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The Afterlife of Things in a Delhi Junkyard

Liminal Debris of Consumer Culture

Sreedeep Bhattacharya (sb514@snu.edu.in) is a fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

The trajectory of “things” that are declared obsolete is mapped to argue that a junkyard is not merely a repository of the redundant, but also a liminal space between waste and trash, as well as use and reuse. An exploration of a junkyard in the Mayapuri neighbourhood of Delhi reveals how value is extracted from waste, bypassing the imposed norms of planned obsolescence in order to induce life into the lifeless. A complex set of relationships between the imposed rules of obsolescence and actual practices of a junkyard are observed to argue that “waste” is not merely matter out of place or matter without place, but it is essentially matter on the move.

This article was presented in the British Association of South Asian Studies Conference at the University of Exeter, 18–20 April 2018.

The author would like to thank Dipankar Gupta and Kaveri Gill for going through the initial drafts and providing comments.

Technologies that imagine processes, design things that are not built to last, and promote values that fetishise the new, provide an exciting context to follow the afterlife of the disposed, discarded, unwanted, and abandoned.

This article explores the afterlife of the ephemeral. While tracing the post-life transactions of the disposed, discarded, displaced, and dismantled, it concerns itself with the consequences of forced or planned obsolescence in urban spaces to observe rapid transformations in the nature of the transaction of apparently redundant and obsolete things.

Acknowledging the logic of discarding the “old” and embracing the “new,” this article examines the fate of the thrown away, caught in the liminal and ambiguous phases of usefulness and uselessness, waste and trash, use and reuse, appearance and disappearance, and traditions of quick fixing and the emerging practices of quick fixing.

It is in this liminality that the trajectory of the discarded is vastly different from that of its counterparts in the West. There are also significant differences between the ways in which waste and trash and the difference between the two are conceived of. The lack of regulatory norms governing the afterlife of the discarded, and the pool of easily accessible and replaceable migrant population, who can be informally employed to extract value out of waste, create a complicated “operation theatres of inorganic transplants” that stages possibilities of repair, resale, and reuse of the expired. Through exploration of one such site—an automobile junkyard in Mayapuri, Delhi—this article maps how waste is not rendered as trash without the intervention of the intermediary processes of inducing life into the apparently lifeless, and injecting worth into the supposedly worthless.

The article concerns itself primarily with the practices of extracting leftover worth of the products that are declared dead. It is an operation conducted in the peripheral spaces of the city catering to those who are unable to afford the assurances of the new and the branded. Conversations with those who occupy these liminal and transforming spaces of transaction throw light on the making of such a market. Several problems bother the retailers like their relationship with the local civic bodies, the current slumps in the scrap market, and most importantly how imposed norms on obsolescence and rapid technological shifts impose drastic transformation in cycles of exchange in this market.

Logic of Discarding as an Impetus for Consumption

Ontology of trash is … a kind of philosophical biography of our life as consumer. The ontology of trash thus works out to be the history of human embodiment being-in-the-world that takes seriously the physiological changes wrought by technology on our embodiment. (Kennedy 2007: xvii–xviii)

Biographies of consumer durables follow the trajectory of rapid disregard for the once aspired. But, these discards are things that are not indestructible. However, they do not organically dissolve, degrade, deteriorate, or decompose. Rather, planned or forced disposability, discontinuation, dismantling, and replacement are fundamental to the very idea of consumption and how it shapes our relationship with the material world. The shrinking lifespan of the desired durable is increasingly governed by an assigned expiry date. The ethics of compulsive disposal and planned or forced obsolescence eventually produces pyramids of waste1 that pile up. If consumer culture is fundamentally tied to the idea of using-up (that is, consumption itself), then, obviously, the distance between shop and trashcan is short and brief. The waste constantly gets pushed into the urban peripheries announcing their homelessness and our disregard towards the discarded.

Ephemerality of things and compulsive trashing tendencies in favour of the “new” have been the operative principles of contemporary consumer cultures globally. Compulsive tendencies to dispose propels the fetishised desire for the “new.” Markets might offer a plethora of choices, but not choosing the new is certainly not one of them.

