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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook