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Environment / Climate change

Mumbai’s slumdog recycling works surprisingly well – unless you’re one of its workers

Dharavi is a 550-acre slum, a maze of corrugated iron and open sewers at the heart of India’s financial capital, Mumbai.

It is one of the most densely populated places on earth with population of roughly one million people.

A casual observer would see nothing but poverty, misery and squalor but look closer and you’ll find that the slum is the unlikely home of a recycling industry with efficiency levels reportedly higher than the UK’s.

For those struggling to survive, there is value in almost anything and nothing goes to waste. Prince Charles once even said that the slum, made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire, was a model for the world in terms of sustainability.

Over the decades, Bollywood has sold an image of Mumbai as the ‘City of Dreams’, and people from all corners of the subcontinent have travelled to the city in search of a better life. The large majority of them end up in slums, like Dharavi.

This huge rural to urban migration has catapulted Mumbai, once a small British trading port, into the global league of megacity, with an eyewatering population of 21m (Greater Manchester’s population is 2.8m).

Mumbai’s vast population of 21m creates problems. Image: Skye Vidur.

The problems that come with such a population are immense. Simply delivering electricity, sanitary provisions and clean water to the population is a mammoth task. But there’s one problem that stands out everywhere in India – rubbish.

In India, the handling of waste is considered a huge social taboo.

Historically, the lowest ranks of the Hindu caste system have been left to deal with waste disposal and many will still consider a person low and dirty if they handle more than the bare minimum of waste. Consequently, waste is dumped everywhere — in the streets, in the sea or behind homes.

Mumbai is no stranger to the problem. Every day the city will produce a veritable mountain of over 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste.   

This will be collected in large part by an army of 120,000 rag-pickers – unofficial waste collectors – who will take anything reusable they find to Dharavi and its famed 13th compound.

Plastic piles up for recycling in Dharavi. Image: Cory Doctorow

They will sell their waste by the kilo to the hundreds of small recycling plants, and a kilogram of plastic bottles might be worth 15p. 

The waste will then be processed by thousands of workers employed by the scrap masters. Dozens of plastic variations will be skilfully sorted into piles. These piles will be melted down in huge vats before being broken up into tiny reusable pellets. Metals and E-Waste will be broken down and sold for scrap or reusable parts.

In this way, it’s estimated that 80 per cent of the Mumbai’s solid waste is recycled into usable materials. The UK’s recycling rate was almost half that, with just under 45 per cent of household waste recycled in 2015.

Politicians are well aware that the slum’s work is essential. Situated in the centre of Mumbai, Dharavi sprawls across some of the most desirable real-estate in Asia.

Dharavi’s bustling messiness. Image: Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion

However, the government knows that if they start to redevelop the land and damage the industry, the city will soon be drowning in its own waste.


The whole of Mumbai would simply be “one dump yard” if it weren’t for the ragpickers and the recycling units in the slums, says Vinod Shetty from the Acord Foundation, an NGO working in Dharavi.

Dharavi has a huge internal economy, which is estimated to be worth around £700m. Along with leatherworking, recycling forms a fundamental part of the economy. A fifth of the slum’s population are estimated to be employed in waste disposal.  

However, while the work is effective, it’s incredibly hazardous, with few units adhering to any form of regulation. Workers will sift through piles of festering rubbish with no safety equipment in extreme heat, with many children, age as young as five, working alongside the adults for as little as £1 a day.

Residents along Dharavi’s narrow streets and alleyways. Image: Kounosu

Small cuts and wounds quickly become infected as workers sift through medical waste and other biohazardous substances.

Rag-pickers and recyclers hail mainly from the lower rungs of India’s caste system and struggle to gain formal recognition from the authorities.

“Most of the waste pickers in Mumbai are either women or children and they live and work under the most distressing conditions,” says Vimlendu Jha, director of environmental NGO Swechha.

“[They’ll be] harassed by the police for not having a proof of identity. Their contribution is never acknowledged.

“There is no clear policy to protect their rights or provide better conditions. The government doesn’t even acknowledge they exist.”

All this will need to change – or it won’t just be the rubbish that’s revolting.

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