India’s Garbage Politics

Writing in 1993, after decades spent documenting America’s shifting landscapes, poet A. R. Ammons suggested that “garbage [ought] to be the poem of our time.” Inspired by “mounds of disposal” along a ...

Writing in 1993, after decades spent documenting America’s shifting landscapes, poet A. R. Ammons suggested that “garbage [ought] to be the poem of our time.” Inspired by “mounds of disposal” along a stretch of I-95 in Florida, Ammons’s plea to recognize the silent ubiquity of waste would grow into a book-length tribute.1 But the waste produced by unfettered consumption, particularly in the Global North, has proven stubbornly resistant to any serious cultural critique.2 Waste may be the logical corollary of economic growth, but garbage has gone virtually unnoticed. This is due in part to the consumer myopia caused by neoliberal beautification initiatives in cities from New Delhi to Detroit. State and municipal leaders in the Indian capital, for example, have frequently opted to off-site toxicity to urban slum communities.

Meanwhile, in the popular imagination the subject of waste remains anathema for a variety of reasons, ranging from a persistent aesthetic and political commitment to the rural idyll to class- and caste-based notions of purity and pollution.3 The latter are particularly evident in India, where caste distinction—i.e., who ought to bear and process waste—has, it is widely argued, stymied campaigns to curb the consumer waste produced by new development models following economic liberalization in the 1990s.

However, as Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey document in their new book, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, the state’s failure to ameliorate its sanitation problems doesn’t necessarily derive from cultural convention. It is more often the result of shady economic relationships between public and private interests; time and again, the state has failed to invest in local waste economies, opting instead to outsource solid waste management to private enterprise. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to privatization, most recently under the banner of “Swachh Bharat,” or “Clean India,” further exacerbates this trend. Thus, in their conclusion, the authors caution that “any celebration of the resourcefulness and self-reliance of the poor lets the state off the hook.”

The Indian state has a long history of exploiting Dalit (or “scheduled”—formerly called “untouchable”) communities, worsened by the 1995 General Agreements on Tariff and Trade (GATT), which marked India’s entry into the global economic community governed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. A new emphasis on privatization and “free trade,” couched in the rhetoric of development, helped to foster economic partnerships that would further solidify caste and class distinctions by making no provisions for historically disenfranchised communities. Neoliberal-era beautification campaigns—from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s slum clearances to Modi’s Swachh Bharat—have followed suit by working to remove the poor rather than addressing the systemic nature of caste inequality or the sanitation problems that, according to Doron and Jeffrey, date back to colonial-era policies that denied municipal resources to local communities.

While the interrelated phenomena of disease, poverty, and the toxicity born of waste have long plagued the political imaginations of New Yorkers and Londoners, Doron and Jeffrey look to the urban centers of India, where notions of ritual purity, untouchability, and the “detritus of consumer capitalism” are compounded by colonial histories, the crippling effects of economic liberalization, and the opportunistic nationalism of Modi. Taking on the nearly invisible communities that metabolize the nation’s waste, Doron and Jeffrey document life in several informal and formal economies: “Waste collectors come in many sizes. At the high end of the scale are the ship-breaking companies of Alang that bid for waste—unwanted oceangoing ships—in a world market. At the low end are the lone, bicycle-riding, door-to-door kabaadiwalas whom every Indian born before 1995 is likely to remember.”

The book begins by recounting colonial-era sanitation projects and emergent germ theories that would replace 19th-century myths about miasmic air and urban squalor.4 The introduction explores how an aesthetic commitment to the pastoral aligned with Gandhian nationalism, thus adding to our understanding of the complexities (and failures) of postindependence development schemes. A number of scholars have explored how the “father of the nation” extolled a return to the countryside and thereby privileged an Arcadian myth over the material exigencies of the fledgling state. Galvanizing the rural poor in a campaign that effectively painted urban centers as part of the residual colonial imaginary, Gandhi pleaded with his constituency to turn away from the modernization efforts of figures like Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation’s first prime minister.

