Trash, Trash Everywhere: Unregistered Slum Life in Mumbai, India

| March 24, 2011 | 2 Comments

By Laura Nolan Khan

The trash. It was the first thing that hit me upon my arrival in Mumbai, India. Both times. Trash, garbage, rubbish, refuse whatever you prefer to call it. Piled high, strewn all over and sometimes collected into little mounds for clean-up. As with most public health hazards there’s more trash in the poorer neighborhoods than in the wealthier ones. So I was not at all surprised to find cows rummaging through an enormous garbage pile at the corner of Kaula Bandar (KB), the unregistered slum community in which I spent the summer working. The name ‘Kaula Bandar’ or ‘roof dock’ refers to the roofs that were constructed in Gujarat and Mangalore and shipped to Mumbai’s port area. Over time the docks were overrun with workers and their tenement-style houses. Though many residents are recent migrants, some parts of KB (and some people) have been there for over 40 years. The slum now houses over 40,000 people. The area, a former jetty, is surrounded on three sides by water. The lanes near its end are so twisted you have to stoop to squeeze through them.

Conditions are difficult in KB. To my American eye it seemed amazing that residents have been able to live there – with dignity – for decades. Since there is no running water it must be bought. A drum for a month can cost upwards of 300 rupees, about eight American dollars, a significant amount to a family that brings in only 4,000 rupees a month, or approximately $100 dollars. Homes, which are typically rented at high cost, consist of one room in which sleeping, eating, and all other life functions happen. Some families have over ten members all living in the same one room so many of those functions spill over into the lanes. It’s common to see women picking lice out of their children’s hair or frying fish, and children playing marbles or running up and down naked. The ubiquitous trash doesn’t seem to bother the residents of KB but it stands out to me, as it has to other visitors, as one of the most obvious health hazards in the community; that and the lack of toilets.

There are only two public toilets for the whole of KB which cost 1 rupee to use except on Sundays when they cost 2 rupees. Children don’t use the toilets because they are so dirty so they go in the water that surrounds the community. And by that I don’t mean that they wade out into the water. They go at low tide when the there is no water, only a sea of trash, because that’s also where residents throw their garbage. Though there is an inconsistent (at best) trash pick-up service, waste is generally ‘disposed of’ into the sea surrounding the community. Those families who do not have direct access to the sea, for example those living at the ‘land’ side of the jetty, make a pile there. That is the heap that greets visitors when they enter the community, children coming back from school, and hungry cows, dogs and goats who live in the surrounding area. The children’s toilet is therefore much the same as the community’s garbage heap.

So in KB, the dual hazards of a lack of both proper garbage disposal and sanitation facilities are intrinsically linked, especially for children. There is no doubt in my mind that the two, taken together, compound the levels of diarrhea and disease in the community. No wonder the community’s doctors say diarrhea and malnutrition are the main health problems facing children in KB and that hygiene is extremely difficult to maintain. Seeing children squatting on heaps of rubbish was certainly one of the most difficult things for me to witness while working in the community. The smell is terrible, too, especially on a hot and humid day.

But what’s to be done? With 40,000 people illegally living on a jetty half a kilometer long, it’s difficult to imagine where all that trash is supposed to go, if not into the sea or onto the ground. What is required is a service; a service that has not been consistently – if at all – delivered because of a bureaucratic, political and essentially territorial disagreement. The land on which KB sits is owned by the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) which bans its use for residential purposes and essentially ignores the residents living there. Contrast this with the slum dwellers who are granted minimum rights if they live on Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) land, and it becomes clear that KB is one of the worst-off communities in the whole of the city; a city in which 54% of the people live in slums[1]. Registered slum areas can request public toilets to be built, garbage to be collected and health services to be provided close by. But KB cannot even be registered because the residents occupy the land illegally, so they live there in limbo. Try to give them consent forms to participate in research and they think you’re trying to throw them out of their houses. So after beginning with public health, all that’s left to struggle for are the residents’ rights, especially their right to security. Short of changing the rules and registering the area, it would take the BPT allowing services to be provided by the BMC and the BMC doing so though the community does not reside on their land. Though I am generally quite an optimistic person, I think pigs are more likely to fly. So I think it will take non-governmental and community efforts to change the area’s situation.

PUKAR, the fabulous organization with whom I did research this summer, is working towards that end but the going is slow. Public health interventions – especially those with significant bureaucratic challenges – take time. Sometimes a lot of time. And patience. But most of us in public health are in it for the long haul and try to exercise as much foresight and creativity as possible. It’s certainly hard, but is all one can be expected to do when surrounded on all sides by trash. And after working with a community for long enough you can’t even smell it anymore, anyway.

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  1. Cecily Ray says:

    Dear Laura,

    I was intrigued by your article. It came up through a web search I made
    while I was looking for something on Mumbai’s garbage problem. I live in
    Mumbai and am worried by the build up of garbage I see. From your article I have understood how some of it gets into the sea. I also wonder how public health can be improved in this city. It seems to be getting worse.

    Best wishes for your future endeavors.

    Cecily Ray

  2. Cecily Ray says:

    Dear Laura,

    I commend you for your work and your article.
    I live in Mumbai and had wondered why there is
    so much garbage in the sea! Now I know one reason.

    I wish I had seen your article much earlier. I hope
    this situation gets resolved soon.

    I wonder if I might quote your article sometime.

    Do let me hear from you.


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