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.

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