The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The problems facing Mumbai's trash economy

Mumbai, like other Indian cities, is looking to involve the private sector to help manage the tons of solid waste it generates every day. This step is necessary to cope with the growing problem, but it must be done so without marginalising the informal 'ragpickers' who do the bulk of the recycling work already.

Lauren Zanolli / Beyond Profit

Lauren Zanolli / Beyond Profit

Cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Nagpur

Topics: Water, waste and sanitation, Private sector governance, Informal economy, Labour and livelihoods

There's no escaping the role of trash in the history of Mumbai — in some parts, the very ground Mumbaikars walk on has its roots in refuse. Originally seven disparate islands, Bombay was gradually melded into one land mass through a combination of ingenuity, trash, concrete and anything else that could be used to reclaim land from the ocean.

Today, waste continues to be an ever-present force in this metropolis of 20 million people. As the city rapidly evolves and expands, there is little indication that the government is prepared to handle the steady stream of new residents and the waste they will create.

Presently, the informal sector plays a huge role in trash collection across Mumbai. The rise of private players in the sector and of big development projects could present benefits, but also complicated challenges, to the informal waste management sector.

According to the last estimates of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), the body responsible for solid waste management (SWM), the city produces 6,500 tons of garbage every day. To give some perspective, that's 13 million pounds — roughly equivalent to 17 fully loaded Airbus A380s, the largest passenger aircraft in existence, piling up every day. Given that the city's population is constantly expanding, along with its consumptive middle class, this number is poised to grow further.

And while the budget of the SWM department of the MCGM has swelled considerably in response, rising by nearly 50% between 2007-08 and 2010-11, a glance at the streets of Mumbai reveals the government's failure to manage the daily flood of litter in the city. This shortcoming has given rise to an expansive underground recycling economy.

Ragpickers, as informal trash collectors are known in India, work in unsanitary conditions to collect, sort and then sell recyclable materials from around the city. It is estimated that as much as 80% of the city's dry waste is recycled in Dharavi, Mumbai's largest slum, alone. Arguably, the city would not function without the service that these ragpickers provide.

There is no doubt that the working conditions of informal trash collectors must be improved, and, it seems, the only way to do this is to incorporate them into the organised sector in one way or another. Moreover, they form a vital part of the SWM cycle and should be better utilised to clean the city. The question is, how is this best achieved?

In Delhi, the government has moved decisively toward the private sector to manage the city's waste. According to press reports, 70% of waste collection is now privatised.

This has prompted the city's ragpickers to organise and demand that their services be formally recognised. As part of a March 2010 demonstration against privatisation of the industry, they demanded that door to door collection service jobs be allocated only to those in the informal sector and that they be given formal identity cards, making them eligible for government benefits. Ragpickers have decried the influx of private operators, claiming they are taking away their livelihoods and cannot provide an adequate number of jobs to the community.

In Mumbai too, authorities are moving to "increase the role of the private sector". While this is arguably the only way to stem the tide of waste, it does not necessarily include ragpickers in the plan, even though they are an established part of the industry. Some social enterprises, like Kanak Resource Management, a joint venture between IL&FS Waste Management and Urban Services Ltd, are moving in to formalise the sector, while also employing ragpickers. The company hires ragpickers on a daily wage basis and provides them with protective gear to perform door-to-door waste collection services. So far, Kanak's model has only been applied to smaller cities, like Nagpur.

But the Mumbai government's attitude toward the informal waste management industry remains questionable. The controversial Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), for example, throws into question Compound 13 — Dharavi's recycling industry.

The plan, first approved in 2004 and led by architect Mukesh Mehta, envisions luxury residential apartments and high-quality office space in Dharavi alongside new public housing for slum residents. Mehta frames the project as an attempt to "rehabilitate the people of Dharavi … and integrate them with mainstream Mumbaikars."

Private developers will provide slum residents (that meet certain tenancy requirements) with a flat in a new multi-storey apartment building. To cover costs and raise profit, the same developers will also build lucrative apartments and offices on Dharavi's valuable land, which sits very close to the Bandra-Kurla Complex — a targeted 'growth centre' for the financial services and commercial industries.

The project was originally slated to begin this summer but interminable delays have left it largely stalled. It is divided into five sectors that will be allotted to five separate developers through a bidding process, which by June had not yet concluded.

Under the DRP, non-polluting industries will be "rehabilitated". According to the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), Dharavi industries that "confirm to government norms and development control regulations" will be legalised.

However, thus far, there has been no clear indication of which specific operations will be "rehabilitated". The somewhat vague information made publicly available indicates that rehabilitation activity will favour residential and commercial spaces — only 2% of the 5,700 units marked for rehabilitation under the DRP plan fall into the "industrial" category in Mehta's 2007 plan.

Even if Compound 13 is not explicitly altered, the massive re-engineering of space and changed population dynamics of Dharavi will likely have a dramatic effect on the recycling industry and local residents. This could bring much-needed improvements to working conditions on Compound 13, but could also threaten the existence of the industry.

The DRP is part of the government's plan to become a 'world-class city'. What it ignores though is the fact that a prerequisite to being a 'world-class city' is a functioning system of basic civil services. Unless development is structured in such a way to co-opt and improve the existing services in the city — in this case, the informal trash economy — the capacity to handle the city's problems is liable to decrease, not increase. It is doubtful the city's government will suddenly develop the ability to manage the city's ever-growing tide of waste, leaving private enterprsies — whether formal or informal — to pick up the slack.

This article originally appeared in slightly amended form on Beyond Profit, reprinted with permission.