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The dirty truth

Two social scientists survey India's vast and growing problem of waste managementundercut by caste, class and many blind spotsin a fascinating new study

India’s waste management problem is made worse by its notion of pollution and the persistence of the caste system. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
India’s waste management problem is made worse by its notion of pollution and the persistence of the caste system. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

In 2013, anthropologists Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey published Cell Phone Nation: How Mobile Phones Have Revolutionized Business, Politics And Ordinary Life In India, a study that had taken them to Seelampur, in Delhi, the year before. It’s the place where electronic gadgets, especially cellphones, from the city and its vicinity come to die—or, rather, to find a second life, thanks to the recycling industry there. That visit not only enriched their research but also turned out to be the catalyst for their next book, Waste Of A Nation: Garbage And Growth In India, which comes out here this month.

While it may not be appealing to the urban, English-reading elite, waste is all-pervasive in human life. From a bottle of drinking water to the devices we can’t live without, every perishable item in our ecosystem adds to it. At a fundamental level, all living organisms create it as part of a regular biological cycle. Yet, in India, which produces over 100,000 metric tonnes of waste in different forms every day, the disposal of such a ubiquitous by-product involves complex social, economic and psychological negotiations.

In their exhaustive survey, Doron and Jeffrey take a 360-degree look at waste, from production to disposal to reuse, and all the intervening steps during this journey that intersect with caste, class and technology. The caste system, abolished by the Constitution but alive into the 21st century, relegates a section of society to the task of getting rid of refuse. Caste, as Doron and Jeffrey show, is the bulwark on which India’s waste management industry operates. The country’s relationship with ancient ideas of pollution complicates personal hygiene and patterns of thinking. People are likely to sit down to a meal without washing their hands with soap but won’t touch food cooked by a person of lower caste because they are “polluted".

Waste of a Nation - Garbage and Growth
Waste of a Nation - Garbage and Growth

In spite of the strict hierarchy in handling waste, it remains a great leveller. Caste privilege cannot counter the power of ill-disposed garbage in spreading diseases, which affect the rich as much as the poor, creating what Doron and Jeffrey describe as a “binding crisis". Out of such a situation, which brings an entire community together irrespective of stations in society, relief may come to a problem that’s endemic—such as the incidence of stubble burning in and around the National Capital Region, which leads to severe air pollution every winter.

Looking at trades as diverse as the collection and sale of human hair to the popularity of the daatun (the twig of neem tree) over toothbrush and toothpaste to the progress of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in changing public policy and attitudes to waste, Doron and Jeffrey present a riveting account of contemporary life in India. In an exclusive email interview with Lounge, they spoke of their experience of writing the book. Edited excerpts:

What does India’s relationship with its waste look like to an outsider to the society?

We have both lived in and visited India for several decades. We were used to the sights of rubbish dumps, and open defecation on the railway tracks and elsewhere. It is no secret that many foreigners would prefer to visit other, cleaner countries because they cannot see beyond the poverty and filth that is all too often the mark of public spaces in India. Likewise, many amongst the vast Indian diaspora seem frustrated with the country’s inability to deal with its waste and sanitation problem. There is, too, a middle-class embarrassment and exasperation over the condition of the country’s public spaces, combined with growing public health awareness. (Narendra) Modi is clearly sensitive to this unease amongst the diaspora and sections of the middle classes, who are impatient with the pace of change and are very supportive of Swachh Bharat.

India’s relationship with waste has markedly changed over the years. The practices of frugality and husbanding that were once widespread have been replaced by a people enthusiastically embracing consumerism and a throwaway culture. Since the economic reforms of the early 1990s, the magnitude and composition of waste in India has changed dramatically. For a population of 1.3 billion people, densely populated, with nearly 40% living in urban areas, this meant a steep rise in building and infrastructure projects, producing enormous amounts of waste from construction and demolition debris to new volumes of waste from mines, factories, and agricultural industries. In fact, only Bangladesh, among substantial countries, equals India in population density. Even if India were very heavily rural, its growing population would mean vast amounts of vegetable waste and human and animal excrement each day.

How does India fare vis-à-vis its other Asian neighbours in the subcontinent and beyond, like China, regarding its attitude to waste?

If density and volumes of waste are two key elements evident elsewhere in the world, no other country must contend with the enduring spectre of caste. The ideas and practices of caste haunt India’s efforts to cope effectively with the waste of a vast, urbanizing population. Caste and ideas about purity and pollution mean that India does not have a tradition—as, for example, China, Japan and the Netherlands once did—of seeing even human waste as a valuable product. The intense revulsion felt in India against things (and people) that are seen as ritually polluting is rare elsewhere—probably unique in its complexity and intensity.

Caste prejudice underpins the discrimination against a “wasted" underclass of Dalits, landless migrants, and poor Muslims. These groups make up a reserve army of unskilled labourers who often live in settlements near the piles of rubbish generated by a burgeoning consumer middle class. Attitudes to waste are rarely confined to economic practices and political pressures but also central to cultural beliefs, especially the interplay of relations among genders, classes and castes.

To what extent has the Swachh Bharat campaign been able to address India’s waste problem?

There is no doubt that the prime ministerial weight behind this campaign has been positive insofar as it highlighted the persistent problem of waste, sanitation and public health. Such campaigns have been especially appealing to those bent on making India “green and clean", bolstered by Modi’s “just do it" style, and Gandhi’s iconic spectacles peering from every billboard and banknote. But this can have a negative side, characteristic of such top-down and target-driven campaigns. There’s an echo of the disastrous nasbandi (family planning) campaign of Indira Gandhi’s 1975-77 “Emergency". We hope that those driving Swachh Bharat can combine practices of public hygiene with policies calibrated for local conditions in an effort to foster widespread cooperation. This will mean resourcing local government and drawing on civil society organizations to ensure that local knowledge and practices inform policy and practice.

What does the future augur for India’s waste management, and the ways in which this is going to influence public health, policy-making and social change?

India must redefine its relationship with waste in light of pressures arising out of global capitalism, urbanization and new forms of consumption. The poor are also implicated in this cycle of consumption. They rely on the vast fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) economy and the vast amount of waste it churns out in the form of small sachets and plastic packaging. It is an economy of scale, with little consideration for how such waste may be dealt with properly.

The role of municipal authorities is key. Currently, these civic bodies are under-resourced, underpowered, and subject to political manipulations. Municipalities need to be supported by skilled staff and appropriate technology to ensure local recycling and composting systems work. Waste-workers need to be incorporated in ways that draw on their experiences and expertise and offer dignity and rewards in return for reliable service. Failure lies in attempts to apply single technical and organizational “solutions" that are supposed to work everywhere. Even something as simple as a rural toilet is complicated: What works in Kerala won’t work in Rajasthan.

Fact File

■It took a plague scare in 1994 for Surat, in Gujarat, to clean up its act, reportedly with the help of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers, including Narendra Modi, who was inspired by its success to launch the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.

■Of the estimated 10,000 soldiers killed in the Revolt of 1857, more than 8,500 died due to poor sanitation.

■The garbage mafia (there is such a group) earns big bucks through the right of control over landfills and dumpyards. When the Deonar dump in Mumbai caught fire in 2016, the gangs lording over it told journalists they lost income to the tune of Rs6 crore a day.

■A toothpaste tube is one of the toughest objects to recycle because of the persistence of wet waste within dry waste.

Source: ‘Waste Of A Nation

Waste Of A Nation will be available on sale from 15 April.

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