Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste.


Charles Baudelaire [1851] 


Waste, Disposability, and Precarious Work in the Global City


Rethinking the city from below approaches the mechanisms of urban development and the practices of everyday life from a radically different perspective to the top-down, ‘telescope’ or ‘helicopter’ visions of conventional urban research, planning and policymaking. In the informal city occupied by the marginalized and dispossessed, creative problem solving and everyday living solutions inherent to conditions of informality are driven by local actors, who are necessarily ‘smart’ people. They are forced to invent, provide and sustain forms of self-organisation and engagement within a matrix of ‘borderline’ formal and informal markets that are necessary for survival in a state of poverty. Confronted by the extreme inequalities of Global South megacities such as Mumbai, the operational logic behind the data-driven ‘smart city’ paradigm, the idea that everyday users generate the city, is complexified by continual struggles over space, information and access. The planned and procedural city engages primarily with powerful actors who have access to resources: finance, education, tools and technologies. A major policy challenge is how to implement urban infrastructures and systems that include rather than exclude, enabling dialogue and participation, not enforcing hierarchies of access and reinforcing the dynamics of exclusion. 


Leading Global South urbanists such as Rahul Mehrotra (2010) have sought ways to elevate the significance of indigenous knowledges by reframing the concepts of formal and informal urbanism. In contrast to the permanence of the static city; of vertical concrete, steel and glass, of gated enclaves, elite communities and spectacular architecture that have come to represent world class city imaginaries, at ground level is found the Kinetic City and its ever transforming streetscape. Mehrotra’s Kinetic City challenges the definition of informal as poor and marginalised to propose an ‘indigenous urbanism’ operating under its own local logic, spatial sensibilities and living solutions that include ‘formally unimagined uses’ in the dense and socially complex living conditions that are found in places like Dharavi. 


Recent work by Doron and Jeffrey (2018) charts India’s complex struggle with managing waste and sanitation; not least because images of public squalor, widespread open defecation and rampant plastic and chemical pollution undermine claims of ‘modernization’, as well as directly affecting infant mortality, public health and the living conditions of the poor. Alongside this, a long tradition of frugality, repair/mending, and jugaad (‘frugal innovation’) contrast sharply with the logics of consumerism and social exclusion, which means that material cultures and inequalities are foregrounded in public debates over waste and disposability.  ‘Acute poverty and long standing practices of reuse create intricate networks for collection, classification and recycling of waste. Consumer goods in India embark on complex and unexpected journeys involving street-side repair, disaggregation and reaggregation…recycling, restitution and decomposition. An object’s life and journey are rarely as predictable as they are in the developed world’ (Doron and Jeffrey, 2018, p. 41). 


The implementation of an experimental design and urban ecology lab in Dharavi’s 13th Compound is intended to create a space of enquiry where these local knowledges and practices can be communicated within and beyond Dharavi, through a process of increasingly self-organised making and learning. Its social and political context, a productive matrix of self-built and self-organised live/work spaces, demonstrates the ways in which people have sought to reclaim and regain control of their own urban environments, resisting the centrifugal forces of expulsion and slum clearance, living constantly under the shadow of the city authorities’ attempts to implement demolition/redevelopment. Specific to the ‘worker colonies’ and intricate supply chains of the 13th Compound is the city’s dependency on workers’ knowledge and skills as ‘citizen scientists’ and the highly productive recycling practices that prevent the rest of the citizenry from disappearing under the volume of their own waste. The vital contribution made by informal waste recovery through the self-organised recycling sector remains undervalued and largely invisible, echoing the marginalized and disposable status of the extremely poor workers that sustain it (Gill, 2010). 


Through a series of curated residencies with artists, designers and engineers (at least half of whom will be women) the activities of the Lab will explore narratives that challenge received notions of disposable products and materials, reflecting on the reproduction of labour and the 'biopolitics of disposability'. The negative perception and marginalisation of informal labour, in particular the social class of those handling waste materials and human sanitation themselves become waste, seen as disposable. This aspect of labour and capitalist production takes on the form of waste: consumed, excreted, discarded, spent; the ‘human as waste’ therefore, according to Yates (2011) follows the logic of human disposability in which ‘the body of the laborer is used up or wasted at accelerated rates so as to secure the most profit’. 


As a ‘dark mirror’ of the proliferation of spectacular global city narratives in the international competition for status between cities, images and stories of poverty and exclusion also constantly circulate (Davis & Monk, 2007). Imogen Tyler has described this media politics as a form of ‘classificatory struggle’: “Giroux argues that contemporary life is characterized by a ‘biopolitics of disposability’ in which ‘poor minorities of color and class, unable to contribute to the prevailing consumerist ethic, are vanishing into the sinkhole of poverty in desolate and abandoned enclaves of decaying cities [and] neighbourhoods (Giroux, 2007: 309)” (Tyler, 2015, p. 494). One prominent media portrayal of Dharavi is of an unproductive, parasitical neighbourhood beset with problems of sanitation and criminality. Conversely it is also presented as a place of opportunity and creativity, where the resourcefulness and resilience of its inhabitants are celebrated, not least in the emergent hip-hop scene with which many of ACORN’s youth are actively engaged, which acts as a powerful medium for communication, advocacy and self-determination (Trapp, 2005). Within our projects, music, dance and film have acted as key circulators of alternative narratives, e.g. in Resources of HopeJeffery and members of ACORN engaged in hip-hop music production using recycled and reclaimed audio material, gathered and sampled from the industrial soundscapes of the 13th Compound (ACORN, Parry & Jeffery, 2018). ACORN’s Dharavi Rocks music ensemble acts as a human rights advocacy tool; it is a publicly performed expression of the creative potential of Dharavi’s young people.