Thesis Prep Advisors:
Sinead Mac Namara
Honors Capstone Reader:
Plastic recycling is a critical informal economy in Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums in the heart of Mumbai. Waste from dumping grounds is collected, sorted, and prepared by recyclers who transform trash into a commodity to be sold back into the city. As part of top-down efforts to redevelop Dharavi's valuable land, the Mumbai government has tarnished the industry's image, labeling it as "polluting", and has increased the cost of utilities such as electricity in an effort to drive it out of the community. As it becomes more expensive for recyclers to operate, the labor unions that organize the industry have devised a plan to build a recycling industrial park outside of Mumbai on cheaper and more open land. As the community is destabilized by the pressures of development, an important urban and architectural question arises: what happens to Dharavi and its people when one of its most important industries is driven out?
This thesis examines the material and human geography of Dharavi's informal recycling economy. Extensive on-site investigations documented the recycling processes in detail. Plastic samples were collected, more than 1,200 individual spaces in the community's fabric were mapped, and aerial surveys were conducted. Dharavi's complex social and economic network was explored through interviews with a cross section of actors who traverse its dense streets: residents, ragpickers, business owners, politicians, police, union leaders, and local academics and researchers.
The study revealed their pride in the industries, entrepreneurial spirit and strong community ties that bind Dharavi together, and uncovered the community's fear of misrepresentation through social media, poverty tourism, cinema, and public perception. Two crucial challenges facing architects working in an informal community are how to represent people and how to address their community identity when speculating on new construction in the voids created by inevitable change. This project grapples with the difficulty of documenting and portraying the Dharavi slum and its people through architectural representation. The goal is to propose a flexible design that allows for an array of bottom-up usages that might stabilize and reinforce Dharavi's economy amidst increasing pressure from the government and developers.