Of course, the refusal to engage with the material impact of urbanization is clear everywhere in the nation’s history: “The word ‘urban development’ appears for the first time as a chapter heading [in one of Nehru’s five-year development plans] only in 1974.” Evidently, Nehru also preferred the village, or at least the Arcadian myth communicated in independence-era films like Mother India, although his dam projects would more often drown such villages than assuage rural poverty. It is precisely this rural myth that Modi exploits in his use of Gandhi’s iconic figure as the symbol for Swachh Bharat.

The exclusion of the poor—rural and urban—from India’s vision of modern statehood, whether during the era of independence or during economic liberalization in the 1990s, has been a subject for writers for some time. While not necessarily focusing on waste per se, writers like Arundhati Roy have long concentrated on the poor and marginalized. In her 2011 Walking with the Comrades, she criticizes the narrow vision of Manmohan Singh, the “father of economic liberalization,” who promised to make the capital “Delhi-ciously” appealing to foreign investors while removing the poor “like laundry stains.”5 Her 1999 The Cost of Living also indicted the privileging of capital campaigns such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam at the expense of peasant farmers—a project inaugurated on Modi’s last birthday, following some 50 years of protest.

Doron and Jeffrey’s comprehensive study of waste posits caste in a central role but is equally interested in tracing the impact of the nation’s colonial past.

More popular accounts of India’s peasantry and urban slum communities are to be found in films like the 2008 blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, which appealed to the very same liberal sensibilities that Katherine Boo would later court in her 2012 book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A more unsettling account of the “new” India, bound to unnerve Boo’s readers, is Aravind Adiga’s 2008 picaresque novel The White Tiger. Addressing readers directly, Adiga’s irreverent narrator, Balram Halwai, describes the “wall of shit” where workers defecate as the dividing line between “old” and “new” India—“new” captured in places like Gurgaon, where the novel is partly set.6

Doron and Jeffrey, in their project, also foreground open defecation (OD) as a central feature of environmental toxicity that persists in the era of liberalization. OD, a practice that apparently transcends class and caste, has forced campaigns for universal access to toilets into the public eye. Almost perversely, however, Doron and Jeffrey position the toxicity produced from OD as one of a number of “binding crises” that may finally inspire solutions to India’s historical inequality: “As the toxic air that cloaks India’s cities worsens, the connections between the coughing rich and the choking poor may grow more obvious.” This may be a utopian prospect given not only the historical failures of particular sanitation projects but also that the rural poor are plagued by multiple sources of toxicity: “Economic liberalization [that] accelerated in 1991 created new volumes of waste from mines, factories, and agricultural industries.”

Divided into seven chapters, this comprehensive study of waste—wet and dry, human and nonhuman—posits caste in a central role but is equally interested in tracing the impact of the nation’s colonial past. The first chapter, “Time and Place,” begins with the British refusal to fund working sewage systems: “The Sanitary commission of 1863 led to improved conditions in and around army barracks … but only in the 1890s, when self-interest coincided with slow acceptance of medical science, did British government in India begin to ‘recognize a greater practical responsibility for the health of its subjects.’” As the authors also make clear, self-interest won the day: “Rival powers in Europe, plus the United States, could treat India under British rule as a sink of disease and British ships as potential carriers of cholera, typhoid and bubonic plague.”

This was then abetted by Orientalist delusions about India’s sublime environment: “India was uniquely mysterious and unhealthy … and it was India’s climate and environment, not microbes, that made it so. India’s diseases, this fantasy contended, were so exotic that they could survive only in India.” However potent the image of Gandhi’s rural idyll within the nationalist imaginary, such exoticism served a similarly powerful end, potentially dampening Britain’s economic prospects further.

The first chapter also takes on organized crime and the emergence of Indian “garbage mafias,” who, unlike American and Italian crime syndicates, choose to capitalize on local waste economies rather than outsource labor. Here too, the authors turn to the role of caste as a historically mediating force in determining waste infrastructure. Citing Mulk Raj Anand’s 1935 novel Untouchable, written just one year before B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, they explore untouchability through a narrative focused on the death of one such scavenger.


