ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Deprived Castes and Privileged Politics

This article examines political mobilisation around scheduled caste identity by focusing on a case study of purportedly "environmentally-beneficial" legislation, which threatened the existence of the informal sector recycling industry in Delhi. It explores the democratic political avenues used by those whose business opportunities and livelihoods were at risk, based largely on market participation and caste identity, to resist this legislation. The research is based on interviews and informal discussions conducted over an extensive period of time spent in the neighbourhood of the wholesale plastic recycling market in north-west Delhi and amongst the "elite establishment" - government officials, primary plastic industry members and others. As it appears, not only is caste identity thriving in the urban sphere, but this identity is actually being used in innovative ways to gain and maintain collective access to economic and political power.

Spacial articlas

Deprived Castes and Privileged Politics An Urban Informal Market in Contemporary India

This article examines political mobilisation around scheduled caste identity by focusing on a case study of purportedly “environmentally-beneficial” legislation, which threatened the existence of the informal sector recycling industry in Delhi. It explores the democratic political avenues used by those whose business opportunities and livelihoods were at risk, based largely on market participation and caste identity, to resist this legislation. The research is based on interviews and informal discussions conducted over an extensive period of time spent in the neighbourhood of the wholesale plastic recycling market in north-west Delhi and amongst the “elite establishment” – government officials, primary plastic industry members and others. As it appears, not only is caste identity thriving in the urban sphere, but this identity is actually being used in innovative ways to gain and maintain collective access to economic and political power.


I Introduction

his article explores political mobilisation based on caste identity in contemporary urban India. It draws on a case study based on the introduction of so-called “environmentally-beneficial” legislation proposed by the state government that posed a threat to the continued survival of the informal sector plastic recycling industry in Delhi and, by extension, the businesses and livelihoods of between 80,000 and 1,00,000 people working in this sector.1 The main focus of the article is to explore the participatory democratic channels, organised centrally around scheduled caste identity, used by market actors to combat this legislation. It is an ethnographic account based on 15 months of fieldwork conducted in and around the neighbourhood of the wholesale plastic recycling market in north-west Delhi, alongside a study based on prominent members of the “elite establishment” – government officials, inner Delhi politicians, primary plastic industry members and non-governmental organisation spokespeople. The article seeks to contribute to the social science understanding of the politicisation of caste by focusing on a dimension of caste hitherto obscured and neglected in the otherwise sophisticated literature on this contentious but important domain of contemporary Indian economic and political life, i e, caste mobilisation organised around participation in an urban informal sector industry, that manifests as business opportunities for traders at the upper end, and employment for labour for those at the lower end of the market.2

During the course of my fieldwork, events transpired which forced me to take immediate notice of the domain of purportedly environmentally-beneficial legislation that formed the battleground between two distinct groups, from very different caste and class backgrounds, and crucially, with very different relationships to the informal sector sphere. The first of these two events, and the only one discussed here, was an attempt by the legislative assembly of Delhi in 1999-2000 to ratify a bill which would effectively ban the production of recycled polythene bags.3 After a year of being deeply embedded as a researcher in the plastic recycling market of Delhi, I was in a unique position to observe how this particular informal sector industry chose to respond to this threat, in particular, the channels used to combat a policy which in their view was merely masquerading as being ‘environmentally-beneficial’, whilst really being concerned with access to business opportunities, economic power, employment and livelihoods. The main weapon at their disposal, as it turned out, was political agency wrested by market participants, organised largely around a common caste identity and exercised through participatory democratic processes right through to the level of the state government.

There is a vast and sophisticated body of literature on caste and politics in contemporary India [notably, Bayly 1999, Srinivas 1962], including work that emphasises the unprecedented “politicisation of caste” [Kothari 1970] amongst deprived groups in the recent past. This has had a dramatic impact on the landscape of regional democratic politics and, at a time of the rising ascendancy and central importance of regional political configurations to coalition governments at the centre, to national democratic politics in India [see for example, Jaffrelot 2003]. Understandably, the focus of much of this research has been the political articulation of numerically powerful, regionally mobilised lower caste groups that enjoy a high profile in the national domain, such as the yadavs of Uttar Pradesh [Michelutti 2004]. Again, when it comes to backward caste groupings and the economic sphere, the focus in a post-Mandal Commission India has naturally tended towards the impact of job reservations in the formal (public) sector on the employment possibilities and larger well-being of these groups [notably, Parry 1999].4

There has been little sustained research on the localised political articulation and mobilisation of scheduled caste conglomerations that have a lower profile at the national level in contemporary urban India. Moreover, even fewer studies document the links between such caste groupings and their interactions with the informal sector economic sphere, in terms of business opportunities and employment (an important and notable exception is Harriss-White (2003)). This study seeks to contribute to these very areas by documenting and analysing the processes whereby a particular scheduled caste grouping of north India, the khatiks, who through migration came to exploit, and ultimately dominate, the opportunities promised by an emerging urban informal sector industry, that of plastic recycling, organised collectively around these identities to protect and further the interests of co-caste market participants when challenged by outside events. The political mobilisation of this community was particularly vivid and immediate in response to the perceived threat posed by the proposed legislation to the continued existence of the market, and by extension the business possibilities and livelihoods it provided.

The article begins with an introduction to the interest groups involved, directly or indirectly, in the case study. It is followed by a brief history of the national political party affiliations of the plastic recycling market as a collective body unified by their common caste – market participation links. The content, timeline of events and impact of The Delhi Plastic Bag (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) and Non-Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Bill 1999-2000 (forthwith referred to as the Bill) is then presented and analysed. The article concludes with broader implications and lessons for the future.

Interest Groups

The following functionaries, representing various stakeholder groups, are involved in the case study analysed below.

