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Health Safety and Waste Recycling in the Mumbai Slums.

Health Safety and Waste Recycling in the Mumbai Slums.

Mumbai is India’s commercial capital with a population of approximately 13 million people, making it one of the most populated cities in the world. It is estimated that up to 60% of the population live in slums or shanty towns, where health and safety is a complete anathema but surpsingly, efficient recycling and a low carbon footprint can match any developed city in the world.


These settlements can be viewed from the air on arrival to Mumbai, indeed one large slum has grown up next to Mumbai International Airport that is clearly visible from the runway. They are formed on whatever land they can find; along railway lines and main roads, next to rubbish dumps and on pavements. It is thought that 65% of Mumbai’s population live in these low income areas, of which only 14% have access to safe water (2001).

Recent reports suggest that some slum properties are changing hands for as much as £30,00 despite a lack of electricity water or sewerage. Some slums are well located next to the main commuter lines into the financial district, and one report indicates that approximately 40% of the police force live in such accommodation.


It is clear from the satellite dishes and other cabling that electricity is clearly available, although only a few have installed meters and a formal supply. The illegal supply is organised by gangsters who run the slums. They charge connection charges and monthly bills of approximately 500 rupees.  Every electricity post is rigged with hundreds of wires leading down into the slum dwellings, and because of this illegal tapping (local garment shops and factories also do it) the supply grid is inherently dangerous.

With nearly 25 per cent of the slums not having electricity, slum-dwellers have resorted to stealing it from those who have installed metres. There are also ‘dealers’ who illegally supply electricity to houses.

Across a main road from the slum is a line of pylons carrying mains electricity cables siphoning off power from the transmission lines to homes and businesses located in the slum. As well as the thick wires they are supposed to be supporting, most of the pylons have dense tangles of other much smaller wires sprouting off in different directions.

These connections are clearly dangerous and the lack of income means that improvements cannot be financed.  Pervasive corruption acts as a barrier to change at every level of power system operation: At every step in the supply chain, money is siphoned off, resulting in a shoddy system– from backup systems to warning systems to good cables. Currently, good cables intended for transmission are stolen and shoddy materials put in their place.

Plans to bring electricity to the slums

One project to bring a safe and resilient power network to Mumbai was financed by Reliance Energy, working in conjunction with the US Agency for International Development. A pilot project was launched in 2009 to demonstrate how a safe and adequate electricity supply could be introduced but the results have been unclear and do not seem to have provided the answers to the numerous issues that have arisen.

The overall scope of the Project covered slum clusters of Shivanjinagar, located in the Eastern suburbs of Mumbai and targeted 26,250 units and planned to: 

·  Provide legal and safe electricity connections for about 21,250 slum dwelling units (DUs) that do not currently have electricity connections or have illegal connections 
·  Provide upgraded and safe internal wiring for about 5,000 slum dwelling units (DUs) that currently have legal connections. 
·  Upgrade the utility network and substations, install of meters, and meter boxes. 
·  Document program outputs and results as well as economic and social impact data (safety, efficiency, productive uses) 

It is quite clear that the biggest issue facing the renewal project is the sheer scale of the problem. Whenever new housing projects are built, they are filled within days and the units that are vacated ‘snapped up’ by those waiting for accommodation. The latest issue is the use of partially completed tower blocks that have fallen into disrepair after the slump in construction. Squatters can now be seen to be living in half finished blocks around the city as the concrete shells often provide better shelter from the heat and rains than can be found in the traditional slums.

Fires in the Slums

Although there are a number of health and safety issues around the lack of a clean water supply and drainage, one of the main issues is fire. A number of fires have broken out in the slums in recent years including Nagrib Nagar fire in 2011 next to Bandra Train stataion and Mahim in 2013.

The Nagrib Bandra fire started from a three-storey structure on the north side of a mosque. Following the incident  a massive fight broke out between residents of Garib Nagar blaming one another for the fire. While one theory suggested that a drunken brawl between two brothers had caused the fire, another speculation was that there was arson involved.