Rejection of the new is in bad taste, and she or he who rejects risks, risks rejection. But equally incorrect and dangerous is loyalty to the old. And the ageing of the new, once a long process, takes ever less time. “New” tends to turn into “old,” to be bypassed and overtaken, instantaneously. (Bauman 2004: 110)

Residing on the blatant propaganda of embracing the “new” and discarding the old, the idea of forced or planned obsolescence is intrinsic to consumer culture and capitalism. Consumer culture inculcates a perennial desire for the presumably better, improved, and new, while rendering the lifespan of newness to be short-lived enough to be constantly disposed, discarded, displaced, or dismantled. Life of things follows the principle of “‘desirable before consumption; trash after usage” (Kennedy 2007: XV). Similarly, Thill conceptualises waste as leftovers after “desire has been squeezed out of it” (2015: 29). And, what achieves permanence in this temporal scheme of things is the idea of “obsolete”2 itself: “Obsolesce resists becoming obsolete” (Tischleder and Wasserman 2015: 2).

The processes of creating, sustaining and reviving the desire for the “new” that constantly replaces the previous products by announcing them to be redundant, obsolete, or useless is the commercial logic that supports the induction and production of the “new.” Such a repetitive cycle (of use, consume, and throw) is beneficial to the market as it creates demand through repetitive consumption. Instead of being “the dark, shameful secret of all production,” as Bauman (2004: 33) would suggest, waste is rather an obvious and necessary by-product of the production process itself.

As elaborated in Cultures of Obsolescence (Tischleder and Wasserman 2015: 23), “product mortality is the key to economic stability,” so is the idea of specifying lifespans of products, after which they can be declared legally dead. Ironically, a death certificate is no longer contingent upon the perceived dead body of objects. All that it needs is the perpetual advent and advertisement of the ever “new,” yet another upgraded version, which is presumably faster, lighter, slimmer and even more user-friendly. The most “advanced” turns into an absolute “obsolete” soon. Bauman (2004: 94) goes a step further to re-emphasise the ephemeral aspect3 by rethinking the notion of “expiry” as the “permission to demolish” and been disposed intrinsically linked with/to being disposable.

Everything is born with a branding of imminent death; everything leaves the production line with a “use-by date” label attached; constructions do not start unless permissions to demolish (if required) have been issued.

Obsoleteness is, thus, built into a commodity. Commenting on the dynamism of capitalism, Debord said, “things rule … things confront and replace one another” (2018). Durables that are products of such ways of thinking, and that come along with imprinted and predetermined dates of expiry, naturally lead to faster disposal and massive production of trash. They are generally discarded and dumped in the less developed regions of the world or in the landfills in the margins of the city.

Transformation into a Throwaway Ethic

This debris of consumer culture—“trash”—is often an unambiguous entity of zero value. Kennedy (2007) makes a crucial distinction between “waste” and “trash.” The former retains possibilities of reuse, whereas the latter is a creation of technological objectification that robs off aspects of usefulness leading to its total devaluation. Strasser (1999) makes a similar point on the usefulness of “waste” and the absolute redundancy of “trash.” The former can be treated as leftover, scrap, and organic waste that can serve as manure and fodder, and can be used for household by-products such as soaps, candles, and napkins. Linking “junking” to the adverse effects of industrialisation, Strasser (1999: 14–15) remarks,

Waste to one part of the system acts as resources to another … Industrialization broke the cycle. In an industrial system, the flow is one-way: materials and energy are extracted from the earth and converted by labor and capital into industrial products and byproducts, which are sold, and into waste, which is returned to the eco-system but does not nourish it.

The act of disposal was previously related to production and consumption as various producers bought waste material (bones, clothes, paper, and metal) to manufacture a wide range of products encouraging people to save and trade rags. The “throwaway ethic” began in the United States in the mid-19th century with the availability of cheaper materials, intensified further by the Great Depression that aimed at injecting more demand to resolve the economic crisis (Slade 2006). Its advent in India, however, is logically synchronised with the post-liberalisation phase since the 1990s. Easy to distribute to the consumers, designed for instant gratification, convenient to carry and easier to dispose, it was thus that paper replaced cloth, and glass and plastic substituted wood and metal.