Stakeholder Functionaries

State Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD); the central government; administrative bodies including the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

Political sphere Politicians from both the national parties active in Delhi, i e, the Congress (I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including past and present chief ministers of Delhi; members of parliament (MP) and members of the state legislative assembly (MLAs) from the outer Delhi parliamentary constituency.

Formal and informal Large-scale primary plastic producers, belonging to the

Sector industry formal sector, manufacturing both plastic material and plastic products; secondary plastic recyclers, predominantly in the informal sector, including traders based at Mundka and plastic recycling factory associations spread out over Delhi.

Environmental Environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) at

activists the city level (possibly influenced by international environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace), as well as environmental lawyers.

Media English language print and television media; vernacular print and television media

Source: Author’s data.

In some cases, the relevant social groups cut through these functional categorisations, referring instead to the “privileged” versus the “non-privileged”. The “privileged”, interchangeably referred to as the “elite”, are defined here on numerous dimensions. In terms of the spatial dispersion of social groups in the city, while middle class areas are dispersed all over the city, the elite class is concentrated in the innermost Lutyens’ or New Delhi Municipal Corporation areas, south Delhi residential colonies and farmhouses on the outskirts of south Delhi [Kumaria 1998]. Borrowing loosely from Ram Manohar Lohia’s definition of the ruling classes, classified as being high caste, English-educated and wealthy [Sheth 2004], they are predominantly upper caste, English-speaking and more often than not, engaged in whitecollar work and high-level business. The elite are also defined by their emergent interest in environmental values. The “nonprivileged”, on the other hand, are concentrated in the innermost commercial areas of Old Delhi, and after the virulent enactment of the slum clearance scheme during the Emergency of 197577, in areas corresponding to the outer Delhi and east Delhi parliamentary constituencies. These areas have been assigned the role of “peripheries” – distant tracts of wilderness, fit to accommodate the masses of slum-dwellers, left to fend for themselves in poorly serviced “resettlements colonies” [Soni 2000: 76]. They are predominantly scheduled caste and Hindi-speaking, with the large majority engaged in blue-collar work and small-time business. Finally, non-privileged groups are preoccupied with making a living; environmental values in and of themselves are a secondary concern.

II Political Context of the Plastic Recycling Market

Historically, participants in the plastic recycling industry have always been loyal to the Congress (I). At the lower levels of the market, i e, for labour working in the market, this stems in part from the more general trend in slum colonies to view the Congress

(I) favourably as the party that has done much for the urban poor in contemporary times by legalising resettlement colonies.5

In 1981, the wholesale plastic recycling market was shifted from Tank Road and Punjabi Bagh, where it had always been located since its inception as a viable industry in the 1960s, to Jwalapuri.6 At the time, Sajjan Kumar, a Congress member of Parliament (MP) from the outer Delhi parliamentary constituency, played a major role in helping them resettle.7 As illustrated by a quote made by the current president of the recycling market, their fervent loyalty towards the Congress Party dates from this incident.

Whoever helps the people, be he in the public or private sphere, the people will remember him. And if the opportunity arises in the future, they will also extend help to him. In our case, Congress MP Sajjan Kumar Ji was the man to establish the market here in Jwalapuri. In gratitude to the party who gave us help when we needed it, 90 per cent of the market people keep allegiance with the Congress (I). Whenever elections come around, we also help Sajjan Kumar Ji by campaigning for him, giving him financial help and any other kind of assistance.

This bias towards the Congress (I) has been institutionalised by the fact that the aforementioned president of the Mundka Plastic Recycling Market Association (MPRMA), Raj Chauhan (first elected to the post in 1991), joined active grassroot politics in 1976 and was inducted into the Congress (I) soon after. In 1993, Congress MP Sajjan Kumar got him a party ticket in order to enable him to run for the Delhi assembly elections as a Congress candidate. “Sajjan Kumar Ji made me a member of the legislative assembly (MLA), and ever since, it is natural that I will help those people who made me” (ibid).

As pointed out by Raj Chauhan, outer Delhi MLAs from assembly constituencies bordering the plastic recycling market are also protégés of Congress MP Sajjan Kumar and as seen from the table , most have direct links with the plastic recycling market. Consequently, today it is almost a foregone conclusion that the Congress (I) has a captive votebank in the Mundka market and the constituencies neighbouring the market. It is important to note here that in terms of their caste identity, while Raj Chauhan is a khatik, all the outer Delhi MLAs listed below also belong to the scheduled caste community.

The strong pro-Congress stance of the plastic recycling market was particularly evident and further cemented in the aftermath of a fire outbreak that nearly destroyed the Jwalapuri recycling market in June 1995. At the time, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed the Delhi government, under the chief ministership of Sahib Singh Verma. Soon after the fire, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) banned trading in Jwalapuri, a move that was challenged by the traders. Later in the year, with a stay order denied, the high court ordered that the market should be shifted to the Haryana border at Tikre Kalan. To date, there is a strong perception in the plastic market that the BJP government manipulated the order to move from Jwalapuri to the Tikre border. As one market participant put it,

Unfortunately for us, the fire happened at the time of the BJP government. Purely because we are Congress people, we are a Congress market, their only goal was to scatter and destroy us so we would never be able to regroup again.8

Respondents presented evidence to suggest that the BJP had ulterior motives in trying to relocate them out of Jwalapuri. It was generally agreed that BJP ex-chief minister, Sahib Singh Verma, had engineered the move to curry favour with his jat ‘biraderi’, most of whom were involved in agriculture in the area bordering Haryana.9 The Jwalapuri relocation order saw a sharp escalation in land prices in this area. Displaced traders responded to the need to continue work by renting plots in the Mundka region almost immediately, while awaiting plot allocation in Tikre Kalan. This made a considerable difference to the financial standing of the jats, with their monthly earnings increasing from Rs 10,00020,000 in agriculture activities, to Rs 50,000 in rental income. Khatik traders expressed animosity at the financial implications of this move, “These jats were on the footpath and suddenly, with news of the imminent move, they were driving Santro cars”.10

