Invisible heroes of Dharavi

In the chaos of Mumbai’s best-known slum, thousands of recyclers process the megacity’s garbage and provide an invaluable environmental service. But the health and social costs are high, writes Anna da Costa.

“It’s funny how we popularise our movie stars,” said Vinod Shetty, director of the Acorn Foundation, when we met in his crowded office in Mumbai. “There are so many other people we should popularise for the work that they do, but instead, they are invisible and expendable.” This experienced advocate was referring to the work of the thousands of recyclers who reside in the city’s largest slum, Dharavi, and whose rights he spends much of his time promoting.

Although the BAFTA award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire did a lot to highlight the plight of Mumbai’s slum-dwellers, Shetty believes it overlooked a story of true heroism in this infamous quarter; one that forms part of the day-to-day reality for its residents, and for millions of others across India.

Dharavi, which has more than 1.2 million inhabitants, stretches across a 175-hectare area of prime real estate in central Mumbai. Thousands of corrugated iron huts are crammed side by side amid open sewers and muddy walkways. Electricity is sporadic and safe drinking water – in fact any water – is scarce. Yet despite these hugely challenging conditions, Dharavi houses one of the largest recycling industries in India. An estimated 20% of its inhabitants work on different aspects of waste processing, and the slum itself has an annual turnover of more than US$650 million (4.4 billion yuan).

Descend the rickety steps at Sana Birla Compound Pipeline, where a giant steely pipe taking water into Mumbai passes through the slum like an artery, and you soon see the evidence. Along narrow paths, within murky huts and beneath grimy warehouse roofs, piles of the city’s waste rise high. Used electronics and tangled wires sprawl like spewing intestines amid ageing fridges, stacks of flattened cardboard and piles of sorted plastic.

But watch for a moment and you notice order in the chaos. Men, women and children work from morning to night, sorting, assembling, breaking up and reassembling these elements of municipal waste in an endless, informal supply chain. According to the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority, Mumbai residents generate 11,209 tonnes of waste a day, and the vast majority comes to Dharavi, where it is sorted and processed. On average, each waste-picker sorts through 8.5 tonnes of rubbish each day.

The recycling process in India is like a complex ecosystem, powered largely by informal labour. There are “waste-pickers”, who hand-sort and sell waste from homes, landfills and street containers; there are “waste-buyers”, who act as middlemen, purchasing recyclable goods from waste-pickers; and there are “retailers”, “stockists”, “recyclers” and many more in between. Millions of people across the country – an estimated 1% of urban populations alone – earn a livelihood by reclaiming reusable and recyclable materials from waste. “Not only does recycling provide nearly 25 times more jobs than landfill or incineration, it also offers far greater economic, social and environmental benefits,” said Laxmi Narayan, general secretary of waste-picker trade union Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP).

Through recycling and wet-waste composting, municipalities save money thanks to lower volumes of waste going to landfill. In Pune, India’s eighth-largest city, informal recycling is estimated to reduce garbage-handling costs by at least 25%, saving around 120 million rupees (around US$2.5 million) a year. In addition, roads and public spaces are kept clean and secondary products, such as roofing material, paper and plastics are created from the recycled materials. Recycling and composting also reduces the pressure on ecosystems and leads to a significant reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. A recent study found that, in Delhi alone, the services of the informal-recycling sector are equivalent to removing around 175,000 passenger-vehicles from the roads each year.

Recycling is not only a green job, but also a highly skilled one. In Dharavi, I met Peer Mohammad, one of the local recyclers. He was sitting amid white sacks of plastic waste, sorting piles of rubbish, piece by piece. Mohammad explained to me how each type of plastic carries a different value, from as little as 5 rupees (US$0.11) per kilogram to as much as 60 rupees (US$1.29) per kilogram. By hitting each item on a rock and testing its flexibility, his expert hands can differentiate between more than 50 types of plastic. Sitting on an upturned computer monitor case, I watched him work efficiently through the endless piles stretched behind him, flies buzzing around us in the exhausting afternoon heat.

“These sorters are experts,” said Shaikh Mobin, a recycler from Mumbai who purchases plastic materials from workers like Mohammad and converts them into granules to make products ranging from plastic sheets to suitcase handles and irrigation pipes. “Learning to differentiate between these waste streams takes at least two years of intensive training. No institute in the world can train you in these skills. It’s not a joke. A lab would have to test these plastics to tell the difference between them if these guys were not doing the job.”

Making green jobs decent jobs

As “green jobs” gain increasing attention, not just from environmentalists, but also trade unions, government and business, an emphasis on ensuring they are also “decent jobs” is advancing too. Nowhere is the need to align these two objectives more obvious than in India’s waste-picking communities.“We must remember that India’s high rates of recycling accrue in large part due to abject poverty,” said Narayan. “[This] forces people to eke an existence out of collecting, segregating and selling waste…not necessarily our environmental concerns.”