We suddenly woke up to the quintessentially American throwaway ethic and adapted to razors, cups, paper tissues, poly bags, packaging covers, sanitary napkins, band-aids, straws, carry bags, water bottles, boxes, pens, toothbrushes, plastic toys, chewing gums, batteries, beer cans, and a host of other products that demand disposal. Increase in consumption and changing consumption practices also led to changes in the composition of waste. Withholding is difficult as these products are not designed for anything other than single usage. Post the 1990s, the act of throwing became established as a healthy practice, as opposed to finding ways to retain or reuse. The joys of expelling take a firm grip as the market convinces consumers about the ease of disposability. The market also successfully connects the act of reuse to be a threat to health and hygiene4 and renders the act of throwing away culturally permissible by establishing single-use items as more hygienic.

The time of obsolescence, whatever it is called and however it is calculated, has for the first time in the history of mankind and its material culture now become shorter than the life-time of one generation of the product. (Uberoi 1989: 2543)

Curtailing the lifespan of things erases the notion of repair and reuse significantly. The throwaway ethic is antithetical to memory as it encourages us to forget and “move on.” The ideal of “old is gold” is permanently replaced by the ephemeral doctrine of “here and now.” Goods no longer acquire more prestige with age. The nature of obsolescence is not forced or planned; it could well be perceived through making things appear unfashionable. Old goods handed over several generations cease to be a visual proof of status. On the contrary the “old” needs to be disposed of to create space for the “new” that is purchased and not inherited. The diminishing marginal utility of commodities is as undeniable as the being of the material, on which the spell of obsolescence is bound to appear, irrespective of its condition or utilitarian value.

This shift documents a transformation of both technology and taste. Technology stops imagining processes and designing things that are built to last as we stop valuing the idea of ageing. Disposing is freed from the guilt and shame associated with it earlier. A trend of worshipping or treasuring the old with a disdaining attitude for the new gets to be reversed as a part of modernisation. Modern technology also enables us to imagine and manufacture new products in lesser time, making the lifespan of a product increasingly shorter. The moral injunction that operated against the act of disposing (also thought to be a prerogative of the elite demonstrating wealth) gets discarded. The protective attitude towards old and used things or the acts of devising creative means of utilising the damaged (that earlier constituted great middle class pride) is also on the wane. Moreover, the shrinking of spaces in the city does not allow for a separate space that can be reserved for storing and processing waste for reuse. Throwing is as much a consequence of shrinking spaces as much as it is a consequence of the advent of commodities designed or destined for one-time use.

Convenience and efficiency promised by technology and systems of distribution of the commodities deliver the ready-made and convinces us that there is no time or need for the home-made. Easy and user-friendly ready-made options have made simple home-made reuse options redundant, such as making dusters/napkins out of torn clothes5 (that can be washed, as opposed to a tissue that is trashed after one-time use), making petticoats out of faded saris, making wicks from shredded clothes, and bartering old clothes for utensils. In fact, the middle class no longer waits for clothes to fade or tear before they are dumped.

Usefulness of the Discarded

Waste … is not just matter out of place; it is matter without place. (Kennedy 2007: 7)

In a span of less than two decades, this sudden shift from repairing and reusing to the craze for replacing is most applicable to gadgets and devices. The quantum of metal and plastic in all these devices reduces chances of physical degeneration. The afterlives of these short-lived devices create a whole new range of health and environmental hazards as these materials struggle to disappear. The possibility of disposing of gadgets not only replaces the old and existing, but also leaves the junk in the periphery to be buried, burnt, reused, recycled, or left open to rot over time. The consequences of planned obsolescence, thus, create debris of consumer culture and their increasing presence in the peripheral spaces. Thill conceptualises the situation as an “orphan object” found “free-floating” in “trashscapes” (2015: 23). If the trashscapes do not suffice, I am sure, we will devise technologies to dump it in space.