When interviewed, Sahib Singh Verma unwittingly confirmed the idea that the BJP’s underlying motivations in the aftermath

Table: Institutionalised Political Links of Mundka Plastic Recycling Market

Outer Delhi Assembly Seats Whose MLAs Are Protégés of Links to Plastic Recycling Market Congress MP Sajjan Kumar

Mangolpuri MLA Mangolpuri, president of Mundka Plastic Recycling Market Association (MPRMA), owns plastic scrap business

Trinagar MLA Trinagar, president of Trinagar PVC Compound and Manufacturers Association (TPCMA), owns plastic recycling factory

Haatsal MLA Haatsal, owns plastic scrap business

Sultanpuri 80 per cent of the constituents work in plastic recycling

Source: Authors’ data.

of the fire were coloured by political rivalry. In my constituency, I can never win parliamentary elections from the three main assembly seats out of 21 because all three (Mangolpuri, Sultanpuri and Ambedkar Nagar) are dominated by slum or resettlement colonies. Only Congress (I) wins in all three, which is why the Congress(I) is only interested in slums in Delhi. Congress (I) wants louts, they don’t want a colony of educated people’.11 In the same interview, on the unrelated question of the current relocation of industries out of Delhi, he expressed the following sentiments, ‘When I was chief minister, we closed work in Jwalapuri and made alternative provision at Tikre Kalan’ (ibid). As suspected by people at the market, even though the orders came from the MCD and high court, the fire came at an opportune time from the political standpoint of the BJP chief minister. The president of the market confirmed its continued status as a Congress (I) stronghold.

Ever since friends came to power in 1998 (alluding to the time the Congress (I) came to form the Delhi government), I have made a big effort and got orders passed for electricity supply. For many years, since the high court order banned trade at Jwalapuri, the market had been without electricity and after all that time, we have given the people some relief. Both the current chief minister and the minister for power have been involved in the electricity programme for the plastic recycling market. The other thing we have managed to do is to get additional plots in Tikre Kalan demarcated for the use of the market. We are still lobbying over two issues: lowering the rates for plots and increasing the sanctioned plot-size. Such things can and will be settled, when we sit around a table.

The conversation confirmed the patronage benefits to the market filtering through the president in his capacity as MLA of the Congress(I).

As for the market, collective unity is ensured through a formal, caste-based association, namely, the MPRMA. The select committee of MPRMA has 21 members, while the general body is comprised of about 600-700 members. It proved impossible to verify the exact number of khatiks on the select committee; however, evidence pieced together from a number of sources suggests at best one or two members belonged to other caste communities. These numbers are representative of the composition of the general body, where non-khatiks were estimated to number only 4 to 5 per cent of the total. The general body elects the president, chairman and members of the select committee. Meetings are not regular, instead the chairman sends out summons whenever any issues arise that in the view of the select committee affect all members of the market. Decisions are made through a voting process.

While in a certain policy environment, the primary role of MPRMA is to internally regulate the behaviour of its members in economic dealings with each other (for example, to police and enforce implicit contracts, address grievances between members and so on), in uncertain times its main role is to present a united stance vis-a-vis the outside world. So, for example, the general body of MPRMA called for an emergency meeting over the Delhi Plastic Bag Bill (see case study below).

The collective stand of the market is apparent in the following quote by a khatik trader explaining why the move to Tikre Kalan lay aborted.

The DDA produced forms to begin the process of plot allocation. On the advice of the MPRMA, we began filling those forms. But the DDA could not accommodate all of us, instead trying to get us to compete with each other for plots. We traders all move together, under the label of the association, which has existed for 30 years. We all come together and take a decision. None of us will go on our own, one by one, to Tikre Kalan. We will either all go together or not go at all.12

As the quote makes apparent, market participants focused on maintaining and presenting a united front vis-a-vis the outside world, albeit through a democratic decision-making process, when it came to important matters impacting their livelihoods and businesses.

So, the most direct and formal link of the plastic recycling market to the political arena is the president of MPRMA (interchangeably referred to simply as the president of the market), who is also a Congress(I) MLA in the Delhi government and currently, a cabinet minister in the Delhi government. Links of the outer Delhi Congress(I) MLAs with the plastic recycling market provide additional weight to the expression of the political voice of market participants. The united stance of market participants vis-à-vis the political sphere is formalised through a caste-based market association, MPRMA, which goes along with the decisions of the select committee on political issues, for example, how the market is going to react to a particular policy that impacts their work. Given the Congress(I) affiliations of the president of MPRMA, as well as other traders in the market who are also MLAs, and given the patronage benefits flowing to the market through them, the party is consistently rewarded by the votes of both traders and labour engaged in the plastic recycling market, at state level and general elections.

III Case Study

Delhi Plastic Bag (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) and Non-Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Bill 1999-2000

I now focus on the Delhi Plastic Bag (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) and Non-Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Bill, which essentially sought to ban the manufacture, sale and use of recycled polythene bags of less than a certain thickness, since the thinner the gauge allowed, the greater the number of times the plastic may be recycled to produce bags of lesser quality. The case study will address the issue of how what appears at first glance to be a relatively minor matter, turns out to be an issue of critical importance to the livelihoods and businesses of the people engaged in the informal plastic recycling industry in Delhi. Further, the case is not minor in that the Delhi state’s experiment with this legislation was taken as a blueprint for the campaign and adoption of similar legislation in other states of India, indeed, even as far a field as South Africa and other developing countries.

