A man’s scolding stare burns through me. He stands fragile, bend over, hand on the rail, looking deeply, his heavy eyes tracking us with intrigue, as we make our way down the railway bridge entering the slums. At the foot of the bridge my gaze wonders the horizon, unsure what is about to be unearthed under the sea of corrugated tin roofs.
Walking along what is known as the business section of the slums, people hurrily rush pass conversing loudly, trucks squeeze their way through the narrow passages, as mopeds whiz past chopping you up. This was much like most streets in India. We take left past a local store and a small cinema playing the cricket and latest Bollywood films. Turning into the alley the atmosphere changes, confined, dusty, darker. Peering through open doorways sat workers. Small rooms where they huddle closely in the heat, breathing in toxic fumes as they wade through the worlds waste to make a living. The slums recycle over 75% of the cities rubbish, including rubbish from countries like China. Rag pickers will collect plastics from resteraunts and hospitals, left over soap from hotels, Coke cans from the streets; selling them to the scrap dealers who in turn will sell these to the manufactures in the slums. Each dark doorframe reveals another trade. In one sunlight cuts through the thick white floating dust, two silhouettes figures throw large plastics parts into a grinder which churns out chunks of plastic. To be melted and turned into pellets, resold to factories around the world.
Through another you can feel the heat outside, as your eye is drawn to the bright orange flames of the furnace at the back of a dark room, men melt down cans, pouring them into molds to create alliminum bars. Opposite lies an open space, where suitcase are being thrown and caught again on an assembly line of men sat on the floor. Wheels being hammered in, zips attached. A hive of energy, each square meter being utilised steaming out noise, smoke, heat- not quite the factory setting you think of when you see ‘made in India’. It’s no surprise though that most who work here will die by the time they hit their 50s, with no concern for their safety they breathe in the toxic fumes, giving many lung cancer, so they can take home the 9,000r to their families each month.
Though the conditions are indeed shocking, what stuck me more is the resourcefulness of the people. Here lies communities of people who literally are taking everyone’s trash and finding ways to reuse it and sell it back. Even left over soap from hotels was being melted and mixed with pigments to make black soap, to be used to clean dishes. Just think what could be achieved if we found a way to truly recycle everything efficiently, to be less wasteful.
Moving away from the work quarters, Fireescape style ladders hang above us, as faces peek from above hanging over the edges of windows. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a young boy, who face wouldn’t leave me. He was sat on the metal framing, an opening window behind him stacked with biscuits. He sat quietly smiling, organising the packets neatly ready for someone to buy them. His tiny arms, and shallowed face from severe malnutrition didn’t look at the packs with desire or lust, just happily helping out. The deeper we go, other small children run past the winding path ways running around your legs, jumping the puddles and minding the pitholes along the cracked concrete. They run in their uniforms to school, singing, pigtails swinging.
By this point the passage ways are no wider then half a meter, at times forcing me to duck under protruding arch ways (bearing in mind I’m only 5’2- it was getting clostraphobic) Imagine walking through here at night, already it was so dark in this maze of alleys, doorway after doorway lined tightly one against the other. Behind a curtain you can see in, in what be only 35sqm, no bigger than my bathroom at home lies an entire family. Kids drawing, mum washing the clothes in a bowl. 2 elders lying down. Before we can really think about the crammed conditions,we hear drumming getting closer. The alleys open up into a small courtyard, people fill the streets laughter, gold, glittered sparkling sarris. We had walked into a wedding, the bride locks eyes with me, her wide smile inviting us in. She grabs me hand twirling me into the rythem of the music. These people were so happy, full of life.
Of course it was a wedding people usually are, but we came to learn about the strength of the slum communities. Yes, these people work in unpleasant and unsafe conditions and life in confined spaces, but comparatively to many others in India they have good reliable jobs, a place to live, the support of their neighbours, security, homes. Many of the people who have earn a good living from the slums have property outside, but they rent them out and chose to continue to live in the slums; they say they miss being part of such a close community. The people here make the most of everything they have and value it, something most of us could probably step back and do.