Waste of a Nation: Anthropologists Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey on garbage and growth in India

Shikha Kumar
“Never in history have so many people had so much to throw away and so little space to throw it as the people of India in the second decade of the 21st century,” write Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey in Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India.

"Never in history have so many people had so much to throw away and so little space to throw it as the people of India in the second decade of the 21st century," write Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey in Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India. In 2012, Doron's visit to Seelampur in north-east Delhi, where electronic waste is recycled, threw up nagging questions €" that led the duo on a four-year-long journey exploring India's monumental waste crisis.

Waste of a Nation takes a deep-dive into waste management in the country, setting it within important historical, economic and social contexts. From Alang in Gujarat where ships are broken by hand, to the outskirts of Varanasi where strands of human hair are collected and processed, Doron and Jeffrey also bring out the human stories that often get lost in the popular discourse around waste and sanitation.

The Australia-based anthropologists were recently at a literature festival in Mumbai, talking about India's challenges with non-biodegradable products. Edited excerpts from an interview.

You write that the way Indians think about waste is grounded in social relations and everyday fears. What led you to analyse waste management through deep-rooted phenomena like caste prejudices?

Ideas and practices stemming from caste add difficulty to dealing with "tainted things" €" waste. It's common to hear anecdotes along the lines of "my mother won't keep food scraps in the apartment overnight" or "my auntie told me to throw the soiled tissue off the balcony". Many rural people don't like the idea of a toilet near their dwelling. If you build a two-pit toilet, it's highly unlikely a rural family will be prepared to remove the matured, benign contents of a pit themselves.

Religious ideas can also sanction social relations, such as when some people €" Dalits, especially of certain jatis €" are considered by virtue of birth to be ritually polluting. Such views have led generations to think that it is "natural" that Dalits be charged with getting rid of polluting things, a view that was translated into social and economic practices. Elsewhere in the world, it would be difficult to find such widespread and deeply embedded abhorrence of "tainted" things or people.

You mention that the '90s changed the characteristics of what Indians threw away.

Two things make India's confrontation with consumer-driven waste different and difficult. The first is caste, as we argue above. The second is volume and density. India was a frugal country in 1991 when the big economic reforms began. The volume of solid waste was very modest. Since then, whether you take toothpaste tubes or automobiles, the quantity of thrown-away, hard-to-get-rid-of things has exploded. And India is not like Australia where there is a temptation to use empty land to dump such things. India's population density is about two-and-a-half times greater than China's. There's not much room for landfills or sewage treatment plants.

An interesting segment of the book focuses on the management of liquid waste, and the need to understand that as part of the larger waste crisis.

Diane Coffey and Dean Spears have written a powerful book spelling out the argument that open defecation is intimately connected to questions of caste and social inequality and impedes human development. Poor sanitation spreads disease and, in the case of pregnant women and children, leads to childhood stunting. Intestinal parasites, let loose in feces, get into milk, water and food and devour nutrition that should be nurturing pregnant women and building healthy children. One of the telling statistics publicised in 2015 showed Bangladesh with a better record of childhood stunting than India. And India was not doing as well as some much poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Swachh Bharat campaign owes some of its urgency to these sorts of international data and comparisons. For years, the Gates Foundation has backed projects searching for the perfect toilet; but no one's yet found a model that is simple, safe, cheap, self-contained and turns urine and feces into useful products. (The Chinese, Dutch and Japanese did this two hundred years ago, though they were weak on the "safe" aspect.)

Read on Firstpost €" Harnessing the Monster: Solving the waste problem requires us to treat it like a resource

With sanitation in India, the challenge is as much about using toilets as building them. How can this change over the years?

Fifteen years ago smoking in public was widespread, not just in India. Today, there's been a remarkable change. The Swachh Bharat campaign to make India ODF (Open Defecation Free) by October of this year is an admirable goal, and no doubt a lot of toilets have been built. Where the campaign has perhaps got it wrong is in putting a big investment into advertising and not enough emphasis on demonstration, follow-up and maintenance. Competent IAS officers know how to get contractors to build things and to meet targets. It's another matter to show potential users that things work, can be sustained and bring benefits in health and status. Those sorts of campaigns need sustained human energy doing the relentless follow-up that makes new practices commonplace.

On that, you also put forth an important perspective when you say "if it were widely known that well-off children were in almost as great danger as the children of the poor, building and using toilets might become desirable, even fashionable".

Evidence suggests that the children of the rural better-off are almost as likely to be harmed by the stunting that results from intestinal parasites as the children of the poor. If the well-off become converts to sturdy, well-maintained toilets and safe water supplies, they might be more motivated to lobby for improved public sanitation because the flies and other perils of open defecation affect everyone. Childhood stunting is a little like the infectious diseases €" cholera, typhoid €" of a hundred years ago in Europe: middle classes feared them and the general population eventually benefited from sewerage and pure-water projects. Think of the remarkable clean-up of Surat after its (wrongly identified) "bubonic plague epidemic" of 1994.

Plastic changed ragpicking in India. Is it one of our biggest challenges right now?

Plastic is a bit like fire: good servant, bad master. Plastic has been a major source of income for waste-pickers, but it exposes them to the price fluctuations of a global market. When prices for plastic waste plunge in Chicago or Shanghai, waste-pickers feel the impact. And plastics are hydro-carbons. They don't decompose in rubbish dumps and they choke waterways. To burn them safely requires expensive, well-maintained incinerators. The world depends on plastics, but their use needs to be minimised and their second lives need to be carefully managed and regulated.

Technical fixes, as you explain, are often an excuse for governments to avoid glaring class divides. What do you see as an ideal waste management model in India? And how do you think India's relationship with waste will change over the years?

India has two advantages in dealing with waste: the kabaadi tradition, which was recycling before "recycling" became a buzz-word, and the asceticism of Mahatma Gandhi and of Hindu religious ideals. Sure those were different times and one might argue that the Gandhian ethos was about making virtue out of necessity, but we can still draw on these institutions and inspirations to think about a 21st century Promised Land of waste management which would:

a) minimise the status attached to material goods; b) emphasise that material objects should be acquired with care and that manufacturers be accountable for the disposal of the goods they produce; c) make waste-handlers and kabaadis heroes of a systematic, circular economy; d) deal with thrown-away things €" especially biodegradable waste €" as close to their throwers as possible; and e) apply good science and tough regulations to handle the large quantities of hazardous, medical and construction and demolition waste that are inescapable in growing cities.

Also read: Waste management could generate six lakh jobs in India; can Bengaluru show the way?

Also See: Swachh Bharat Mission: How tulsi saplings, rangolis helped Odisha's Ganjam district in ending open defecation

Four years of Swachh Bharat: Open defecation down 26%, but toilet use doesn't match construction spree

Swachh Bharat Mission in Odisha hits roadblock as abundant open defecation, insufficient toilets defeat cleanliness drive

Read more on India by Firstpost.