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Pass the shovel honey: I saw in the paper recently that Mumbai is currently generating 10,000 tons of building rubble per day. In most countries this kind of waste is either used in other construction sites as hard-core or is reprocessed into cinder blocks or other types of building material – not in Mumbai. Here they simply walk it down the road and make a pile of it on some street corner. Mumbai is a very big place, it covers around 170 square miles, but I estimate that at current rate of rubble production the entire city will be about 13 feet deep in the stuff by 2020. The city also produces around 6,000 tons of ‘household’ waste per day, but the citizens of Mumbai have a method for dealing with most of that (but more on that subject later). The other notable thing about construction in Mumbai, well construction workers really, is that at least half of them are women. You also have to admire their sense of tradition for apart from the apparently single one size fits all wellingtons they are all wearing sari’s. When I mentioned the abundance of female construction workers particularly in the continual and seemingly random acts of road maintenance to an Indian colleague she said ‘Oh no, they don’t dig the roads – they just do the fetching and carrying’. Right, I understand now – so they don’t actually do the hard work they just carry 10,000 tons of rubble around in wicker baskets on their heads.

Every day is dustbin day: The poor in Mumbai, there are a lot of them by the way in case you hadn’t already guessed, don’t have their household waste removed they actually have it delivered. They collect large piles of the rotting and stinking stuff right outside of their homes. The adults then pick through the piles removing anything vaguely serviceable. This first pass reduces the piles by approximately 50% and increases the size, robustness or ‘quality’ of the hovel the live in by a similar percentage. The next phase of the treatment system employed to rid Mumbai of its 6,000 tons of daily waste is to turn these piles over to the huge numbers of stray dogs, goats, children and cattle that roam the poorer neighbourhoods. These further reduce the stinking piles by eating anything that cannot be used to build a better shack, and probably many things that could. I didn’t actually see stray children eating plastic or cardboard but I did see goats doing it. Hay, spit that out! I could live in that! So by the end of each day all that remains of the once mighty pile of rubbish you had delivered is a smallish heap of unrecognisable stuff that not even children will eat. Never mind the bin men will drop off another load tomorrow….

And finally: As you head out of Mumbai and into one of its sprawling suburbs along a kind of dual carriage way dotted with random holes and the scars of previous resurfacing efforts you pass through the centre of a shanty town that covers a full square mile. This shanty consists of hundreds if not thousands of single story roughly square dwellings ranging from fairly substantial tin and cardboard homes to small lean-to structures of rotting rags. The shacks sit about ten feet back from the road and this rubble and refuse covered strip is the playground of countless naked children, dogs, goats and cattle. Family groups sits around smouldering camp fires, wash, eat and go to the toilet right next to the busy road. I can only imagine the smell – I didn’t have the courage to wind down the window. But right in the middle of this scene of utter squalor an old lady stoops to sweep the road with a hand brush – why? In any other country on earth the cars passing through this slum, with their affluent western passengers, would be stoned, hijacked, their occupants robbed and murdered – not in Mumbai. The strangest thing is that there appears to be no sense of animus. Not even a defeated sense of hopelessness; it is simply what it is. It’s chaotic, random, bureaucratic, wondrous and amazing – quiet the strangest place I have ever been.


Street Life: Every possible combination of shop front and industry appears on the average Mumbai Street, from newspaper stand through light industrial workshops to modern gleaming office blocks. For the most part it is the small ’shop’ that holds sway on the street. I never really appreciated the true meaning of the word ramshackle until I came here. Built almost entirely of scraps or wood, rotting sack cloth and tin, these small one man factories lean against each other as their only visible means of support. It is often difficult to decide if any one of them is in the process of being built or being demolished; their owners oblivious to the piles of concrete rubble and rubbish being picked clean by packs of stray dogs, goats and cattle that almost completely clog some streets.

I cannot imagine how much of what has been cobbled together by the hundreds of thousands of street people could actually survive the first rains of the monsoon. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps they simply head somewhere else and return to shuffle together new homes from anything that was not completely washed away. Maybe, just maybe they stay and the homes they have built for themselves from cardboard, rags and if they are lucky corrugated tin, survive.