Being mostly out of sight, these hidden spaces often provide a breeding ground for dismantling the disposed and extracting worth out of the apparently worthless. In most cases, the discarded is broken and beaten into parts that reduce the whole and the dismantled parts are prepared to be resold. Only those parts which get disqualified for resale are sold as trash and transported elsewhere to be recycled. This is the point of departure in the trajectory of the discarded from that of its Western counterpart, where the afterlife of the thrown away is governed by regulatory norms. In non-Western countries, the informal economy with its access to large numbers of easily available and replaceable poor migrant population exploits their services for extracting value out of the discards of consumption.6 And, that is how it creates possibilities for the resale and reuse of the expired.

There are practices and processes that focus on extracting and (re)creating value out of waste, which is also indicative of society’s perception towards the discarded. Refusal to dispose or do away with commodities soon after their disposal and the addition of yet another layer of market transaction to squeeze out the last bits of its economic worth is imperative for the existence and operation of low-cost urban infrastructures.7 It encourages and supports hosts of parallel, informal, and compromised channels or networks of production, distribution, circulation, and consumption (Gidwani and Corwin 2017). It bypasses, negates, and subverts the plethora of legalised structures of trade and taxation arrangements. And, it caters to all those who are unable or unwilling to afford the branded, the original, or the new. Hence, the disposed and the abandoned have an afterlife in the Indian context.

What we need to acknowledge, here, is the fact that waste is not just about matter that is out of place or “without a place” (as Kennedy [2007] argues in the Western context), but it is also “matter on the move,” constantly changing its place, as the matter finds it very difficult to disappear.

It is in the corridors of value extraction that the distance between waste and trash is accentuated. Instead of being “matter out of place,” here, it occupies a liminal space of “matter changing its place,” particularly in socio-economic conditions where cheap labour is available for extracting value from waste. Before eventually becoming trash, it gets a fresh lease of life, and space for occupying, and purpose of belonging as is observed and analysed in the subsequent sections of this article.

Defining Waste in the Junk Market

Resurrected from the ground
Designed for failure
Behold the waste is burnt to the ground
Face down and broken
We dedicated our essence to this game
—Gojira (French Heavy Metal Band)

Well captured by Gojira in their song named “Planned Obsolescence” (2012), its technological premise rests on the game of designing things that are bound to fail, as emphasised earlier in this article. Mayapuri,8 the automobile junkyard in West Delhi, is a marginal space inside the city where “planned obsolescence” is executed. It is the largest metal and junk trade yard in India. It is the hub of thousands of retail units selling both junk and reusable machine parts providing conditions of subsistence to many people. Vehicles and machines are dismantled, and functional parts are extracted from these expired bodies and resold. Explaining the nature of operations, a trader stated:

We buy auctioned vehicles and machinery from the army, municipalities, roadways. We dismantle them here. Once dismantled, the segregated parts reach various retailers in the market depending on who sells what.9

One is surrounded by the jumble of skeletons of machinery or its parts that once had life, or were once part of a functioning and performing whole. One walks through the afterlife of assets, once-active cogs in the wheel that are laid out there in the open, waiting to be fragmented, assembled, reassembled, or resold. It is an inexhaustible cycle. The sight validates the claim that there is no natural death of things, not even in its graveyard. Starkly contradicting with imagined notions of the “world-class” or the “global,” this space is full of clutter that reeks of technological morbidity, untouched by the bulldozers of beautification.

As one strolls along the den of afterlife of the used-to-be-functional assets, the whiff of musty grease and engine oil clinch your nostrils. The scrambled fate of these abandoned yet useful parts grips you harder with the metallic sonic sensations of scratching, denting, beating, hammering, and dumping. You witness the dead metal bodies either waiting to be dismantled or halting to be reassembled, resold, and reused for further usage. It is here that the waste is awaiting the craftsmanship of the bricolage in order to be reused.

Conversations with those who occupy this liminal and transforming space of transaction would throw light on the making of such a market. The mechanics and the traders highlighted several problems that bother the retailers. They also pointed out their relationship with the local civic bodies, the current slump in the scrap market, and most importantly how imposed norms on obsolescence, rapid technological shifts, and paradigm shifts in market economics impose drastic transformation in cycles of exchange in the market.