In the case of Delhi, the initial motivation for legislation came from environmental NGOs, with a campaign against plastic as a non-biodegradable material starting in 1996. In terms of government involvement, it slowly metamorphosed into a much narrower campaign against polythene bags, and within that, the narrowest category of recycled plastic bags. Environmental NGOs were disgruntled with this shift in emphasis. As the founding member of an NGO involved in the area of waste put it,

We have been advocating that we need to look at plastic as a

material, not plastic as a particular object or product. One cannot have a product-based policy against a material. Are we then going to have multiple policies for mineral water bottle packaging, biscuit wrappers and so on? I think the movement against plastics has lost out because it got too caught up in the questions of polythene bags without seeing that the polythene bag is a vehicle to a more general plastics policy.13

Since a broader anti-plastics policy was proving less politically expedient, the government began promoting a much narrower campaign against a specific plastic product, with the Bill initially trying to target the production of recycled polythene bags on the grounds that they littered the city and were an eyesore.

By 1998, the media had aggressively taken up the issue, printing stories every other day about stray cows ingesting discarded polythene bags and choking on them.14 This elite discourse appeared to tap into another concern of the privileged sections of society, namely, how dirty Delhi had become, and how recycled polythene bags scattered along roadsides marred the aesthetic of the city.

The Delhi government, under the newly elected Congress chief minister Sheila Dixit, realised the potential of an anti-polythene bag campaign to strike a chord with the elite. This is implicit in the views she expressed in our interview.

The Bhagidari scheme (under which the anti-polythene bag campaign was launched) is the outcome of a belief that governments and people have to work in partnership. Even in democracies, people cannot sit back once they have voted for a particular government. People have to get involved in the city where they live. In turn, the government should be in constant touch with the people so it is aware of what is impacting them. We argue, these are your needs, do not think the government is making it mandatory because we are getting something out of it. At every point we have shared views with the people.

Implicitly, when the chief minister refers to persuading the “people of Delhi” of the benefits of the Bhagidari scheme, she is referring to the privileged of Delhi and not to the poorer sections of society. The very concerns it addresses, from an anti-firecracker campaign to eco-club schemes for school children, leave it open to the charge of elite-bias.

As part of its efforts, the Delhi government floated an aggressive advertising campaign. The simple slogan “Say No to Plastic Bags” was printed in newspapers and on billboards across the city; schools, and colleges were addressed. The chief minister had the following to say on the logic behind the campaign:

We say do not use plastics, they are bad, they choke the animals, they fill the gutters. They kill you and me because plastics are carcinogenic and mother earth does not accept plastics. Here is a material that is a parallel competitor to mother earth. Now I think somewhere that message hits home.

After a failed first attempt at passing the bill through the state legislative assembly in December 1999, a select committee was appointed to hear the views of diverse interest groups, such as the primary plastic manufacturing corporations, secondary plastic recyclers, environmentalists, civic agencies and MLAs. The Bill was modified to make it more broad-based, before being reintroduced and passed in its diluted form in November 2000. In essence, it now prohibited the manufacture, sale and usage of recycled plastic bags for storing, carrying and packaging food within the national capital territory of Delhi. It also specified the minimum thickness of these bags to be no less than 20 microns, the physical minimum for a functioning polythene bag.

The campaign and pending legislation considerably unsettled the plastic recycling market. My fieldwork coincided with the year that the select committee was trying to accommodate the views of diverse interest groups. There was much uncertainty about the eventual form the Bill would take and the impact it would have on the plastic recycling trade. Those connected with the business expressed deep unhappiness over what they perceived as the first step towards a ban on all kinds of plastic recycling.

Rumours of a ban on the manufacture of polythene bags were deeply disruptive to business. This was evidenced by the fact that each time there was a major announcement on the progress of the Bill, the demand by factory owners for “momjama” or recycled polythene bags would drop drastically. Depressed prices for recycled polythene bags would result in a ripple-on downward effect on the price of all plastic recyclables. There was a general consensus that even though the direct impact of a ban on polythene bag recycling and production would be small, the indirect effects on plastic recycling activity as a whole would be significant.

The most adverse outcome of the rumours preceding the proposed legislation was the uncertainty it created amongst market participants. Every few days, I would be asked to verify an unsubstantiated story. For example, was it true that one lakh recycling factories were being shut down? Much like stock market activity, such rumours made the market jittery and had a negative impact on business. At the lower levels of the chain, such fears focused on the direct threat to livelihoods caused by a ban on the manufacture of recycled polythene bags and the resulting factory closure. At the higher levels of the chain, the entire tied-finance network, which depended on regularity of business and the reliable presence of traders in Delhi, was threatened.

The Bill-making process and outcome illustrates the successful workings of political mobilisation centred on market identity and participation. As early as 1999-2000, the president of the MPRMA expressed confidence that the Bill in its present form would not go through. When I interviewed him, he made it clear that their lobby would prevail. “Suppose the legislative assembly of Delhi seek to ban polythene bags…. they will not manage. But say they try and by slim chance, they succeed...”. He went on to talk about the substitution of polythene bags by paper bags and the adverse impact that would have on forests and the environment. As predicted by the president of the market, when the Bill was finally passed in November 2000, it was a hollow shell of its original version.

The day after the Bill was cleared, the following story appeared in the Express Newsline (November 30, 2000):

Although the Plastic Bill has been passed, bringing down the

thickness of the plastic bags from the proposed thirty microns,

to twenty microns, is being seen as a victory for the Congress

dissidents. It was the outer Delhi MLAs, belonging mainly to the

Congress MP Sajjan Kumar faction, who tipped the balance against

the Congress chief minister Sheila Dixit’s plan of bringing in a

ban on all plastic thinner than thirty microns. Perhaps for the first

time ever, the recommendations of the select committee were set

aside to accommodate the demands of this section of MLAs. Most

of the MLAs from outer Delhi preside over hundreds of businesses

of buying and selling plastic scrap, plastic granules and making

of recycled plastic bags. Politically, it appears the dissident MLAs managed a coup by keeping the plastic thin so that…it keeps the recycling business thriving. Arithmetic demanded that the outer Delhi MLAs be heard. Of the 53 Congress MLAs in the assembly, 16 are from outer Delhi – a faction that the chief minister has not been able to tame. Another argument that the Congress government could not ignore was that the Bill in its original form would have made the plastic recycling trade, in which lakhs of people are involved in Delhi, unprofitable.

