Annalise: Lessons from Dharavi

One of the purposes of the Prime Minister’s Scholarship is to increase the cultural awareness of participants. Within a four-week program with IndoGenius, me and fourteen others were thrown in the deep end of seeing both the problems and solutions which India produces.

Our trip to Dharavi (often referred to as the biggest slum in the world) was the pinnacle of challenging preconceptions of living conditions within slums. The term ‘slum’ usually comes with negative connotations which may include poverty, lack of necessities such as access to power and water. Many of the largely negative perceptions are reinforced by popular culture within movies such as Slum Dog Millionaire which is based in Dharavi. In a couple of short hours, we had the opportunity with Reality Tours and Travel to see a snippet into life inside Dharavi.

Within an area of just over 2.1 square kilometres lies close to a million people. Inside, through some of the narrowest paths I have walked, we saw an ecosystem of business, entrepreneurship and community spirit. Dharavi is the home to many small-scale industries such as plastic recycling, sewing shops and leather tanning.

As a development studies student the concept of a slum was not foreign to me, however first-hand experience is a different form of knowledge. My previous perception of slums was of residential areas and I wasn’t expecting the first area we visited to be a business hub.

One of the standout businesses we saw was the plastic recycling plant. India is often portrayed as dirty and polluted. This often prevents people from looking deeper into India’s current solutions for waste management. It’s true that India has a problem with rubbish, with over 1.3 billion people producing waste every day. Mumbai alone produces over 10,000 metric tonnes of solid waste per day. This is largely sorted through by hand and is processed into tiny plastic pellets. These are recycled and are used to make products such as road pavement. It is estimated that eighty percent of solid waste in Mumbai is recycled into usable materials which is something that India should be proud of. Single use plastic bags are also banned in India!!

India is leading the way for recycling in many aspects, but it comes at the cost of the most vulnerable people in India who make their livings from sorting through rubbish and dividing plastic waste. Without the inequality which operates in India, this system would be nowhere near as effective in current state. This comes at the expense of the people who are sorting through toxic waste and breathing in harmful chemicals.

Plastic is a valuable resource – but it is our lack of adequate management which is killing us. In India we drunk out of plastic water bottles every day – in fact I probably used more plastic bottles within a month than I did this year when I was in India. If 80% of that was recycled I would have created less plastic pollution than I would of in New Zealand (on average 31kgs) as only 18% of solid plastic is recycled.

Through our visit to Dharavi, I learnt that there is so much more to a slum than the negative perceptions that are portrayed through the media. Although the living conditions are less than ideal, slums are a part of millions of Indians everyday lives. Within Dharavi is a knowledge system that cannot be taught through a university course which we were lucky enough to have access to through the help of the Prime Minister’s Scholarship and Indogenius.

Annalise O’Sullivan-Moffat

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