly?

Urban slums are settlements, neighborhoods, or city regions that cannot provide the basic living conditions necessary for its inhabitants, or slum dwellers, to live in a safe and healthy environment. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) defines a slum settlement as a household that cannot provide one of the following basic living characteristics:

  • Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.
  • Sufficient living space, which means not more than three people sharing the same room.
  • Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.
  • Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people.
  • Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.

The inaccessibility to one, or more, of the above basic living conditions results in a “slum lifestyle” modeled by several characteristics. Poor housing units are vulnerable to natural disaster and destruction because affordable building materials cannot withstand earthquakes, landslides, excessive wind, or heavy rainstorms. Slum dwellers are at greater risk to disaster because of their vulnerability to Mother Nature. Slums compounded the severity of the Haiti Earthquake of 2010.

Dense and overcrowded living quarters creates a breeding ground for transmittable diseases, which can lead to the rise of an epidemic. Slum dwellers that do not have access to clean and affordable drinking water are at risk of waterborne diseases and malnutrition, especially amongst children. The same is to be said for slums with no access to adequate sanitation, such as plumbing and garbage disposal.

Poor slum dwellers commonly suffer from unemployment, illiteracy, drug-addiction, and low mortality rates of both adults and children as a result of not supporting one, or all, of UN-HABITAT’s basic living conditions.

Rio de Janeiro's Rocinha favelaA view of the Rocinha favela, the largest favela in Brazil, with an estimated 60,000 to 150,000 people December 5, 2009 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is estimated that there are over 1,000 favelas in Rio where violent crime is rampant.

Getty Images

Formation of Slum Living

Many speculate that a majority of slum formation is due to rapid urbanization within a developing country. This theory has significance because a population boom, associated with urbanization, creates a greater demand for housing than the urbanized area can offer or supply. This population boom often consists of rural inhabitants who migrate to urban areas where jobs are plentiful and where wages are stabilized. However, the issue is exacerbated by lack of federal and city-government guidance, control, and organization.

Dharavi Slum – Mumbai, India

Dharavi is a slum ward located in the suburbs of India’s most populated city of Mumbai. Unlike many urban slums, residents are typically employed and work for extremely small wages in the recycling industry that Dharavi is known for. However, despite a surprising rate of employment, tenement conditions are among the worst of slum living. Residents have limited access to working toilets and therefore they resort to relieving themselves in the nearby river. Unfortunately, the nearby river also serves as a source of drinking water, which is a scarce commodity in Dharavi. Thousands of Dharavi residents fall ill with new cases of cholera, dysentery, and tuberculosis each day due to the consumption of local water sources. In addition, Dharavi is also one of the more disaster prone slums in the world because of their location to impacts of monsoon rains, tropical cyclones, and subsequent flooding.

Kibera Slum – Nairobi, Kenya

Nearly 200,000 residents live in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi which it makes it one of the largest slums in Africa. The conventional slum settlements in Kibera are fragile and exposed to nature’s fury because they are largely constructed with mud walls, dirt or concrete floors, and recycled tin rooftops. It is estimated that 20% of these homes have electricity, however municipal work is underway to provide electricity to more homes and to city streets. These “slum upgrades” have become a model for redevelopment efforts in slums throughout the world. Unfortunately, the redevelopment efforts of Kibera’s housing stock have been slowed due to the density of the settlements and to the land’s steep topography.

Water shortages remain to be Kibera’s most crucial issue today. The shortage has turned water into a profitable commodity for the wealthy Nairobians that have forced the slum dwellers to pay large sums of their daily income for drinkable water. Although the World Bank and other charitable organizations have established water pipelines to relieve the shortage, competitors in the market are purposefully destroying them to regain their position on the slum dwelling consumers. The Kenyan government does not regulate such actions in Kibera because they do not recognize the slum as a formal settlement.

Rocinha Favela – Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

A “favela” is a Brazilian term used for slum or shantytown. The Rochinha favela, in Rio De Janeiro, is the largest favela in Brazil and one of the more developed slums in the world. Rocinha is home to about 70,000 residents whose homes are built on a steep mountain slopes prone to landslides and flooding. Most houses have proper sanitation, some have access to electricity, and newer homes are often constructed entirely from concrete. Nevertheless, older homes are more common and constructed from fragile, recycled metals that are not secured to a permanent foundation. Despite these characteristics, Rocinha is most notorious for its crime and drug trafficking.