Machinery and vehicles that meet with accidents, ones which remain unclaimed, and other machines and vehicles that expire are brought in from various parts of the country through auction bids. The changing nature of the auctions indicates the adaptability of the traders and how they reform their style of operations over time. Citing that the transformation in the nature of bidding has curbed the possibilities of formation of informal alliances between bidders, one of the traders remarked:

From an era of open auction, we have moved to an era of online auction. Earlier one could walk into the space and have a look at the material to be auctioned and participate in the process of auctioning. Bidding is no more a face to face affair. Now, one is free to inspect materials but bidding is usually online and anonymous to an extent that we don’t get to know the other bidders. It denies the possibility of forming instant and informal alliances or working out arrangements that are mutually beneficial to the bidders. Now, we get to know the amount of the bid without knowing whose bid it is. Auctions keep happening throughout the country. But we tend to focus more in North India—Patiala, Ludhiana, Bhatinda, etc.

Once procured and dismantled, these extracted parts act as vital replacements for bruised or damaged products through indigenous, temporary, and quick-fix tendencies, following the tradition of jugaad. Prices are not fixed. Ambiguity drives pricing as it drives most other things in the market. Bargaining is inherent to such transactions as they are not governed by fixed pricing. Hinting at price flexibility, a trader explained:

Prices are not fixed but vary depending on the condition of parts being resold. Bargaining is very much an integral part of striking a deal. A customer would usually come with a mechanic, whose task is to certify the condition before purchasing. Unlike a new part that has a fixed price and an assured quality, everything is ambiguous over here.

As a customer or as an inquisitive flaneur, you become a spectator to this inexhaustible cycle of dumping, dismantling, extracting, repairing, and reselling of every “part,” fractioned to its last reducible “usable” quotient. It is a highly specialised job with a fairly organised division of labour, where payments are proportionate to the nature of work.

Daily wage varies depending on the nature of work. Those who cut vehicles charge a different rate from those who segregate. Labourers usually specialise in a particular task.

Displacement and Assimilation

Conversation with retailers in the market reveals the twin processes of displacement of the unplanned to the fringes and the problems of assimilation of the displaced into a new space. Fifty years ago, when scrap traders from the heart of Delhi were compelled to shift to Mayapuri, its location was indeed at the fringes of the growing city. Even though machine dismantling is not particularly hazardous,10 this task has always involved dislocating the migrant and the working-class population from the centre, a hallmark of Delhi’s development model. The original traders of the market were victims of partition in 1947 and were mostly engaged in similar trading activities in Peshawar (Pakistan). Recollecting his thoughts on the original market in Old Delhi, a trade union leader said:

The market earlier used to be located in Motia Khan before being forcefully evicted from there and relocated to Mayapuri. Most of the traders are originally from Rawalpindi or Peshawar in Pakistan, where our ancestors were engaged in similar trade. All kinds of parts are resold in this market—in part or as a whole. I came here in the year 1978 when I was young. I have grown older in the market.

Reflecting upon the forced eviction and complaining about the lack of basic facilities, the remark of a senior trader reflects how the state views this sort of a marginal space:

Actually we were not evicted. Rather, we were uprooted. During the emergency, the state literally threw us here. This was back of beyond in those years with no infrastructure. We had to build it from scratch. These roads connecting the shops were constructed in late 70s but were never repaired after that. Sewage and sanitation continue to be major problems till date. Since the traders and the migrant laborers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are not local residents and do not vote for this constituency and cannot act as a pressure group, we are perennially neglected.

Safety of Workers

In 2010, in the midst of apprehension about another round of forceful eviction to push Mayapuri away to the present peripheries of the expanded city, the market came under the scanner for accidental gamma radiations. A gamma unit was improperly disposed by the Department of Chemistry, University of Delhi to scrap dealers who dismantled the equipment causing acute radiation syndrome to five of them. This incident is not only indicative of the lack of precautionary measures related to the disposal of the unwanted, but also reflects the lack of concern for the fate of the disposed and the unknown destinations traced by it in its afterlife. It also raises questions related to the safety of workers dealing with scrap and the conditions of their workspace that lacks basic infrastructural facilities. Commenting on the incident and its consequences, one of the workers defended his fellow workers and shifted the blame on the irresponsibility of highly educated citizens:

After the radiations, the market came under the National Green Tribunal [NGT] scanner. It was not our fault. If a university fails to be careful about disposing an instrument with gamma rays, why blame the illiterate workers who were merely doing their cutting jobs without knowing what it was.