Reports indicated that the fire started on Friday night and spread across the slum quickly. Within minutes, more than 500 shanties were destroyed. It took almost 24 hours for the cooling operations to conclude completely.

Ironically it was later claimed that the construction of the slums was such as prevented the spread but the Fire and Rescue services found great difficulty in controlling the blaze. Deputy fire officer, Western, V Quwaiskar, said. “The shanties are too high for people to escape. It will be difficult to carry out rescue operations”

Recently in January 2013 six people were been killed and seven others injured in a fire that swept through the Nayangar slum in Mahim, Mumbai.

Most of the victims were asleep in their homes when the fire broke out just before dawn. A dozen fire engines and several water tankers fought the blaze. Several homes were gutted in the fire. Fire department officials said the cause of the blaze was not yet known.

Reports said residents were seen searching through the rubble for their belongings.The fire also destroyed several vehicles.


The lack of clean drinking water is another major Health and Safety issue in the Mumbai slums. In most slums it is the responsibility of the women and children to collect water from public tap stands, water is released from different taps at different times of the day. The lack of a constant supply of water (up to 4 hours daily and less in summer) combined with long queues at public tap stands, not only damages health but it also reduces the time that can be spent economically or in education.

Problems regarding the quantity, quality access and management of water in slums, highlights the failure of the municipality in Mumbai and prevent the installation of in-home water access to slum dwellers.

The other issue is the lack of revenue as the water authority recovers only 47% of what it spends on supplying water. This can be attributed to high losses (as much as 40%) from leakages, as well as from stolen water (86 gallons is lost daily), low tariffs, and over staffing. This leaves little revenue to improve conditions in slums. Another obstacle to improving water access in the slums is the activity of water vendors who sell BMC water to slum residents at inflated prices, which deprives the municipality of money and exploits the needs of slum residents.


The lack of toilets and open drains through the slums are one of the main health hazards that need to be tackled. There are regular outbreaks of malaria, leptospirosis, diarrhoea, dengue and hepatitis making the demand for new sanitation a priority.

Isolated projects have been launched to deal with the issue, such as the 2 billion Rupee ( $40m) project supported by a World Bank loan to bring toilet blocks to 25% of the slums.

In the Ganesh Murthy Nagar slum in the Colbar district, women have set up a society to manage the two story toilet block that is being constructed as part of the project. Before this was launched, there was one toilet for 10,000 people, leaving women to relieve themselves in the open in early mornings or after dark.

The aim is to fund the maintenance of community toilet blocks by raising money from local families of 100 rupees ( £1.20) per person. The money will be ringfenced in community bank accounts. However a survey in 2002 by Birhan Mumbai Corporation concluded that £100m was required to make an impact into the problem.

Mumbai the 'Recycling Superhub'

Despite the towers of garbage that can be found all around the slum areas, Dhavari, one of the largest districts of Mumbai has been described as the ‘recycling superhub’ of Mumbai, where an informal industry has grown up to process and re –use waste generated by the cities 21 million inhabitants.

Every day, waste pickers spend their working lives picking through piles of garbage by hand. It has been described as a ‘goldmine’ for the inhabitants of the slums,  where informal supply chains have grown up, from those who source the garbage that is not taken away by main contractors called ‘scavangers’, those who pick called ‘segregators’ and those who then sort into 60 categories plastics, paper, leather, cotton etc. Small traders then purchase the items, process and sell in quantity to those dealers higher up the chain.

This unique process leaves a tiny carbon footprint as it is done entirely by hand. This graphic process is well documented, see for example the Pulitzer Prize winning book ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers, ( Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum) by Katherine Boo [2012 Random House] which is set in the Annawadi settlement, 200 yards from Mumbai International Airport. The graphic account of life in the slum includes descriptions of scavenging, the septic lake at one end of the district that provides food and the all-pervading corruption which is described as ‘one of the great opportunities that remained’.

Click here for a CNN report on the waste processing industry that deals with many of the issues dealt with by Katherine Boo’s remarkable account that took three years to document. This report has a tremendous video clip of life in the Mumbai slums.















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