In most Indian cities, recyclers receive no formal recognition from the municipal authorities. “They are largely anonymous, have no social security and no identity,” explained Narayan. Their work also exposes them to diseases as well as hazardous waste, which they generally do not handle safely, creating dangers for both themselves and those in the vicinity.

Waste-pickers earn an estimated average of around US$1 (6.8 yuan) per day and are often forced to do their work by night and out of sight. “Instead of being recognised, they are marginalised. They are nobodies. It’s our mess they are clearing, they live in filth and they do what they do at our service,” said Shetty. “If they stopped doing what they do, the city would be swimming in filth.”

According to one study, unsafe exposure to garbage can reduce the life expectancy of waste-pickers in developing countries by more than 40%. Shetty wants to see the government support training of waste-pickers on how to handle hazardous waste and recycle safely: “Workers need basic tools and protective clothing, such as gloves. There is a great need for space or zones to be created for this sector to do their sorting in safety and dignity.”

Parashar Baruah, producer of the award-winning film Waste believes the foundation for improving these working conditions is respect: “Waste-pickers and recyclers need to be given the acknowledgement that they are doing a crucial job for society…not only in the way we recognise and compensate them, but in the way we treat them and segregate our waste, starting with separating our wet and dry waste as we dispose of it.”

The Acorn Foundation and KKPKP are leading the fight to achieve this. Through the Dharavi Project, the Acorn Foundation is providing more than 350 waste-pickers with identity cards – a crucial step towards recognition and respect, which, in certain cases, also provides access to public or private schemes and grants – plus training in waste-management and safety. And thanks to KKPKP, registered waste-pickers are now provided with both life and health insurance and access to loans for education and other needs at reasonable interest rates.  

“There are now 35 organisations working with waste-pickers in India,” said Narayan, who believes these efforts are enhancing public and political awareness of the needs and opportunities of this sector. A recent directive from India’s Ministry of Urban Development calling for the recognition and integration of waste-pickers testifies to this, though, cautioned Narayan, it is ultimately up to local governments to ensure there is compliance.

A separate – and growing – pool of organisations, including Conserve India, Thunk, Green the Gap, Haathi Chaap and Darpana, is also working to produce high-end products from waste to sell both domestically and abroad. Others, such as Daily Dump, are promoting home composting and segregation of waste at disposal.

And it isn’t just small-scale, local outfits focusing on the sector. Waste management is gaining recognition as a major economic driver in India and internationally. One recent analysis by consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan found that the Indian waste-management services market was worth close to 10 billion rupees (US$216 million) in 2009 and predicted it would grow to 27 billion rupees (US$582 million) by 2013. VC Circle, an investment news forum, has reported that water treatment and waste recycling raised US$216 million in 12 deals from venture capital and private equity firms in 2009 alone. Business intelligence provider Cleantech Group has also touted the sector as a potential growth area.

Venture capital firms are seeing this start to play out, according to Kartik Desai, vice president of Lok Capital, a New Delhi-based social investment firm. “There are good reasons why the investment case for waste management is so strong. It is a very large, badly served market because of historic underinvestment and poor delivery of basic services, especially to the poor. A variety of new business models have been developed over the last few years by an increasing number of entrepreneurs, investors and intermediaries.” Examples of these in India include EcoWise, WasteVentures and Ecoreco.

Mainstream investment funds are also alert to the opportunities. Anand Prakash, managing director for south-east Asia at private equity fund manager FE Clean Energy, told VC Circle: “I see companies like waste management in the US emerging in India. Multibillion dollar companies that are going to take waste management on private contract in the same way as distribution companies have…so we are very much on the lookout for companies that have that vision and are positioning themselves right now.”

This trend is not unique to India. Around the world, the waste sector is gaining attention as waste volumes rise, burial costs increase, environmental and social impacts become clearer and concern over natural-resource limits intensifies. Terracycle, an organisation founded in the United States and now with offices in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada and Mexico, has created a waste-management model similar to that found in India. It recruits and pays “collection brigades” to gather and sell back specific waste products, which are turned into new consumer goods.

Unlike many countries, especially in the developed world, India alreadyhas a skilled recycling and sorting workforce in place. “India’s recycling industry has the expertise and capacity to scale massively, but it needs to be properly valued, formalised and supported,” said Shetty as we sat in his Mumbai office. There are signs of change, “But these need to be magnified.”

I looked down at Shetty’s desk where a series of small ID cards were carefully laid out, identifying recyclers as members of the “Dharavi project”. An image of a young boy, who could not have been more than nine years old, gazed back at me, accompanied by a name in bold type: “Sameer”. For Sameer, this card is the difference between invisibility and visibility, anonymity and belonging. For India, it is a step on the long road to tackling the enormous waste challenge, and creating dignified, green jobs.

Anna da Costa is based in New Delhi.

Homepage image by Tobias Leeger