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

Flying over Dharavi, a vast and sprawling slum in Mumbai with a knack for recycling. Image: Mike Towber

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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.