Political Science The Politics of Waste and Social Inequalities in Indian Cities
Shireen Mirza
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0316


Waste studies is premised on the understanding that waste is not essentially dirty or invaluable, but rather an arena through which classification, social boundaries, and state-making takes place. Mary Douglas’s structural approach in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (2002) forms the cornerstone of waste studies by seeing waste as “matter out of place.” It explores the social function of waste as posing a problem of the unknown, disorderly and disturbing. The terming of something as “disorderly,” “risky,” “insanitary,” or “polluted,” Douglas argues, constitutes dominant power structures of states and scientific and religious institutions that determine the drawing of individual, social, and cultural boundaries. Douglas’s insights are used to recognize the ways the categories of value-non-value, norm-exception, structure-deviation, nature-culture, and object-subject get made. As a constructed category, waste in the context of Indian cities is seen to exacerbate existing class inequalities as well as to express and reify caste structures, together constituting a distinct postcolonial urbanism. Urban waste practices lay bare disjunctures of India’s postcolonial modernity in the everyday functioning of the state, labor, and economy for urban sanitation, which deploy caste-community labor of the former untouchable castes for waste-work. At the same time, colonially constituted sanitary science and advanced waste technology adopted by municipalities frame a circular relationship between poverty and disease, deeming the urban poor, their dwellings in crowded slums, and the work of sanitation as the cause of filth, squalor, and the contamination of cities. The prevalence and dominance of particular cultures of sanitation can be linked to social location, including an intersection of caste, class, minority, linguistic, and gender identities, requiring a political understanding of social interests within urban governance and the science of sanitation. In describing these disjunctures at the heart of India’s urbanism, this review will outline five conceptual tropes through which waste in Indian cities has been viewed: (1) as a common resource in a fluid terrain of property rights; (2) as informal and enabling the right to the city; (3) in terms of the colonial making of waste infrastructure, as highly unequal and differentiated; (4) as socially reproducing stigmatized caste labor through a social division of purity and pollution; and (5) as involving multiple stakeholders, including private initiatives, neoliberal policies, international networks, and global circuits.

General Overview

The field of waste studies aims to rethink dominant economic practices and the ways they constitute the local in a particular time and space. Research in this area draws from developmental economics, development studies, environmental studies, critical geography, gender and urban studies, sociology and anthropology of labor, and informality. Combined perspectives constitute waste studies, which sees waste as fusing material reality with perspectives on economic value, social norms, cultural boundaries, and governance practices. For a general overview on waste, refer to the Discard Studies website for critical frameworks to analyze the wider socio-cultural-economic systems that produce waste. Millington and Lawhon 2019 provides an overview of research themes and methods in Southern waste geographies, while Moore 2011 gives a conceptual framework on the positive and negative definitions of waste in relation to society and space-making in general. For writing on waste in Indian cities, noted journals from the discipline of geography include Social & Cultural Geography and Progress in Human Geography; from history include the Indian Economic & Social History Review and Modern Asian Studies; from development studies include the Journal of Development Studies and Oxford Development Studies; and from environmental studies include Environment and Urbanization and Environment and Planning. Interdisciplinary journals include Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Economic and Political Weekly (with special sections and special editions on urban affairs), and International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. A crucial theme in waste studies in Indian cities is the making of waste labor through capitalist modes of production, or as a colonially mediated form of servitude that creates surplus populations in service of the growing needs of capitalism. This critique of capitalism can be found in Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of humans as waste (Bauman 2004), which describes exploited populations that are consigned to noncapitalist spaces by global modernity. Further, Yates 2011, a review of theoretical perspectives, examines waste within the context of consumption, distribution, or excretion, in order to draw out its failure to address capitalism as a totalizing mode of production. In addition to exploring the link between capitalism and waste, a stream of waste studies in Indian cities focuses on cultural particularities of governing waste infrastructure as colonially mediated, as well as holding multiple and contestatory ideas of what constitutes the postcolonial sanitary city. These urban contestations are also central to what Baviskar 2002 describes as an Indian environmentalism that is distinct in relating ecology to equity, arguing for social inequality as the main cause of environmental degradation. This framework of environmental justice views the conservation of natural resources through privatization as bourgeois environmentalism, and acknowledges the right of the poor to access natural resources and avoid environmental harm. In the framework of environmental justice, the use of waste as a common resource by the informal sector as a viable livelihood option by segregating, sorting, repairing, and repurposing is emphasized. At the same time, environmental justice also acknowledges ways that waste makes possible social hierarchies, requiring a political understanding of interests and contesting values attached to the use of common resources like waste.

