Our second day in Mumbai, Miguel and I visited Dharavi (a massive slum recently brought to the world’s attention through the movie Slum Dog Millionare).
Here is a National Geographic article about Dharavi – its history, its daily operations, and developers’ plans for its future. It’s interesting and worth reading.
It is estimated that the neighborhoods of Dharavi contribute more than $500 million to Mumbai’s economy each year. These slums contribute to thriving textile, pottery, and leather industries – producing goods that are exported to markets all over the world.
Dharavi also handles large-scale recycling operations. And everywhere you turn while meandering through the slum, you’ll see small manufacturing units sorting and processing the city’s recyclable waste.
Scrap plastic is sorted by type, cleaned and processed, melted down into tiny pellets, then resold by the kilo.
Many of the Dharavi residents have built shacks wedged in between the nooks and crannies surrounding a large pipeline. Their slum villages (often equipped with gas stoves, electricity, and even a TV) are illegal, but because the residents handle the city’s waste management and contribute so much to the city’s economy, officials turn a blind eye – at least for now.
But eventually many of these people will be displaced due to a large redevelopment project that is expected to be underway soon. Only legal residents will be compensated for their relocation (but a large part of the Dharavi population is without forms of identification).
While visiting Dharavi, we met with Vinod Shetty, a human rights lawyer and Director of the Dharavi Project – an initiative of the ACORN Foundation aimed at improving the lives of Dharavi’s slum dwellers.
The rag-pickers of Mumbai collect tons of garbage each day, but they are not recognized by the city as a workforce. Instead they barely scrape by, making 75-100 rupees a day by selling the waste to scrap dealers.
The Dharavi Project’s mission is to “increase the welfare of rag-pickers, and give their profession a legitimate and sustainable voice in the recycling and waste-management value chain at Dharavi.” You can read more about the project here.
Vinod has been helping Dharavi residents obtain ID cards so that they can gain visibility by the government and become eligible for city services.
The center also organizes creative projects with Dharavi’s children – children who do not have the luxury of going to school. Instead, they spend their days roaming massive waste piles with magnets to collect scrap metal. But thanks to the Dharavi Project and various volunteers who have come in to offer their time and skills, the children have had the pleasure of participating in theatre projects, craft activities, and music classes. The organization occasionally hosts concerts and events, in addition to their annual Eco Fair.
Vinod said the children are recently getting into break dancing and freestyle rapping. He has been inspiring them to write down their songs so they can put on their own performance.
When we visited Dharavi, a few of the children came by to discuss the upcoming play they are scheduled to perform in August. They saw my plastic bag crocheted items and wanted to take a photo with them.
After taking us on a brief tour of Dharavi, Vinod rounded up some women interested in learning plastic bag crochet from me.
My plastic crochet workshop fit in well with the Dharavi Project’s mission of connecting arts and crafts with the environment. But it also has the added potential of becoming an income-generating opportunity for rag-pickers. My idea was that by showing them this new skill, they may be able to use the discarded plastic bags they already collect to create fashionable bags from 100% recycled materials.
Plastic bags are already collected and sorted at Dharavi. However, rag-pickers generally avoid picking up plastic bags (especially the thin-gauge ones) because it takes so much work to collect a kilo’s worth and the profits generated by plastic bag collection are so minimal. Heavier plastics are more sought after because they have a higher resale value – but regardless, plastic waste collectors hardly make a decent living.
Here’s what I think:
If the rag-pickers are equipped with a new skill (such as plastic bag crochet), they can upcycle the plastic waste into fashionable products to sold locally as well as internationally. The income generated by creating these designer products will ensure that the rag-pickers are paid generously for their time. And in addition to providing an additional revenue stream for impoverished communities, this skill will have an added benefit of cleaning up the city (since more plastic bags will be picked up off the streets).
Obviously there are many details to work out before this can be the self sustaining project that I envision, but this workshop was the first step in planting the seed. I’m hoping that by connecting with the right people – people who also care about the environment, the recycling of plastic bags, and the welfare of slum dwellers – I will be able to start the project idea and they can help to move forward with it.
The initial meeting worked well. These women don’t care much about environmental concerns – they just care about improving their lives. But they seemed to see the potential this project has in addressing both these issues and were enthusiastic to sit with me and learn how to crochet with plastic bags. They also really liked the idea of being able to work on handicrafts while sitting comfortably in the office and chatting with each other.
I spent a few hours teaching a small group of about 10 women to prepare plastic bag yarn, make the basic “single crochet” stitch, and increase/decrease stitches to create a complete product. I gave them each a large, bamboo crochet hook (which they said they can easily replicate when needed) and I left a stack of hooks in the office in case more women decide they want to participate.
The women who attended the workshop said they would each practice, make a small sample, and give it to me for inspection.
When I returned to Mumbai a week later, I met with Vinod and he gave me some samples a few of the women made. So far so good!
I gave him a crocheted shoulder bag to put in the office and use as a sample. I also provided step-by-step instructions on how to make the bag. Once some of the women make bags, I will buy a batch and try to resell them. It’ll be the first step in seeing if this project can be successful.