Our imaginings of slums often derive from the few mainstream depictions of these environments, the most notable of these being the Academy Award winning film- Slumdog Millionaire. While large swathes of the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai where the film was set, is/are characterised by narrow alleys and open drains, it is also home to an informal economy with an annual turnover of one billion dollars. Sanjeev Sanyal, an Indian economist writes that ‘People think of slums as places of static despair, but if one looks past the open drains and plastic sheets, one will see that slums are ecosystems buzzing with activity.’ This is certainly true of Dharavi where tens of thousands of economic migrants from the rural countryside of the country work as potters, leather tanners, weavers, soap makers as well as in the city’s massive recycling industry. The ten thousand metric tonnes of waste produced by Mumbai, popularly known as the ‘City of Dreams’, is collected by unofficial waste collectors called rag pickers, numbering close to a 120,000. These scraps are then either sold to small recycling plants or sold as reusable parts. The involvement of slum communities in recycling waste from megacities is not limited to South Asia, with the Zabbaleen community in Cairo also being involved in garbage collection and its recycling for generations. They too follow a similar method wherby/whereby the garbage collected is either sold to recycling factories or create/made into new materials and products from waste themselves. Organic waste is also collected and then fed to pigs kept by them/these communities. Through this ingenious method of waste collection and disposal, they are able to recycle 80% of the total waste they collect.
Such informal economic activities have also allowed for these communities to build their own schools, clinics, places of worship and small service businesses like restaurants, tailor shops and mobile repair shops. Ciudad Neza, a slum in Mexico is home to over a million people which has seen an immense transformation from being described as a ‘wasteland’ in the mid-20th century to being considered as a successful model of bottom-up community development. With thousands of various kinds of micro entrepreneurs working from home, they also provide the neighbouring Mexico City with labourers, factory workers, gas station workers etc. Despite being denied governmental access to many resources like proper schooling, sanitation and drinking water, locals continue to either fund these resources for themselves or have attracted the attention of international charity organizations.
The participation of women in these informal urban economies also surpass that of men in the many developing regions with Sub-Saharan Africa showing the most disparity of 74 per cent compared to 61 percent of men working as informal entrepreneurs. However despite women’s involvement being crucial to the sustenance of slum families, they usually have very little choice in the wage earning activities they can undertake due to lack of education and household /childcare responsibilities. This lack of equal access to various basic resources is a through line that links urban slums and their inhabitants around the world. While the entrepreneurial spirit emboldened by these informal economies is a testament to community spirit and togetherness, it also points at the glaring gaps left behind by ineffective governance. The existence of narrow alleyways side by side with billion dollar economies must not be normalized and instead should be understood and intervened in terms of their nuances and contexts.