  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2004.

    Bauman suggests that the border politics of globalization categorizes many people as human waste, who are dumped into the refuse heaps of asylum systems, refugee camps, or urban ghettoes. The colonizing process in early capitalism, he argues, was involved in the displacing of wasted humans from capitalist spaces to noncapitalist ones. In a global world where capital has spatially expanded across the globe, there are no longer any noncapitalist spaces left in which to displace waste and wasted humans produced by capitalism.

  • Baviskar, Amita. “The Politics of the City.” In Shades of Green: A Symposium on the Changing Contours of Indian Environmentalism. Seminar 516. New Delhi: Seminar Publications, 2002.

    Baviskar describes an Indian environmentalism that is distinguished by its emphasis on marrying ecology with equity. Drawing on Madhav Gadgil and Guha’s analysis, she shows that “environmentalism of the poor” combines ecological sustainability with social justice. This is contrasted with Green movements of the North, where nature is primarily valued as a site of consumption, while for Indian environmental movements, nature as a means of production has both material and symbolic value. Yet bourgeois environmentalism that seeks to conserve nature threatens the environmentalism of the poor and other interests of the urban working class.

  • Discard Studies.

    Discard Studies, founded in 2010, is an in-depth and comprehensive online resource for thinking about waste, not just as an ecological problem, but as a process. The website has entries that cover a range of themes on waste as queer theory, and as processes of making-meaning through the psychoanalytical theory of abjection to explain boundary-making that excludes the unclassifiable from normative and sanitary ordering of the household, city, and nation. Entries range from the indeterminacy of waste as a challenge for e-waste, to environmentality and governmentality, to symbolic, bio-political, and Marxian approaches to humans as waste. The site also maintains a repository of bibliographies and syllabi as resources.

  • Millington, Nate, and Mary Lawhon. “Geographies of Waste: Conceptual Vectors from the Global South.” Progress in Human Geography 43.6 (2019): 1044–1063.

    This is an overview of conceptual themes on waste studies from Southern cities that describe waste literature on the themes of informality of waste economy, privatization and multiscalar governance, re-inscribing waste with value, waste technology, and urban metabolism. In reviewing this literature, Millington and Lawhon aim to draw global connections in waste economies that promote centralized, capital-intensive technologies, in order to show, for example, the limitations of the over-separation of the North from the South in waste studies. This overview seeks to problematize distinctions between Northern sustainable cities and informal and crisis-ridden Southern cities in urban geography, in order to demonstrate the mobility of ideas across space.

  • Moore, Sarah A. “Garbage Matters: Concepts in New Geographies of Waste.” Progress in Human Geography 36.6 (2011): 780–799.

    Moore’s review offers an overview of positive and negative definitions of waste: as filth, fetish, risk and hazardous substances, manageable object, commodity, resource, archive, matter out of place, disorder, governable object, and an independent actant. The overview provides a summary of literature across disciplines that explore the objects, spatial sites, and discursive process of waste in order to study socio-spatial processes. At issue here are two basic questions: (1) Can objects be defined positively by essential characteristics inherent to them, or negatively in opposition to something else? (2) Do certain social processes preexist objects and subjects, or do objects and subjects, together, help to constitute society and space?

  • Yates, Michelle. “Theory of Value and Disposability in Contemporary Capitalism.” Antipode 43.5 (2011): 1679–1695.

    Reviewing theoretical perspectives on links between capitalism and waste, this paper points to the focus on consumption in waste studies and its lesser engagement with production and labor. In doing so, the paper provides a production-level theoretical standpoint to argue for capitalism as a totalizing means of production that reduces labor to a factor of production and wages, thereby expending laboring bodies and creating disposable humans whose labor diminishes the lives of workers. The article can be accessed for exploring and reexamining perspectives on capitalism and waste labor.

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