Failed Infrastructure Is Failed Politics

By Joanne Randa Nucho

“Growth and Garbage” mounts an explicitly materialist intervention, looking to trace specific indices of both. Citing oral hygiene as a new source of capital accumulation and environmental toxicity, the authors remark: “Toothpaste tubes are a packaging innovation that animals and the elements cannot deal with.” Once content with glass jars of toothpaste, as well as tooth powder, Indians became a new market for the disposable plastic tubes. It is difficult not to think of the Kolynos Kid billboards in Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Midnight’s Children. Clearly, in Rushdie’s critique of the dubious promises of independence, the placement of the billboard is no accident: toothpaste represented a marker of the nation’s deliverance.

But automobiles and electronic waste seem to pose the greatest problems: “As India’s car population rises, it will not be able to follow the twentieth-century strategy of the United States where, by 1970, it was estimated up to 30 million cars had been dumped in fields, lakes, and rivers. India’s density of population leaves no room for such extravagance.” Apparently “India would choke” if it caught up to the United States.7

If the first two chapters chart a history of economic growth, the next two offer a taxonomy of waste types and the strange new avenues for processing them. “Sewage and Society” first turns to human waste and toilets. Tracing a long history of dry and wet latrines, the chapter notes that the persistence of the dry latrine attests to the nation’s commitment to caste through the preservation of a common Dalit occupation. Also mentioned is the vital role that untouchables can perform in Modi’s efforts to clean India, and his commitment to Hindutva or “Hinduness”—the ideological justification for violent campaigns of fundamentalist repression. Dalits are, like their waste, a “resource to exploit [rather than] a problem to be solved.”

Returning to the legacy of British occupation and binding crises in their discussion of wet waste, the authors cite London’s Great Stink of 1858, which aligned disparate constituencies in the interests of a “clean England” and was likened to Indian political turmoil: “That hot fortnight did for the sanitary administration of the metropolis what the Bengal mutinies did for the administration of India. It showed us more clearly and forcibly than before on what a volcano we were reposing.”8 As they also point out, the Thames flowed at the foot of Parliament while a “smelly Yamuna [river] is five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the noses of [India’s] leaders.”

Those leaders simply didn’t have to acknowledge the living conditions of the rural poor—something that campaigns like the Bollywood film Toilet aim to change, as do the biotoilet initiatives discussed in the chapter on technology. This includes the Swedish “peepoo” model, which has enjoyed some success, although this simple, portable waste receptacle—a biodegradable plastic bag—only seems to offset the problem of systemic toxicity. Indeed, reliance on such initiatives signals the state’s persistent failure to address infrastructural deficiencies that disproportionately affect the poor.

However essential in terms of responsibility for quotidian tasks like waste collection, local government seems to be a thankless enterprise.

Before attending to such failures, the book examines at length salvage economies and “salvage capitalism,” including ship breaking and collecting human hair, to demonstrate yet another problem. Ship breaking, the authors remind us, is a clear example of how “Europe and North America have often dumped their problems on poorer places, just as their own wealthy suburbs send their garbage to poorer regions.” The off-siting of waste, as illustrated by such practices, also accounts for the aforementioned myopia. Modi will have to do more than wield a broom to solve historically constituted problems of uneven development, disposal, and toxicity.

Thus far, however, the state’s efforts have been futile, as well as offensive. In one instance, clearly in response to protests by local environmentalists, fishermen were given enormous solar panels that could neither fit on their small crafts nor withstand the Ganga’s headwinds. The authors’ description of what seemed merely aesthetic adornments will remind readers of Donald Trump’s proposal to decorate his border wall with similar trinkets.9 More robust alternatives like biodigesting plants have been proposed, but such plants, like the “sanitary” incinerators suggested elsewhere in the state, tend to be ineffective. More common solutions include dumping in local water systems, as the authors remark: “The Ganga and Yamuna Rivers choke on industrial effluent and human excrement.” Unfortunately, “in dealing with tainted water and human waste, space is essential,” and space is a problem.

Discussions about space and the availability of resources have long drawn on the kinds of Malthusian logic found in books like The Population Bomb. The authors cite that 1968 work, noting that diminishing space in India and elsewhere is clearly not the result of population growth alone.10 Sure, Earth’s population is reaching a critical threshold, but historic modes of capital accumulation and settlement must be accounted for in any calculus of consumption, waste, and space. Even veteran feminist and radical thinker Donna Haraway asks us to “make kin, not babies” in the face of unchecked population growth, but India’s history of genocidal sterilization campaigns confirms that this is a conversation that can’t ignore postindependence development patterns and the role of caste in their design.11

And so in the penultimate chapter, “Local Governments and Limitations,” the authors return to questions about development patterns and the role of inefficient and underfunded local governments. However essential in terms of responsibility for quotidian tasks like waste collection, local government seems to be a thankless enterprise, generally staffed by token politicos. Therefore, local NGOs emerge where local municipal councilors fail: in Pammal in the mid-1990s, an effective program was enacted to marshal a local waste economy of area ragpickers, all of them Dalits. Not all NGOs are created equal, however, and many have worked to further disenfranchise India’s poorest citizens, often exploiting the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) mandate in India’s Solid Waste Management protocols by appealing to Hindutva. This is where, the authors suggest, organized labor must enter the picture. The final chapter, “Occupations and Possibilities,” looks to public sector unions for an answer.


A Laborless Eden?

By Gustav Peebles

The success of organized labor here is not surprising, given India’s historically robust culture of protest and social organization. The members of one union, inspired by the Chipko Andolan movement, chose to hug dumpsters as their foremothers chose to hug trees.12 Such efforts, however, are occasionally thwarted because “civic initiatives tend to overlook people who are barely considered citizens”; and “the census does not have an occupational category for ragpickers or waste-pickers.” Consequently, Doron and Jeffrey ultimately return to the promises of binding crises, which may ultimately unite rich and poor where local governments and public sector unions have failed.

Surely, vectors of disease that have the potential to affect the nation’s elite will arouse interest, not unlike the self-interest exercised in the British response to sanitation in the 1860s. But when one considers the vast numbers of poor Dalits increasingly marginalized by privatization schemes—from large-scale dam projects designed to drown their communities to mining initiatives in the nation’s interior, to “green revolution” technologies that have decimated the countryside and produced an epidemic of farmer suicides—it is difficult to place any faith in the promise of solidarity. As long as elites benefit from such campaigns, Dalits will simply be sacrificed; and in the absence of a national effort to address historically constituted issues of social and environmental injustice, it is likely that a “clean India” will exist only for the rich, while the poor continue to live in their waste.


This article was commissioned by Patrick Abatiell. icon

  1. A. R. Ammons, Garbage: A Poem (Norton, 1993).
  2. While waste remains largely absent from popular discourse, the field of Energy Humanities has distinguished itself by attending (in part) to the spatial dynamics of development, fossil capitalism, and waste.
  3. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Routledge, 1966).
  4. The authors cite Charles Rosenberg’s book about urban development and miasma in New York City: The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  5. Arundhati Roy, Walking with the Comrades (Penguin, 2011); Capitalism: A Ghost Story (Haymarket, 2014) offers a similarly incisive critique.
  6. See also Gita Dewan Verma’s Slumming India: A Chronicle of Slums and Their Saviours (Penguin, 2003).
  7. See Amitav Ghosh’s comments regarding the “grotesque fictions” of liberalism in his The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  8. The great stink has figured in numerous books lately, including Rosemary Ashton’s One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (Yale University Press, 2017).
  9. Tracy Jan, “Trump’s Proposal for a ‘Solar’ Border Wall Now Appears Dead,” Washington Post, October 26, 2017.
  10. Written by Paul and Anne Erlich, the book was commissioned by the Sierra Club—an organization that would create its office of environmental justice only in 1993.
  11. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).
  12. For a discussion of the Chipko movement, see historian Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Oxford University Press, 1989).
Featured image: City of Delusion (Mumbai, India, 2017). Photograph by Emma Jespersen / Flickr