Mumbai The outside had a new coat of brown paint on the corrugated sheet metal, which served as walls against the wooden beams and framing open to the sky and elements in many places. A local community “electrician” was still working on lights for the sorting room. From the roadway the new ACORN Dharavi Office and Recycling Center seemed like the classic storefront until a brief look around the side of the space revealed that actually we were the 4th floor add on to a building cobbled together from the ground up along the river remains and along the iconic giant twin pipelines brining water into the city for the Bombay Municipal Corporation.
None of this subdued the celebration as the ribbon was cut opening the small room that the ACORN India members called an “office” and also talked about using as a classroom and general purpose center for the area. The pride of the people was palpable. We already had bags of materials, books, and other items collected from some of the more than 20 schools in Mumbai who partnered with the ACORN ragpickers in the other, larger room. This was the business side of the operation where the sorting of waste would take place into various piles for marketing to the brokers that lined the same roadway deep with trucks, bags, cans, and every salable item.
The old business axiom “location, location, location” was the watchword for this new space. Our recyclers were now right in the middle of the Dharavi recycling action. Furthermore once the volunteer artists who have agreed to come in and paint ACORN on the outside of the space, this will be a great billboard for our work not only in Dharavi but throughout Mumbai.
While the more than 100 members and children clustered around the space for their first good looks at the opening, we walked down the steep stairs under the bridge to first visit the corrugated box recycling plant where we hoped to make a deal for our cardboard and then across the street to the fetid wetlands near the mangrove swamps so visible in Slumdog Millionaire. There were constant warnings not to slip of the huge, slick pipe where falling meant that we would be virtually in the s**t just like the vivid scene in the early part of the movie.
Piles of plastic were being sorted. There was one pile of nothing but eerily dead motorcycle helmets. Most were various parts of electronics in different shapes and sizes. E-waste is much on our minds, especially because of the headlines from Delhi where a scrap dealer and 4 of his employees were still hovering near death in recent days having recycled some form of medical waste and now near death from cobalt radiation poisoning. On the steep bank going up towards the road I could see movement as men and women, seemingly in white camouflage, were beating the concrete residue out of bags so that they could then sell them for recycling. It was impossible to watch, since I knew I was seeing a walking death sentence counting down the amount that these poor people would breath so that they could eat before their lungs were as hard as the concrete the dust was designed to make.
All of this was pushed out of mind by the happiness of our members to celebrate being off the street and sun with their own sorting and storage center. Later down the road more than 100 squeezed into a classroom at the Jesuit’s nearby school to talk about what it all meant to them and what the organization was starting to accomplish including many women getting up with thanks for finally winning ration cards, others for cataract operations and glasses won through the organization’s push into the hospital, and many for the pride and decency of respect for their labor and the hopes that all of this would work and improve their income and livelihood.
Having been to Dharavi many times on my semi-annual visits with our organizers, I had to tip my hat to Vinod Shetty, the ACORN India director, and Anil, our Dharavi organizer, because the committee was running the whole show from opening to meeting. Perhaps as miraculous was that I knew all of the men and women on the primary committee from our meetings over the last year. There was one new guy who seemed excellent, but importantly, the old hands were taking more charge and had their shoulders to this wheel and were pushing.
Stable leadership for our Dharavi group will built something that will last a lot longer than the bricks and sticks of our new office. Everywhere there was a feeling of coming around the corner. It was a happy day in our square feet of Dharavi.