Furthermore, the regulations of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to curb vehicular pollution in Delhi are directly in conflict with business operations in Mayapuri. In July 2016, the NGT directed the Delhi government’s transport department to deregister diesel vehicles that were 10 years old or older. The tribunal recommended that all diesel vehicles which are more than 10 years old not be permitted to ply in Delhi-National Capital Region. On 26 November 2014, it had banned the plying of all diesel or petrol vehicles which were more than 15 years old. This imposition not only leads to devaluation of used vehicles, but compels consumers to discard vehicles after a certain time span, thereby reducing the demand for used spare parts purchased from grey markets. Irrespective of the condition of the vehicle, it cannot be allowed to be re-registered and driven if it happens to be over 15 years old. Even if it meets all the pollution parameters and even if it was barely driven in the past 15 years, it would still not be eligible for a fitness certificate. Traders univocally critique policies of the NGT for being fundamentally flawed notwithstanding its adverse effect on their business.

What is the problem if people want to keep old but well maintained cars and use it once in a while? Why not devise a mechanism for obtaining fitness certificates every two years and take action against those vehicles which fail to fulfil those requirements? Government can then decide to scrap the polluting vehicles instead of compulsively scrapping every diesel vehicle after 10 years and petrol vehicles after 15 years. Such restrictions defy logic just like the “odd-even” formula.11 Impositions like “odd-even” compel people to buy more cars and compulsive scrapping makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. The point is, if vehicles are maintained well, why would it be a source of pollution? The moment you ban, we will figure out ways to bypass. Gas cutters were banned for instance, but it did not stop the mechanism rather made it more expensive due to the bribe that has now to be paid.

Undoubtedly, it is an imposition that rules in favour of compulsive scrapping of vehicles and buying new ones, junking it again after 15 years and buying a new one. It is not matter of coincidence that one of the largest automobile makers in the country—Maruti Suzuki—has launched several new models and aggressively campaigned for each one of them in the last three years.12 However, parking space for a city that is nearing 20 million people is a huge concern. A policy promoting compulsive and periodic junking of vehicles directly affects the demand and sale of used parts and used vehicles. However, that is not the sole cause of reduction in trade in Mayapuri. Complaining about reduced transactions and fewer customers visiting the market and its implications on the diminishing usefulness of the discarded, a trader was quick to point out:

Earlier customers used to come from all over India, which is not how it is anymore. Foreign buyers who bought in bulk no longer come here. The imposed age restriction systematically takes old vehicles off the roads. Not much damage happens in a span of 10–15 years. With older vehicles plying on roads earlier, there used to be a greater demand for used parts. Road conditions have improved radically in the last two decades leading to lesser wear and tear and accidents, which called for replacements.

Possibilities of financing new vehicles in instalments and the assurance of company-sponsored warranty is cited as another cause13 for the massive drop in demand for used vehicles and used parts. It is an undeniable truth that the transnational and neo-liberal forces in the last two decades have monopolised the entire supply chain when it comes to automobiles, which has also shortened the “waste-to-trash” period threatening trade at Mayapuri, as explained by a trader:

The trend of using a vehicle as long as possible has come to an end. It is so easy to finance a new car these days. Manufacturers are offering 3–5 years warranty which has made replacement almost free. All these manufacturers have their own showrooms and spare-part retail units. In case of wear and tear, which demands replacement, factory outlets serve as more reliable option than Mayapuri. The new or its replacements bought from the company outlets or service stations also come with warranty as opposed to the used parts that we sell. The easier accessibility of the new has had a negative impact on our business. Paying in installments over the years for new vehicle does not hurt one’s pockets. Hence people are buying more cars and also changing cars more frequently.

