POSTCARD: Sustainability’s Dirty Work

MUMBAI, India—Mumbai is simultaneously one of the greenest and least green cities in the world. Monsoon season means lushness—dangerously swaying palm trees dot the cracked sidewalks and overgrown plants crowd out village streets in Bandra, my neighborhood outside of the center of the city. But in terms of environmental standards, Mumbai is the opposite of green.

The city’s lushness is not what first caught my attention when I arrived in Mumbai a few weeks ago. Instead, I noticed the swerving rickshaw taxis, and the blaring horns of trucks and cars as they wove in and out of cows, children, vegetable stands, and heaps of burning trash. Traffic congestion in Mumbai has meant not only slow commuting, but an increasing number of fatalities on the road, and abysmal air-quality—by some accounts, breathing the air in Mumbai is equivalent to smoking two and a half packs of cigarettes a day. Waste disposal runs directly into the toxic sea. I have been instructed to dispose my own garbage into the massive pile that sits decaying behind a nearby bakery.

I may believe that my neighborhood is a less-than-perfect eco-system, but there is one place in Mumbai seemingly devoid of anything leafy and green: Dharavi Slum. The slum, made famous when featured in Slumdog Millionaire, is populated by upwards of 1 million people, making it the largest slum in Asia.

Dharavi sits on the edge of Mumbai’s massive railways. Homes constructed from metal scraps and tarp pile on top of each other. Children play on the towering heaps of waste behind one neighborhood of the slum. City garbage collectors are supposed to clear out this area regularly, but often they remove only minimal amounts, or do not show up at all. The smell of burning plastic and oil in the slum is overwhelming.

Recently I spent an afternoon in Dharavi as part of a site visit for the organization I am working for this summer. I accompanied three Indian women who have started an initiative in Mumbai called “Go Green Marketplaces.” They are all mothers who wear colorful printed clothing and have warm smiles. These Green Ladies of Mumbai plan to adopt different marketplaces throughout the city and turn them into plastic-free zones. They are hoping to introduce cloth bags to replace plastic bags in major stores.

When I heard about their project, I almost laughed at its absurdity. The lines between waste and the environment are blurred here to the point where it is impossible to tell where homes end and dumping grounds begin, or where sewage areas become public beaches. I tried to imagine the Dharavi women in saris toting around canvas grocery bags, like the New York City mothers I know who shop exclusively at Whole Foods.

In Dharavi, hunger trumps carbon-footprint reduction in most families’ list of priorities. Where in the world did these three Indian women come up with the idea that Mumbaikars might be interested in adopting green practices?

But that afternoon, the Green Ladies managed to unearth another layer of Dharavi. I learned that the smell of burning plastic comes from workspaces where plastic garbage (such as yogurt cups, old toys, and containers) is sorted by hand and then melted down to be reused by major companies. The smell of oil emanates from a warehouse where metal oil canisters are washed and recycled.

The slum dwellers are doing sustainability’s dirty work—it is the type of recycling that eco-conscious New York City mothers would never dream of doing. A recycling hub has emerged in one of the most unlikely place in the world, and the Green Ladies were very pleased.

Perhaps this is what the Green Ladies understood when they began their “Go Green” enterprise. Dharavi residents may not be “green,” but they are resourceful and enterprising. They may not care very much about sustainability, but they care about functionality and salvageability. And they are good at it—there is over $650 million USD annual turnover in the slum. And as of a week ago, Dharavi has become a Harvard Business School case study.

I have the Green Ladies to thank for peeling back the layers of Dharavi to reveal the environmentally friendly, vibrant life and community that resides under the surface of destitution. They helped me to notice the entrepreneurial spirit in indigence, to look past decrepit homes and see family joy, to detect the wafting smell of frying samosas among the smell of burning plastic, and to discover the greenness among the garbage.

Mumbaikars might be a long way from canvas bags, but the Green Ladies are here to help.

Zoe A.Y. Weinberg’13 is a Crimson News writer in Currier House.

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