A quote from a government official shows the absurdity of a four-year campaign that, in order to save political face, ended up being enshrined in a parody of the legislation originally intended.

We had a big debate here in this assembly, on the carrying and packaging of food in recycled bags. There was a committee of MLAs and other people who deliberated and considered evidence from technical institutes, manufacturers, civic bodies and government departments. We concluded that it was imperative to ban the carrying or packing of any food item, cooked or uncooked, in recycled bags. We felt the government of India has not given due thought to this issue. Today, it has been rectified by the legislative assembly of Delhi.15

The fact that the legislation in its final form actually went against the grain of what the campaign was originally trying to achieve was not lost on environmental NGOs. As one activist put it,

The policy response requiring thicker polythene bags for food products actually means more plastics are created and used. The major problem with the campaign is that it has ended up saying do not use recycled bags. We have got the strange situation where the first law we make on plastics in the country says recycling should not be done. It is quite ridiculous. The message has to clearly be that recycling is a good thing, as is minimisation of waste plastics. These messages need to translate into policy form. The formation of regulation has now been a kneejerk reaction to a specific campaign and the campaign itself has not seen itself as larger than the polythene bag issue. I think we have created problems for ourselves because it is difficult to push policy twice.16

Views of Plastic Recycling Lobby

At this stage, it is useful to present the views of the plastic recycling lobby on the polythene bag legislation and related issues. Of their many grievances, the apparent influence of privileged sections of society and their selective appropriation of scientific facts contributed the most to their discontent.

The plastic recycling group perceived a clear nexus between the inner Delhi MLAs and their elite constituencies.17 The tussle between the inner and outer Delhi MLAs of the Congress(I) over the proposed ban of recycled polythene bags ran deeper than a mere disagreement over what constituted the environmental good or the fact that the outer Delhi MLAs had a vested interest in the work of plastic recycling. There also existed a clear caste divide between the two groups, with the inner Delhi MLAs generally belonging to the upper castes and the outer Delhi MLAs belonging to the scheduled castes. The animosity created by this division maybe succinctly summed up by the following quote,

The establishment of a liberal democratic party like the Congress which has ruled this country for nearly 50 years, has not improved unequal caste relations, and the gap between the Hindu “upper” castes and the non-Hindu dalitbahujans within the party ranks have never been bridged. The relationship always remained antagonistic and distrustful” [Illiah

1996: 59].

The recycling lobby treated with distrust not only the inner Delhi elite MLAs and their constituents, but also the media. The National Foundation for India, a philanthropic organisation set up to serve the less privileged, took part in the campaign against polythene bags. They commissioned a handbook titled Polybags: The Enemy Within, where the author actually lists the media as an independent, active promoter of the campaign. The English language print media displayed a clear bias in favour of the Bill, with newspapers like the Express Newsline running their own “Ban the Bag” Campaign. Television documentaries also reflected a pro-ban bias. The vernacular press, with newspapers like the Navbharat Times and the Kesari (incidentally, the only ones to print the daily rates for recycled plastic granules), were more sympathetic to the cause of the plastic recycling market. However, their readership was limited to an outsider constituency, those living on the “peripheries” of the city in outer Delhi.

Khatik traders narrated various stories of English documentary television reporters coming into the market posing as researchers and portraying themselves as neutral or even sympathetic to the cause of recycling. This allowed them access to conduct interviews with people, to the extent of enabling the media to obtain camera footage in workshops and factories. However, when the tapes shown on the television, the traders felt that they were manipulated to portray an unfairly negative view of their work. This created a lot of resentment in the market against the English language television stations. The traders expressed frustration at the total lack of accountability of the press, while they lacked the recourse to sue them for libel or even the ability to force them to retract their “false” statements. For example, the media would show footage of an MLA taken in a single recycling workshop and “expose” the MLA as being the owners of multiple factories.

In an attempt to further their agenda in a benign and depoliticised manner, the media were also accused of selectively appropriating environmental lobby group “science”. In the perception of the plastic recycling lobby, the media was constantly peddling patently false information about the plastic recycling production process and its negative environmental fallout.18 Such “scientific facts” were presented to the exclusion of any systematic evidence to the contrary, so that where scientific thinking was not conclusive, or the alternatives in dealing with the material, for example, landfills and incineration, presented dilemmas of their own, the media was interested in printing only one side of the story. In response to the publication of an anti-plastic recycling article, the recycling lobby spoke of offering to respond with a scientific rebuttal, only to have their offer rejected out of hand by the press.

The plastic recycling community pointed out further anomalies in the polythene bag campaign and legislation that only served to confirm the idea that they were being discriminated against by privileged society, with the main focus of this ire being the primary plastic industry lobby group.19 While the recycling lobby saw the entire campaign as the product of a conspiracy hatched by the primary industry, the latter portrayed a more unified picture of the two groups pitted against NGOs and the government.

The antipathy of the recycling industry vis-à-vis the primary industry dates back to the fire at Jwalapuri in 1995.