The Mayapuri market was famous for assembling vehicles, particularly jeeps and motorbikes, till a few decades ago. This trend has dwindled since it is now easier to finance a brand new car in instalments with better assurances and on-road assistance. Recounting the nostalgia of modifying and assembling, a mechanic mentioned:

We used to assemble jeeps and motorcycles. The assembled end products were as good as the new ones in the showroom, if not better. But due to the current restrictions on old vehicles, we have lost out on customers who were connoisseurs of modified or assembled vehicles or old vehicles auctioned by the army. The practice of renovating vehicles, which once employed and engaged a lot of labourers and retailers here, has come to an end. New Royal Enfield motorcycles that are now priced between Rs 1,00,000–1,50,000 were available for Rs 25,000 that too, in very good condition. The consumer mindset has also undergone a radical change. No one wants to buy old and modified stuff.

Such transitions in consumer taste and consumption ethics also strongly indicate a larger trend that governs consumer decisions. The neo-liberal market prescribes standardisation of production, certainty of distribution, and predictability of consumption. There is little room for the extension of the expiry date as the introduction of the new and improved is heavily dependent on the obsolescence of the old and prior. Any alternative chains of circulation that prolongs the life of things, like the ones in Mayapuri, are directly in conflict with the swift sustenance of the mainstream global networks of consumption resting on an increasingly shorter lifespan of things. In other words, the very idea of reuse in any form is a potential threat to the throwaway ethic and trashing tendencies. The responses from the market and the imposed policies of obsolescence certify this ephemeral phenomenon.

Ending Ambiguity

In one sense, modern capitalism proceeds by forgetting the scale of devastation wreaked upon the physical and social world, for obliterating traces of this carnage fosters the myth of endless and seamless progress. However, lost and abandoned objects vividly convey this destruction. As previously celebrated and valuable commodities decay and become irrelevant in the continual creation of the new, they can be recognised as the dreams they always were, emblems of the fragility and destructiveness of unfettered capitalist production. (Edensor 2005: 101)

The deep sense of anxiety in the market around the increasing worthiness of “waste” resonates with the demise of ambiguity and usefulness of waste expressed by Tim Edensor. Due to market-driven ease of access to finance the new and state-driven impositions to get rid of the old after a stipulated time frame, traders are extremely concerned with “waste” being treated as trash straightaway. Some of the traders anxiously raise concerns over the future of trading waste in India.

We are nearing a closure when it comes to reselling used parts. The day is not too far when we might have to shut shop or we will be forced to confine ourselves to deal exclusively in scrap [read trash]. We will buy more selectively. Hopefully, scrap trading cannot possibly come to an end as most of the new things are born out of recycling scrap.

The processes of discarding, its consequences, and its spaces of occupation throw up challenging questions. The throwaway ethic imposed by the logic of consumption is in conflict with the practices of extracting value from waste and it also contradicts practices of retention and reuse through jugaad.14 However, decline in demand of used parts resold in the market is indicative of the advent of a new consumer rationality that seeks security from branded purchases and entails the promise of greater efficiency associated with the new. As mentioned earlier, the market still represents an ambiguous zone between usefulness and uselessness, waste and trash, use and reuse, appearance and disappearance, and extracting value out of the waste and its bleak future of existence. Easier ways and means of financing the “new,” greater temptation to opt for the “new” that holds itself accountable through written contracts has started phasing out the idea of traditional ways of repair, reuse, and resale.

However, spaces of second-hand transactions continue to provide cheaper replacements to those who still cannot afford the promised increase in efficiency and assurances of the new. It thrives on the demand of customers coming from regions where the state is yet to appropriate the role of an arbitrator deciding the lifespan of a product or where the norms are sufficiently relaxed to uphold the demands of used products as cheaper replacements. Such impositions are an extension of market logic in favour of forced or planned obsolescence that further institutionalises practices of demand creation not merely through the propaganda machinery (advertisement), but through various modes declaring expiry dates, irrespective of the conditions of the product. A production logic that is perennially geared towards encouraging consumers to forget and move on is antithetical to memory and unsympathetic to the existence of anything relatively old.

