"At every stage they are asked for proof of identity, proof of residence. So if you don't have [that] you are treated as a criminal in the city. So then they have to bribe someone to get something all the time," says Mr. Shetty. "They are in fact lining the pockets of all these authorities, who have a vested interest in keeping them either informal or without papers."
ACORN India issues the ragpickers identification cards that help cut down harassment by police and neighborhood watch groups.
But since the group cannot be turned easily into a vote bank or organized against a single employer – most are self-employed – they have been ignored by politicians and labor unions.
ACORN India is working with the ragpickers to form a cooperative that helps the adults bargain collectively for better prices and social standing, while providing their kids educational scholarships and enrichment.
"In a city like [Mumbai] you need to be from a powerful section of the poor to grab land or even squat. If you are not protected by a political party, or by a community, or by any kind of gangsters or slumlord, you may not even get that space," says Shetty.
Instead, some of the 150,000 to 200,000 ragpickers in Mumbai live on top of the garbage they sort on the fringes of Dharavi.
One such colony lives under a highway overpass around a trash heap hemmed in by two massive water pipes. The pipes have become sidewalks connecting hovels where ragpickers skillfully squeeze profit from the 10,000 tons of trash discarded daily in the metropolis.