When we found out via the newspapers that our trade at Jwalapuri was going to be shut down, we straightaway appealed in the high court. Then primary industry representatives began contacting us. You see, they did not expect us to have the resources or the ability to fight back and organise overnight to oppose the public interest litigation (PIL). When these representatives got in touch with us, we asked them to come out here and talk to us. They asked us to withdraw our appeal from the high court. We refused. Instead, we took out a rally and met the prime minister. Soon after, a meeting took place, which was attended by everyone: our representatives, representatives from the primary plastic industry and the government-appointed task force on waste management (many of whom have links with primary plastic manufacturers anyway). That is why we feel the hand of the primary industry is behind our current predicament.20

According to the recycling lobby, a product survey conducted by one of the biggest primary plastic manufacturers in the country found that polythene bags are one of their better selling products. They also found that it is the one item where recycled versions account for at least half the total market. The president of a recycling association summed up the suspicions of their group,

The primary industry people have brainwashed the government into concentrating on polythene bags, to the exclusion of all other plastic items. Big firms think they can influence the government to increase the mandated thickness of polythene bags and put other restrictions on the production of recycled polythene bags (such as, printing on them that they are not to be used for carrying foodstuffs). To what end? The recycled polythene bag will become more expensive relative to the virgin item, more shops will begin purchasing the latter, which are produced by the big firms. Do not polythene bags made of fresh plastic harm the environment, get thrown on roads and get eaten by cows? This is just a question of making a fool of us all.21

In addition to pre-existing associations, the recycling lobby hurriedly organised itself into additional groups to combat the threat posed to their livelihoods by the ban order. They began calling on members to render any kind of help, such as legal aid, press contacts and so on, towards their cause. One khatik trader summed up the situation as follows,

We do not have any lobby, we only have small organisations. You can say we are self-employed. We are our own managers, our own secretaries, and our own phone operators. When the big firms tried to ban our work, then we organised ourselves a bit. But we cannot do too much organisation because we do not have that many learned people amongst us, there are very few educated people doing this work. A lobby is only for moneyed people, for chauffeurdriven, English-speaking people living in fancy bungalows, not for us.22

Grievances against the Government

More generally, plastic recyclers were irked by what they perceived as a lack of consistency in government policy and a tendency to mete out preferential treatment to the primary plastic industry. For example, many recycling traders pointed out that waste pickers collect every last scrap of recyclable plastic but they do not pick up non-recyclable items such as polyester laminated airtight packaging. Yet there is little attempt by the government to regulate or ban the manufacture of these nonrecyclables. As one trader put it,

These items are more harmful, they do not even re-enter the economy through the recycling chain but because multi-national corporations (MNCs) such as Pepsi are involved, they are left alone. If the government really wants to reduce plastic usage, why don’t they shut down fresh plastic production? If they do that, automatically recycling will also shut down.23

The contention that the government favours primary plastic producers is borne out by the fact that they are not regulated as they are in other advanced countries. While the Board of Indian Standards (BIS) does stipulate that manufacturers print plastic category logos on products, the rule is not enforced, even with MNCs like Proctor and Gamble that are obliged to follow such best-practice policies in other countries.24 Again, unlike in developed countries, while the producer-pays principle exists in law, it does not in practice, nor is there any attempt to tax the consumer.

A further grievance of the recycling lobby centred on the issue of indiscriminate littering by the public. The fact that cows ingested discarded polythene bags reflected poor civic sense and deficient formal waste management and had rather little to do, in their view, with the recycling of polythene bags.

The sacredness of the cow is being exploited to further their cause. There is a littering problem among the public, they put peels in a bag and throw it along with other rubbish. We have suggested to the government to put different bins for recyclable and organic waste. Then the MCD sweeper will carry away the garbage from different containers. Like in the west, polythene bags could actually be used to discard waste. But does the government do that? No. And do these MCD workers report for work? No. Because they are permanent employees, they are on permanent holiday. Where is our fault in all this?25

The theme that the recycling industry was filling in for inadequate formal waste management services was also a recurring one.

We deal for free with all the plastic waste of Delhi, of India. We save the government money. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) does not have money to pay people to clean the streets. If we stopped this work, what would happen to all the plastic waste? It would flood the country, the streets, and the government would be unable to do anything because they need money even to bury it in the ocean floor.26 The government should be thinking of subsidising us like we have heard the recycling industry is subsidised in the west. We do not even demand that, we just ask to be left alone. Instead, here they are trying to obstruct our work.27

Accusations of hypocrisy in government policy are multiplied manifold times by their permissive attitude to the imports of waste.28 A trader from a recycling association voiced the following concern,

On the one hand, the government fully condones imports of plastic waste and on the other hand, they wish to ban the recycling of waste that is produced in our own country. These double standards are wrong. We are either producing too much waste, in which case the plastics industry and large-scale users of plastics, such Pepsi, Coca Cola and Bisleri, should be held responsible, or a ban should be imposed on importing waste.29

The plastic recycling lobby was incensed by the attitudes of external groups towards those involved in recycling. As I illustrate elsewhere [Gill 2004], even where recycling traders were economically differentiated from those working lower down the chain, they identified more with them than they did with the elite. One khatik trader commented that he disliked educated people because they displayed a snobbish attitude. In his opinion, they were uneducated because they were not street smart and they looked down upon their kind of work, labelling it dirty and demeaning when actually it was just a living like any other.

Khatik traders harboured resentment against the government

for treating them in an inferior manner. The Delhi government issues statements that they are going to stop the use of plastic bags and then advertises daily in the newspapers that anyone producing recycled plastic bags will be given a five-year prison term. Just because we are all illiterate people associated with this work, they think they can get away with anything. If educated persons were involved, they would move a case against the Delhi government demanding to know who has given them the power to give prison sentences as that is the job of the courts. But here in the market, the people are simple, they start believing all this. The government has no right to frighten us in this way.30

The All India Plastic Industries Association (AIPIA) had maintained a thick dossier of correspondence, addressed to numerous government and political figures, protesting the misinformation campaign of the government of Delhi. The AIPIA believed the Delhi government was wilfully misinterpreting the polythene bag notification, using it freely to advertise a ban on all kinds of recycled plastic. There appeared to be some truth to this allegation, since the first draft bill floated in 1999 was titled The Delhi Plastic (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) and Non-Biodegradable Garbage (Control) Bill, 1999, and it was only in response to protests from the recycling community that the modified draft bill of 2000 explicitly included the word “bag” after the word “plastic”. The association wanted them to withdraw these deceptive public statements and explicitly focus on advertising the fact that individuals should not dispose off polythene bags in the wrong places and should not carry raw foodstuffs in them. Anything more was viewed as “misleading the public”.

