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Barbara Harriss-White seminar

Development, Waste and Caste in India (and beyond) | Barbara Harriss-White

8th February, 3.30-5pm, Arts 01.08
 

Waste, material without value, is constantly being produced by economic activity and India's waste economy is thought to be the fastest growing in the world. The social relations of waste generated from production, distribution, consumption, the production of labour and the reproduction of society were explored in an Indian town in early 2015. Almost all spare land, however owned, is clogged with waste, the volume of which has increased by about 10 times in the last 25 years, the composition increasingly non-biodegradable.

World-wide the management of waste is particularly low status work, so the waste labour force's experiences of social discrimination were also researched as part of these social relations. Discrimination may be indirect - in the preparation, or reproduction, of the workforce - as well as direct - when equal endowments get differentiated tangible or intangible returns. The waste economy is socially differentiated as well as differentiated by contractual security and work rights - and as the waste grows the workforce is being rapidly casualised.

Workers' narratives show that in the performance of work there is less discrimination among workers than at the interface of waste work with the rest of society. Despite the discriminatory structure, danger and oppressive work conditions in the waste economy, most experiences of discrimination are indirect and relate to the reproductive sphere outside work (housing, education, behaviour in public space, religion). Discrimination on grounds of ascribed characteristics like caste and ethnicity was hard to isolate from that meted out due to (lack of) acquired characteristics (such as poverty, illiteracy, alcohol, language and gender) and the nature of the work (its smell, danger and filth). Individuated discrimination according to combinations of criteria co-exists with group-based discrimination, abusive behaviour and shunning. The paper discusses waste workers' experiences of progressive social solvents as well as a range of kinds of political activism. But it concludes that challenges to discrimination are grounded in caste and ethnicity rather than the special problems of waste work which are marginalised from the political agenda.