Sustainability in the slums

By: Courtney Kimmel

The island city of Bombay is home to almost 20 million people.  Eleven million of these people live in one of the 2,000 slums scattered in marginal nooks and crannies around the city.  That’s half of the city’s population living on 8% of the land.  One million people live on the 432 acres called Dharavi, Asia’s largest (or second largest depending on metrics) slum – the oldest in India.  We drove along one edge, slowly steering through the piles of trash being sorted, weaving around large trucks piled high with burlap bags of who knows what, headed for who knows where; past an old man carrying a small bucket of water to the dedicated open space toilet area.  “See that pipeline?  Does it look familiar? Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire? That scene was shot right under this bridge.”  Welcome to Dharavi.

We park the car and Krishna Pujari, the founder of Reality Gives and Tours gracefully dodges motorbikes, taxis, carts, trucks, and people crossing the road; ensuring I don’t get taken out by a beeping rickshaw.  We hop over brown puddles and across rickety stones covering the open sewer ditches.  The colorful scraps of fabric littering the ground are sodden from the recent monsoon rains.  We enter into the “recycling district” where more than 30% of Mumbai’s trash is sorted, cleaned, and recycled into something usable again.  “Most people think of slums as poor places. They aren’t.  Look at all of the people working.”  And it’s true.  Walking through the incredibly narrow bustling alleys, through any doorway there are people hard at work.  Sorting plastics by color and quality, scraping paint out of cans for reuse, shredding aluminum and melting it down into bricks, sawing large plastic bottles into smaller pieces to melt down.

I won’t lie. At first, I was uneasy and stuck very close to Krishna.  Here I was, a foreigner in relatively nice clothes touring a slum to see what life was like for people living in such conditions.  How presumptuous and voyeuristic.   But I had arranged to come here with the founder of an organization that has established a company to show people the vibrancy of life in slums; not to exploit their condition for profit.  Yes, you can see poverty and poor living and working conditions and need; but within minutes those preconceptions are overpowered by appreciation for the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and strength of the social fabric within this community.  “See in there?” Krishna asks, pointing to the man sitting on an overturned bucket with a welding iron. “He’s making the machines we just saw that other man using to shred aluminum cans.”

We move into the area where textile dying is taking place.  Straight pipes coming down the walls are emptying steaming magenta-colored water into the sewer trench from the floors above.  Men are standing on the balcony wearing towels around their waste, sweating, with their legs died in every color possible.  “You are interested in water.  You can see that water is a major challenge here.  Do you see where that pipe is emptying the dye water? That other pipe down there is the drinking water line.  This is a problem. It makes me sad because it’s water – something people need and should have.”   Indeed it is. As we walked further, I paid closer attention to the water pipes running often above ground, sometimes below the surface of combined sewer and storm water flows running through trenches. Some pipes had spraying leaks. Some were creatively patched with plastic bags and string.  All were questionable at best.  26% of India’s slum residents have access to clean water, likely fewer in Dharavi.

Walking with Krishna is like walking with a folk hero.  With his jeans rolled up to avoid the stagnant puddles, he shakes hands or playfully pokes men in the back with his umbrella. He kindly greets and teases women that call out to him from their doorways. He tussles the hair of the children running up to him. He loves this place and the people, but he isn’t sugar coating it.  “The two biggest challenges for Dharavi are its infrastructure, and health and sanitation.”  Water is a key issue for all of these things.

As Krishna and I ventured further into the maze of alleys, I ask about the 55 gallon barrels lining the walls. This is where fresh water is stored for the residents and businesses in the immediate vicinity.  Each day for 2-3 hours, water is made available to each section of Dharavi.  At that time, everyone living in that small square block area brings all of their containers to collect water for the day, to bathe in the streets, to wash clothes.  Water is at a premium here.

A third of the people living in Mumbai are from Mumbai, a third from the outer regions of (state), and a third from across India.  “Many people come here and leave their families in the villages.  They can’t afford to rent houses here, so they live in the same places where they work.”  I look into a dark little room where a cooking stove is set up on the floor next to a pile of sorted rags.  Everything you would need was packed into about 100 square feet, along with four people working on the floor.  A man standing outside with a towel wrapped around his waste drops his shorts modestly to bathe.  “What about toilets?” I ask.