As the commentary on this case study makes amply clear, both traders and labour in the recycling market perceived the Bill to be the outcome of a conspiracy amongst privileged sections of society, blame being apportioned to numerous sources, such as the inner Delhi MLAs, the English language media and the primary plastic industry. It was not only market participants, however, who believed that the campaign was motivated by elite concerns. Those representing a wider array of interest groups agreed that privileged society forms a powerful lobby, where even the policy agenda is defined by the value judgments of the elite. One environmental activist put it this way,

The fact that polythene bags become an issue or that the government responds with a law, shows the environmental politics in this country. Currently plastics comprise only 4 per cent of the whole waste-stream. In 25 years, its share will see a marginal increase to approximately 6 per cent. It is a marginal increase. It only becomes a major issue because we, the privileged, do not want to see polythene bags scattered on the road. Land displacement is not such a major policy issue, even though it affects many more people, in more significant ways, than the polythene bags lying outside.31

Khatik market participants questioned, in particular, whether environmental concern was the prime motivation for attempts to ban the production of recycled polythene bags. Since they perceived the recycling industry as actually benefiting the environment in numerous undisputed ways (taking the place of inadequate municipal disposal facilities, reducing primary plastic consumption and so on), it was not clear to them that the balance of evidence justified, on purely environmental grounds, the proposed legislation. More importantly, as the legislation would negatively impact the livelihoods of a large number of poor people, the policy-making elite was, in their view, at best immune to, or at worst, actually out to damage the well-being of the poor whose livelihoods, in this example, depended on the continued existence of the plastic recycling industry. Thus, for market participants, the so-called environmental cause was flagrantly pursued at the expense of the urban poor. Both, the particular causes given precedence to within the broader environmental agenda, as well as the prioritising of environmental goals visà-vis livelihood opportunities, made accusations of double standards and elitist bias inevitable.

IV Conclusion

This article has sought to make visible the channels and immediate process of the political mobilisation of market participants in the urban informal sector recycling industry in Delhi that emerged in response to the threat of proposed legislation, concerning the ban on recycled polythene bags by the state government. The political sphere of influence of plastic recycling market participants extended far enough to dilute the proposed Bill to an extent that it became hollow in content. The president of the recycling market, as a few of the other outer Delhi MLAs supporting him, had both the political inducement and the private incentive in the form of their own businesses to act in favour of the market. The president of the market summed up his own motivation so,

It is because of the plastic recycling market people that I have

become MLA, so it is natural for me to act in their interest. Then

again, it is also a question of my own livelihood.

The market participants, by assuring these MLAs of their vote, stood to gain via these channels of patronage, in numerous ways, most vividly demonstrated in this case by their ability to successfully neutralise the danger posed to the continued flourishing of the recycled polythene bag business and by extension, the plastic recycling industry as a whole.

Clearly, the political mobilisation of the plastic recycling industry, around their common caste and work identity, had significant and far-reaching positive implications for this subordinate urban group. The fact that they successfully challenged a threat to their business and livelihood prospects, demonstrating not just their clear capacity to exert agency in the political sphere but also signalling, more importantly, the power of successful collective action by those engaged in this industry, should serve as a reminder to privileged sections of society that attempts to inflict similar damage in the future are likely to be met with effective resistance.32 My findings in a particular small-scale informal industry in Delhi suggest that the elite of contemporary India would do well to recognise, more generally, that not only is caste identity thriving in the urban sphere, so that the migrant in the city is not as much of a lone and alienated individual actor as is assumed by some, but that this identity is actually being used in innovative ways to gain and maintain collective access to economic and political power.33

Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere [Gill 2004], the low status of waste work in society, even when the monetary gains for larger traders involved in the business are substantial, has translated into greater affiliation and a stronger collective identity between traders at the upper end of the market chain and labour at the lower end of the plastic recycling chain, rather than between traders at the upper end and those of a similar economic standing in society engaged in more “respectable” work. As the striking findings outlined here illustrate, this collective unity has carried into the political sphere, so that affiliation within a single national party is cleaved along status lines as well. Thus, for example, outer Delhi scheduled caste Congress MLAs are pitted against inner Delhi upper caste and class Congress MLAs. My findings challenge a simplistic notion of the nature of Indian politics, advanced especially in the development discourse, which is categorised as being divided into two distinct groups – a powerful, dominant elite with direct channels of influence on the state and the subordinate, excluded poor with little recourse to agency in the political sphere. The reality is far more complex, with the poor having their own powerful patrons, co-caste in this case, through whom they are able to successfully mediate and influence state policy.




1 This is a conservative estimate based on data I collected in the localised region of the plastic recycling wholesale market at Mundka. It does not include labour involved in the recovery of waste, neither does it include factories dotted all over the city, which secondary sources estimate as running into the thousands.

2 The particular channels whereby participation in the plastic recycling market has come to be dominated by a single caste grouping, with over 90-95 per cent of traders and over 90 per cent of labour belonging to a single community, are discussed elsewhere [Gill 2004]. Consequently, the links between market participation and caste identity are not belaboured here, instead the main focus is on the political mobilisation of this group.

3 The second was a sweeping attempt by the Supreme Court of India in 2000-2001 to relocate “polluting and non-conforming” industries, by definition those belonging to the informal sector, out of Delhi.

4 Scheduled castes (SCs), alongside other backward castes (OBCs), are the official terms for lower castes named by legal instrument to qualify for affirmative action at national and state levels [Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000]. While scheduled castes have qualified for reservation in government jobs, educational institutions and so on since independence, other backward castes only qualified after 1990, when V P Singh’s government took the controversial step of implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.

