This project funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund through the British Academy, aims to provide an in-depth analysis of formal/informal infrastructural collisions in Mumbai. Dharavi, as one of the largest informal settlements in Asia, is a highly significant centre of employment and economic activity but is directly affected by many global challenges (e.g. poverty, plastic waste, water shortage, poor urban resilience, migration, housing and sanitation). Its recycling industry is entirely self-organised within the informal sector. Poor infrastructure creates air/groundwater pollution and significant land contamination. Reducing waste comes at the expense of human health and life. The research team seeks to examine urban development through the lens of the 'smart city from below', at the interface between the user-generated city and centralised urban planning systems. It looks to also address issues of trust, health protection, participation, ownership and ethics in the implementation of infrastructure-driven solutions, specifically at the points of collision between 'top down' development (e.g. the USD3.4bn Mumbai Metro 3) and the 'user-generated city' of the Dharavi workers colony.
Theme 1: Waste Management, Water Management and Sustainable Technologies
The problems of waste management, water management, human welfare/wellbing and urban infrastructure are interrelated. Dharavi’s 13th Compound is responsible for significant reductions in waste, processing materials on a large scale, that would otherwise end up in landfill, the sea or incineration. However, its working practices lead to widespread toxicity in groundwater, wastewater, air quality and hazardous working conditions. Through a series of workshops and interviews, we will explore and test small-scale improvements in working processes, designed to contribute to safer and more sustainable waste management.
Theme 2: Smart cities from below?
The widespread adoption of 3- & 4G smartphones in India, even amongst the urban poor, presents opportunities for reconfiguring connectivities, creating economic openings, changing socio-economic relations and rethinking access to information and knowledge. Accessing global social media platforms and apps challenge traditional social barriers of identity, status, gender and their associated exclusions of physical space. However, e-commerce and the ‘monetisation of trust’ through rapidly expanding corporate service platforms such as Uber, Ola and Swiggy, seen alongside the ‘banality of power’ (Datta & Odendaal 2019) exhibited by uncritical, centralised smart city imaginaries, present significant challenges to the informal networks of trust and mutuality driven by face to face interactions that characterise everyday life in Dharavi’s worker colonies. However, tens of millions of Indian citizens have only sporadic internet access. Many still live without a reliable electricity or water supply. There are very stark inequalities in access to everyday infrastructures. The shift from 4G to 5G and the ‘internet of things is likely to act as a multiplier of inequality if not controlled democratically. Digital infrastructure also requires the development of physical infrastructure, from data centres, satellite dishes, fibre-optic cable to mobile phone masts. The ecological consequences of the digital economy are also evident in Dharavi, as the discarded remnants of previous generations of digital products and services find their way to the ‘go-downs’ of the recycling industry.
Theme 3: The lived experiences of infrastructural collisions: enabling community voices
The self-organised informal ‘user-generated city’ in places like Dharavi exists in an ambiguous and contested relationship to the formal economy and formal urban planning and governance. How do communities, at the sharp end of urban change, negotiate, respond to and interact with such changes? It has been claimed that urban restructuring in Mumbai has imposed varied and inappropriate forms of urban development (Phadke, 2014). Phadke argues that whists national and local governments focus on so-called success stories, the real face of urban transformation needs to be analysed - i.e. breakdowns in the everyday space-economy linked to deeper changes in socioeconomic structures. Compound 13 Lab, as a place to share knowledge provides a platform for local people to engage with industry, NGO and government stakeholders, to share understanding of the implications of planned infrastructure projects on an ongoing basis and in real time.