Street Food: Today I passed a ‘cafe’ on the corner of a street frequented by what I can only assume where gangs of local construction workers. Those of you old enough to have seen images of miners leaving the pit head, their faces black with coal dust will understand the meaning of dirty but this was just way beyond that. The whole place, including everyone and everything in it, tables, chairs, people, walls, counter top, was coated with a layer of dust and grime thick enough to literally have written your name in it. Let’s stop here for a spot of lunch – NOT. You would never have made it from lunch the ten yards across the road to the small local hospital from where your best hope of survival would be to be airlifted and medevac’d back to the UK. I wonder if it is actually possible for a non-native to build up an immune system powerful enough to survive eating or drinking anything other than that which has been prepared in a 5 star hotel.

Street Animals: So I live slap bang in the middle of a city of 13 million people and I don’t have a garden, does this stop me from keeping a herd of goats or half a dozen cattle, not in Mumbai it doesn’t. Mumbai covers an area of almost 170 square miles and right in the middle there is a man walking an elephant down a busy, and I mean busy, street. Where does he keep it at night, in the spare room perhaps? So what do the cars do to encourage the beast to hurry up a little, yep – they honk their horns. Well I’m no animal expert but to me that would seem a little ill advised. Surely you’re either going to make it mad or worse still panic. The thought of a crazed elephant blundering through the hotchpotch of tumble down shacks and lean-to’s that these people call home scattering children, goats, cattle, the elderly left and right just doesn’t bare thinking about. Anyway driver – just give him another toot, I’m sure he’ll move politely over – either that or let out a trumpeting roar as he stomps us flatter than last night’s garlic naan.

He who is loudest wins: Urban roads in Mumbai are a kaleidoscopic miasma of vehicular and non-vehicular traffic, including such diverse things as cars, trucks, motor-rickshaws (three-wheeled taxis), bicycle-rickshaws, motor scooters, elephants, goats, dogs, children, chickens, bearers, push-carts, and buses. These things are all moving. If you want to pass anything honk your horn, everyone will honk theirs as well. In fact even if you don’t want to overtake anything honk it anyway. My driver just liked the sound of our horn and would blast it at any and every opportunity just for the sheer joy of hearing the sound. When you honk your horn everyone who is not in a hurry will move politely aside to let you through, unfortunately everyone is in a hurry, but I’m sure they would move aside if they weren’t. So he who is loudest gets the right-of-way. If the other vehicles and livestock don’t yield to the loudest horn, the vehicle with the right-of-way enters the lane of oncoming traffic and passes those ahead – especially on a busy street at rush hour. This must be especially fun if you are in a flimsy motor-rickshaw, with a huge truck bearing down on you.

Don’t hit the cows: In addition to the moving traffic, you have a number of stationary targets, sorry, obstacles, including cows, beggars, street repair crews, double-parked cars and trucks and elephants. You are in the right as long as you don’t hit the cows. The cows can be ANYWHERE in the street. Sometimes they sit in the central reservation, but more often than not you find them sitting right in the middle of the road. All traffic flows around the cow. Other animals or people are not so lucky.

All roads shall be repaired once every 20 years, whether they need it or not: The state of road surfaces in Mumbai are a miracle of manual labour. Everything is done by hand, including the removal of old asphalt (apparently you burn a fire on top of the road until it gets soft), laying the stone, mixing concrete (usually right on top of the street), and levelling the surface. The tools are shovels and picks and brooms. This insures the maximum amount of work for the repair crews with the heaviest work being done by frail looking old ladies. This also insures the maximum amount of disruption of traffic, because the process of resurfacing a stretch of road must take a minimum of five years. The process of building a one mile stretch of new road takes about ten years. When they are done resurfacing, the condition of the road is likely to be nearly identical to its previous condition, meaning full of potholes, step changes in height, etc. Since most vehicles appear lack any sort of suspension, a short ride around town is a bone-jarring, exhausting, white-knuckled adventure. For example, on the trip from the airport to the hotel, on my arrival in Mumbai, the driver hit what appeared to be a half buried cannon ball approximately 10 inches across just sticking out of the middle of the road with such force that I was sure he would rip the axle clean out from under us. But no, he just turned, smiled over his shoulder and honked his horn.