5 Curiously enough, the antecedents for this view go back to Indira Gandhi’s “garibi hatao” or “banish poverty” slogan, conceived during the 1971 elections, which continues to resonate with residents of slum colonies. The slogan epitomises the height of pro-poor policies, which in their opinion peaked under Indira’s Congress government and against which successive governments have failed to measure up. This is curious because it also involves a convenient “forgetting” of slum clearance enacted during the Emergency under Indira Gandhi [Tarlo 2001].

6 The successive relocation of the plastic recycling industry, from the centre to a constantly changing periphery of the city, was a politically contentious precursor to the more widespread drive to eliminate or relocate “polluting and non-conforming” industries from the centre of Delhi [Gill 2004]. The market was reputed to be the largest wholesale plastic recycling market in Asia when it was based in Tank Road and Punjabi Bagh.

7 The outer Delhi parliamentary constituency is one of seven such constituencies in Delhi, and with over 30 lakh (i e, 30,00,000) electors, one of the largest parliamentary seats at an all-India level. In the most recent general elections of May 2004, Sajjan Kumar won this seat with a comfortable margin of over two lakh votes, defeating Sahib Singh

Verma of the BJP. The outer Delhi parliamentary constituency contains

21 assembly seats to the state legislative assemby of Delhi. 8 Interview, commission agent 1, Mundka plastic recycling market. 9 Biraderi refers to a extended network based on a common descent group

[Ballard 1994]. In this case, Sahib Singh Verma belongs to the jat

community, as do most of his constituents.

10 Interview, commission agent 3, Mundka plastic recycling market.

11 This quote highlights the more general pattern of support for the two parties in Delhi. The BJP has a strong following amongst the trading classes, while the Congress(I) has a larger vote bank amongst the poor.

12 Interview, supplier 2, Mundka plastic recycling market.

13 Interview, Ravi Agarwal, environmental activist, Toxics Link.

14 This focus on cows eating polythene bags, at first glance a bizarre Kafkaesque-type irony on the government and its policies, belies the serious religious undertones of the issue. In every interview I conducted, it came up as a valid reason for a ban on recycled polythene bags. Even the plastic recycling lobby was reluctant to offend Hindu sentiments.

15 Interview, chief secretary, government of national capital territory of Delhi.

16 Interview, Ravi Agarwal, environmental activist, Toxics Link.

17 Unlike the outer Delhi contituency, inner Delhi does not refer to a formal constituency. For convenience, I group together individual parliamentary constituencies, such as New Delhi and south Delhi parliamentary constituencies, and collectively refer to them as “inner” Delhi.

18 During impromptu visits, I witnessed the complete production process at different factories. Contrary to media reports, only homogeneous plastic types and colours were being used to produce recycled polythene bags. Further, recycled polythene bags were being made out of LDPE (low density polyethylene) and HDPE (high density polyethylene), and not PVC, as often claimed in the press.

19 The plastic lobby may be broken down into two distinct camps – the primary plastic grain and product-manufacturing lobby; and the secondary recycled plastic grain and product-manufacturing lobby.

20 Interview, member of Mundka plastic recycling market association.

21 Interview, member of Trinagar PVC Compound and Manufacturers Association.

22 Interview, member of Laghu Udyog Bharati (all-India representatives of small-scale industry).

23 Interview, member of Narela Plastic Recyclers and Traders Association.

24 At the International Conference on Plastic Waste Management and the Environment (March 15-16, 2001, New Delhi), the spokesperson for Proctor and Gamble actually publicly stated that their company refrained from printing such information in India since it increased their costs. When pushed, he admitted that the company would continue to refrain as long as the government did not force them to comply with BIS standards.

25 Interview, member of Mundka Plastic Recycling Market Association.

26 Many of the traders were under the impression that in the west they had run out of landfill space and had invested in expensive projects to bury waste in the seabed.

27 Interview, member of Narela Plastic Recyclers and Traders Association.

28 The following extract from an article titled ‘Rich Countries Dump Plastic Wastes in India’ (Corpwatch Website January 14, 2002) highlights the magnitude of the problem. Official import data indicates that India has been a favoured dumping ground for plastic wastes, mostly from industrialised countries like Canada, Denmark, Germany, UK, the Netherlands, Japan, France and the US. According to the Government of India import data, more than 59,000 tonnes and 61,000 tonnes of plastic wastes have found their way into India in the years 1999 and 2000 (Source: Statistics on Foreign Trade of India, March 2000 Government of India). Exports of waste to the developing world are a big business for the private sector firms in developed countries (see, for example, ‘Recycling Under Threat, Waste Firm Claims’, April 11, 2005 The Guardian).

29 Interview, member of Narela Plastic Recyclers and Traders Association.

30 Interview, member of All India Plastic Industries Association.

31 Interview, Ravi Agarwal, environmental activist, Toxics Link.

32 This may particularly be the case since poorer people have a higher propensity to be politically active (defined in terms of electoral participation, as well as participation in political rallies and demonstrations) and to secure representation through political parties than wealthier people [Harriss 2005].

33 Many sociologists have made the point that caste in urban areas is different from caste in rural areas in that links with the caste’s traditional occupations are diluted and the ideas of “purity” and “pollution” are weakened [Gupta 2000; Shah 1996]. While this is certainly true to some degree – the khatiks appear in this case to have upgraded from their hereditary occupations of scavenging (Ethnographic Study No 9, government of India), pig-breeding, bristle-manufacturing and trading, as well as tanning and dyeing of leather [Bellwinkel-Schempp 1998] to the occupation of plastic recovery and recycling [Gill 2004], it also remains true that discrimination persists on the basis of ritual subordination [Mendelsohn and Vicziany 2000], with the majority of the scavenging and waste-worker population in general belonging to scheduled caste communities [Venkateswaran 1994].


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