One percent of Dharavi residents have private toilets in their homes; 71% rely on communal toilets, 7% use pay toilets, and 22% rely on open spaces. “In the morning, you will see 20 people lined up at the communal toilets.”  Others rely on open spaces.  “Open space urination and defecation is particularly hard for women, who have to go very early in the morning or after dark,” explained Krishna.  Women tend to bathe in a discreet corner of their homes; men on the streets.  Several times, I stepped around small children squatting over a gap in the stones covering the open trench sewers as they relieved themselves.  From what I could tell, the flow in these trash filled trenches was minimal at best.

We ventured through the leather “district” where thousands of goat hides were stacked on wooden hand carts, the salt used to preserve them sprinkling to the ground. You could hear the sound of sewing machines and hammers as leather bags and wallets were being crafted in tiny shops.  We passed bakeries where regionally known puff pastry snacks were being made.  Several women were making papadam in their homes, placing the paper-thin dough discs on wicker umbrella shaped structures to dry.  “You won’t see any labels that say ‘Made in Dharavi’ but you would be surprised how widely these products are distributed around Mumbai.”  We ended our walk through Dharavi in the potting district. Monsoon season is slow for pottery because drying the clay pots relies on what is very scarce- sunshine.

It’s estimated that the total revenues generated out of Dharavi range between $665-700 million USD per year.  As you walk down the main streets of Dharavi, you see signs for doctor’s offices, banks, and Coca-Cola.  Among the throngs of people laboring intensively, you see groups of schoolgirls in neat uniforms, their hair immaculately braided. You see groups of children crowded around the man spinning cotton candy on the corner, the wisps of sugar lifting on the warm breeze.  You see women in beautiful colored saris on cell phones, buying fruits and vegetables along the stands that line the side streets.  All of which is taking place on marginal land that was a former landfill with 293,000 people living and working per square kilometer (compare that to an estimate 10,680 people per square kilometer living in New York City, the most populous city in the US).

Krishna takes me to the community center where his organization is running a kindergarten on the ground floor and a youth development program for high school age students upstairs. He proudly points to the teacher who was a former student of the program.  In fact, they now have 18 teachers working in schools across Dharavi.  We make our way back to Reality Gives office where a planning meeting is taking place with members of the Women and Children’s Health Foundation that provides wellness education and services to the women and children of Mumbai’s slums. I get a chance to speak to the Director of the program. “Access to clean drinking water is a huge problem for women and children in the slums,” she explains.  “Water-borne illnesses – dysentery and jaundice are the most common problems we see. “

I had the good fortune to spend the rest of the day with Krishna at the Reality Gives office, watching local guides bring in visitors who are either  uncomfortable with the abject poverty you see, or are completely enamored with the energy that the community and economic activity exude in these informal settlements. I watched small children from the community run into the office and hug the teachers and guides working for the organization.  I listened to the hum of activity outside and the patter of rain on the corrugated roof.  I thought a lot about the situation surrounding water in Dharavi.  It’s a public service being offered in an informal place, a sort of juxtaposition of governance and planning.

I decided that Dharavi, with its million people living on a postage stamp of land, is an example of development pathways I needed to think more critically about. Is it sustainable?  Depends on what aspects of sustainability you are thinking about.  Economically, it’s incredibly productive; environmentally it’s a nightmare but look at how resourceful it is – an economic engine driven by recycling.  Socially, the fabric of the community is visibly strong, but there are major challenges for health, education, safety, etc.  Development will and must take different forms in different places round the world; in turn, sustainability will take many different shapes. I also decided that I WILL bring any student I take to India to visit Dharavi, because it’s an amazing place full of promise and hope. In fact, CLiGS is taking a group of graduate students and professionals to India in December to explore the sustainability and environmental challenges presented in informal settlements in Mumbai this winter.  Click here to learn more.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a center within Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), provides interdisciplinary graduate education, cutting edge research, and strategic leadership needed to navigate a rapidly changing world. Our work spans five continents and engages key stakeholders from education, business, government, non-profits, and local communities. Our goal is to create real solutions to the world’s global sustainability challenges. To learn more about our programs, services, and global engagement, please visit: