OPINION

The politics of waste management

Barbara Harriss-White

Barbara Harriss-White  

Human society has always produced waste and always will. Waste materials — substances without value — are constantly generated in all production, all distribution and all consumption processes. The time waste spends without any value may be a few minutes at the minimum and, at a maximum, eternity. Nature, the key provider of resources, is not simply a tap. In subjecting waste to the physical laws of decomposition and re-composition, it also acts as a sink. Many bio-physical processes take place at an extremely slow rate, compared to the rapid physical cycles of the economy. My 2015 fieldwork on the waste economy of a small town indicated that about half the waste could not be recycled and was left to nature’s sinks.

A 2013 paper in Nature describes India’s waste production as the fastest growing in the world and set to peak a century into the future. In the small town I studied, there is no proper waste management mechanism — waste is too costly to control, engulfs all open spaces and is beginning to lead to a public health catastrophe.

Waste management in a small town

Take human waste, since everyone is talking about it. In the town I studied, the abolition of manual scavenging in the early 1990s led to the abolition of jobs reserved for women scavengers. This means that these horrible but comparatively well-paid jobs depend on official patronage and discretion more than ever. The municipal labour force is becoming more male than ever and the disposal of ‘wet waste’ is now men’s work.

By now, half the town’s houses have septic tanks. However, the owners of the small fleets of septic tankers report that very few households empty them regularly — they might be cleared once in a generation or when they break down. And there are no facilities for the treatment of faecal sludge when it is pumped out — it is all dumped into a nearby lake and the river bed; the lorry drivers are fined by the police when caught in the act.

Meanwhile, human waste from the other 50 per cent of the households and almost all commercial buildings finds its way into the open drains and urban drainage ditches where it joins general consumption waste. By all accounts, this also includes medical waste leaking from private hospitals. Impossible to separate from the other waste, its final resting place is the dangerously toxic dumpyard, where entire families of indigent scrap-gatherers survive by sifting the putrid surface. Meanwhile, though it is illegal, someone may try containing the mess by systematically — maybe on a weekly basis — setting fire to portions of it. I don’t see the these difficulties being recognised in the public debates on defecation.

Over the last quarter-century while the volume of waste has increased by a factor of 8-10 times and shifted decisively towards being non-biodegradable, the labour force engaged in sanitation work has shrunk by 60 per cent.

Tax evasion starves the local government of resources. On the other hand, technologies have hardly changed, leading to a burgeoning informal economy that has become indispensable to the waste management system, and hence, to the rest of the economy. The compulsions of the new public management structure and privatisation have resulted in a replacement of secure jobs with a guaranteed minimum wage, as per the International Labour Organisation (ILO) norms, with jobs which can sometimes be labelled as bonded labour and are purely on the basis of verbal contracts. While a secure job guaranteeing a minimum wage would fetch the employee anywhere between Rs.15,000 and Rs. 25,000 a month, with commensurate rights and benefits, a job based on contract would hardly give him Rs.4,000-Rs.7,000 a month with few benefits.

Not only is this work informalised in itself but to supplement his low pay, he also has to carry out other side jobs. The labourers, working in long shifts, sort the waste and pack it for the wholesaler. Apart from this, scores of gatherers scour the town before dawn — mostly on foot and sometimes using cycle or cycle carts — to supply the scrappers who sort it and send it to a massive depot. Recyclable waste there is slotted into hundreds of categories for further re-processing. And small fortunes are made by the few at the top.

Most work involving waste products is hard, dangerous and oppressive. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report stated that 90 per cent of India’s sanitation workers die before they reach retirement age. This kind of work is stigmatised throughout the world. Many people think it is the Dalits who are made to handle the waste but in the town I studied, about a third of the municipal workforce was not Dalit or Adivasi. It was getting cosmopolitan and being labelled as a municipal labourer did not cause shame.

The informal waste management economy, by contrast, still consists almost entirely of Dalits and Adivasis. It is socially stratified. Indeed people belonging to one tribe are shunned as ‘animals’ and socially ostracised, as are people who have forfeited the social right to be dependent upon others due to an addiction, disease, elopement or crime. The neediest people work in waste management and the neediest waste workers are the ones least entitled to the social safety net.

The entire social structure is experienced as one filled with violence that consigns people who have the least choice or mobility to work in the informal waste management industry. While few among those we interviewed complained of discrimination at work, more instances of abuse were reported when it comes to their interactions with the rest of society. For example, passengers expressed annoyance at the cleaners in trains if they even touched their seats. Hospital housekeepers were often abused by patients. There is a long way to go before discrimination is eliminated while preparing for what the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) recently described as an economy where people have access to quality housing, schooling health and transport facilities.

Though one section/tribe is routinely abused as a group, many others are also experiencing discrimination — not as a result of their ascribed group-based identity like that of caste, tribe or gender but as a result of their social condition resulting from factors like poverty, illiteracy, the dirt they come into contact with during work and a need to drink alcohol. Individual discrimination exists alongside group-based discrimination and may be replacing it.

Technology not in short supply

What is to be done? Construction of toilets and management of air pollution are, for sure, only a tiny part of the waste management economy and there is no shortage of technological solutions on offer. Human waste can be also detoxified and recycled. The technologies involved are not rocket science. However, how to customise them — scaling up for towns and scaling down for places at the outskirts — is a thorny question. Further, why should it be assumed that the upgraded technology will be operated by the same Dalits and Adivasis? And, if not, will there be plans for compensating and re-training the existing informal labour force when it is displaced? If not, why not?

India’s waste management economy is clearly and uniquely impregnated with caste. Research suggests that to break this down modern jobs that are caste-neutral are needed, along with opportunities for education and migration. The workers I spoke to agreed and added that there was a need to provide opportunities for self-employment, which they felt gave them some much-desired independence. They also expressed the need for greater state intervention.

However, while the state represents progress to the workers, as a source of both jobs and welfare provisions like subsidised rice, its role is complicated. Workers also encounter it as a bastion of the upper class that discriminates against them. Achievements such as establishing bank accounts with nationalised banks now come with new sites of discrimination. Stigma can also be addressed through political activism — through trades unions, political parties and social movements.

However, in my research, I came to understand that while there has been some sporadic empowerment, it both results from and reinforces a politics of social identity. Whether there is a Swachh Bharat programme or not, the dignity and social condition of workers involved in waste management figures right at the bottom of the political agenda.

( Barbara Harriss-White is a visiting professor at the Centre for the Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, Oxford University .)



Work involving waste products is tough, dangerous and oppressive. A report found that 90 per cent of India’s sanitation workers die before they reach retirement age





The production of waste in India is growing at an exponential rate. However, the welfare and dignity of the informal workers involved in the stigmatised sector of waste management remains at the bottom of any government’s political agenda





While the media is full of facts, figures, intentions and achievements about cleanliness and pollution, let’s try to set toilets, open defecation and air pollution in their real context





The formal workforce getting cosmopolitan and being labelled as a municipal labourer does not cause it shame. The informal economy, by contrast, consists almost entirely of Dalits and Adivasis





Over the last quarter-century, while the volume of waste has increased by a factor of 8-10 times and shifted decisively towards being non-biodegradable, the labour force engaged in sanitation work has shrunk by 60 per cent



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