Today I visited one of the Mumbai slums close to IIT-Bombay that is part of the Acara challenge. Students Pleasa, Nidhi and Andarasan, along with some IIT employees who live in the area, were my guides. We also had some material from one of the MN classes to try out.

It’s impossible to get a good picture from a two hour visit, but that visit, combined with knowledgeable students and residents, and my previous experiences in India slums/rural areas, gave me a pretty good picture. But I am going to preface this by saying this is based on what I thought I heard and remembered. All data would have to be reconfirmed during more thorough interviews. Overall these were “middle class” slums, with some worse and some better.

I linked to some pictures but check out the whole album here.

Slums are not homogeneous, even within the area we visited there was a difference of economic and living conditions. This is part of the market segmentation we want to make sure the students are accounting for in their solutions.

Overall, the problem for water in these slums is quantity, not quality. The water quality for the most part is ok (except in certain cases listed below). But even in middle class homes (according to both the students and Gagan, who lives nearby), the water is not available 24 hours a day. In the visit today, water seems to be available on average about 6 hours a day. There is a schedule, so it’s not like it’s erratic. But Gagan says even their apartment building runs out (they have a big storage tank on the roof that they fill), and there are even products you can buy to “suck” water out of the tap (from the water lines) when it stops running.

The issue of water reuse/recycling was the original problem statement, from Dr. Murali at Cargill. We did open it up a little so students would look at the whole life cycle, but it still seems to come down to a question of working with a limited supply.

The slum today was roughly divided into two parts, and one side was a little wealthier than the other. The former had a water main that came in, with a meter on a branch of the pipe, that then branches into about 5 or 6 smaller branches, into homes. Homes here are pretty typical slum homes, about 10 ft by 10 ft., just one room. This water is metered and the families share the bill, which is paid every 3 months (I think this typical bill is about 15000 rupees for everyone). Issues: this water still is available a limited time, and there isn’t that much storage available. Also the pipes may get leaks in them. The problem with that isn’t that water gets out but that dirty water gets in. In the poorer part of the slum, there is a central tap, about every 100 meters, that is free. But sometimes the lines to these also break.

So what happens with the water once it is transported/stored in the home? The water is used for cooking or cleaning (washing clothes, dishes, kids). This grey water is then just poured into the drainage outside the house. This drainage is mostly covered but poorly. It runs into a central drain. So this is the essence of the reuse problem. Water is in short supply and if one could reuse some of this water, it would leave more water available to the household for other uses, and potentially reduce the storage problem.

How much do people earn and what do they do? The average daily income in the poorer part was about 100-300 rupees per day (approx 50 rupees to the dollar). They earn this selling food, doing piecework, driving auto rickshaws, construction labor, stuff like that. The amazing thing to me, was that a dwelling here was about 1 lakh (1 lakh is 100,000 rupees, or about $2000). This fee is essentially a right to live there. Not exactly rent but something like it. It isn’t clear to me who you pay (the input I got is probably an organized crime person) but the residents get the money from private lenders (aka loan sharks) and pay it back on a regular basis. I question all these figures, I think they are all on the high side. If you make 300 rupees per day, 6 days a week, that is about 93,000 rupees a year. 100 rupees per day would be about 30,000 rupees per year. But after the visit, I talked some more to Gagan who said they are likely, maybe a little high but not much.

So more on slum politics. If you live in a place like this, you don’t own the land, you are technically encroaching. Therefore if you have lived there less than 14 years, the government can kick you out, which is what is happening with this slum. A metro and a shopping center are being built there, and everyone has to move. In fact, most of the residents thought I was in the slum for that reason (I sort of stuck out). If you have lived there more than 14 years, you can’t be kicked out. (resettled).

There is also an election coming up. Local politicians will do some things to make improvements in the slums to get votes, then after they get elected, will stop it. When you read about corruption in emerging economies, this is one of the things being referred to. Local politicians have an enormous amount of clout in the slum, and nothing will happen without their approval, especially something around water, housing or electricity.

The students used the water pasteurizer. It works but the family wasn’t very interested. They know how long to boil the water, more or less, and the primary benefit for this device is that it might allow them to use less fuel. But they wouldn’t pay 50 rupees for it. Maybe 5? Again for this family, the issue is quantity.

What about the monsoons? Well, it overflows everything, increasing the likelihood dirty water gets into the system.

What about toilets? There are not toilets in the home. There are public toilets run by an NGO and ones run by the government. They cost 2 rupees per use. That’s a lot to pay to pee, if you have 5 people living in your home. There was a private toilet which charged something like 20 rupees per family for a set period of time (much cheaper than a once per use fee). Not as nice though.

There are a lot of class issues around slum politics. There is plenty written about that elsewhere, but for the students looking at these issues, it would behoove them to look into those issues.

Overall all the residents were very gracious, but clearly wondering what I was up to. Dharavi, the biggest slum in Mumbai (in Asia for that matter), gets studied so much, the residents there are very savvy about visitors (they will tell you what they think you want to hear), and not always so friendly. Here in Powai, they don’t get as much scrutiny as Dharavi. But don’t think of these as bleak places. Many people live here because they choose to live here, they could afford to live somewhere else. But there friends and family are here, they are close knit and it’s a supportive community. And even though the homes are small, they have things you see in any home. The home where we did the tests, had an aquarium in it.

Overall, the US students in the Acara Challenge better be listening well to their Indian teammates. And if they aren’t, their review scores will go down. The IIT-B student’s understanding of the issues here is pretty good.