Notes

1 Manufacturing and consumption contributes to more than 50% of carbon dioxide emissions (Monbiot 2010). Half of the plastic ever made was produced in the last 15 years and a trillion plastic bags used worldwide have a working life of less than 15 minutes on an average (Goldberg 2018).

2 Adding a different dimension to the idea of obsolescence, Sterling (2005: 30) through an interesting graphic representation shows how “obsolescence” is “innovation in reverse.”

3 While reflecting on digital decay and e-fossils, Gabrys (2013: 83) expands the notion of ephemerality a step further by analysing how it is not only the ephemerality of the objects that lead to a shortened lifespan, but also the automated production processes that fastens linkages between spaces of production (factories), storage (warehouses), distribution (retail), consumption (domestic or public) and disposals (dump yards) is the creation of a technological condition that facilitate speed and transience.

4 For example, a paper napkin is not designed to last a wash; once used it is contaminated, soiled and germ-ridden, it is waiting to be thrown out of sight and eventually out of the human habitat.

5 For domestic recycling of clothing and the stages of transformations it undergoes, see Norris (2010).

6 A study conducted by Mishra (2016) in Seelampur in East Delhi (one of India’s largest electronic waste dump yards) revealed that 41 smartphones contain a gram of gold, worth about ₹3,000. For every one million smart phones recycled, that is, 16,000 kg, 350 kg of silver, 34 kg of gold, and 14 kg of palladium can be recovered. As stated by Grossman (2006), compared to others kinds of waste, electronic waste with high-tech electronic circuits is a store house of toxic materials and hence a complex waste.

7 Ravi Sundaram (2010) uses the term to refer to the proliferation of certain kinds of piracies in the postcolonial city accessed through informal channels located outside the legal structures and meant for the marginal urban population. Such pirated versions (of software, hardware and entertainment) manifests itself in the apparently “dark spaces” of the city catering to those who remain outside the welfare policies of the state, and is inherently informal deriving its strength from illegitimacy. There is also a high degree of overlap between the urban poor and employment in the informal sector (Gill 2010).

8 The Mayapuri project was initially conceived as a visual exploration of the Mayapuri metal junkyard and was exhibited in the India International Centre as part of a show titled “Inorganic Transplants: Afterlife of the Lifeless” during 1–11 April 2016. This exhibition was a part of the India Photo Archive Foundation’s initiative to curate the works of photographers around the theme of “waste” and “recycle.” Parts of the visual documentation were later published as a photo essay in the Wire (Sreedeep 2016). My active engagement with the space prompted me to later develop it as an academic paper.

9 All excerpts are from a series of interviews that the author had conducted in 2017 with the traders and workers in the market.

10 Similar zones where value is extracted from the discarded, namely, Seelampur (graveyard of India’s electronic waste; nearly a quarter of India’s three million tonnes of electronic waste generated every year is dumped in Seelampur), Loni, Mundka, and Mandoli, located on the outskirts of Delhi, pose a challenge to issues of health and safety of the workers. As a source of livelihood for huge numbers of poor migrant workers, who are employed informally to extract precious metals such as lead, copper, aluminium, brass, silver, and even gold from piles of smartphones, motherboards, and circuit boards are exposed to severe health hazards, including cancer and a weakened immune system.

11 The author is referring to the Delhi government’s proposed rule to run vehicles with odd and even numbers on alternate days implemented twice in 2016. It was aimed at reducing traffic and levels of air pollution.

12 Reflecting almost five decades ago on the relationship between reduced life-expectancy and accelerated turnover, Lefebvre wrote, “Indeed, the scandal has reached world-scale proportions in the case of the car industry” (2016: 70).

13 Imposition of weight restricting heavy vehicles is also considered to be a major reason behind less wear and tear and hence reduction in demand for the spare parts. Overloading often leads to greater wear and tear and causes greater damage to the engine, wheels, chassis and other parts of a vehicle.

14 Jugaad can be defined as an indigenous quick-fixing propensity executed through improvised, innovative, or hacking techniques and tendencies.

References

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Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018

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