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India’s Waste Problem

Envisaging a Just Transition

Aravindhan Nagarajan ( is a PhD candidate at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Studies, Mumbai.

Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India by Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2018; pp xv + 393, ₹ 799 (hardcover).


In recent years, the issues of waste and sanitation have gained widespread attention in the national and international media coverage of Indian policy. Indian policymakers, from Jairam Ramesh (of the Congress) to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have, in particular, spoken about the need for toilets over temples (Ramesh 2014; Press Trust of India 2013). Waste management is at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s Office’s(PMO) flagship programme Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the primary goal of which is to end open defecation. The importance attached to sanitation in public policy leads Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey to ask, “Why is India so filthy?” And its corollary, “How can a clean India be achieved?” This is the central investigation of Waste of a Nation, where Doron and Jeffrey describe and explain the sociopolitical character of India’s waste problem.

The book consists of seven main chapters addressing various aspects of India’s waste problem. Doron and Jeffrey employ the use of several detailed case studies, textual analysis, archival research work and interviews with people who work with waste.1 The authors highlight the presence of both continuity and change that is to be found within and outside India in dealing with the question of waste. The history of waste management, and the growth and development of waste and sewage, form the bulk of the first three chapters. Some of the more important aspects of these chapters include the exploration into the history of sanitation under the colonial government. This includes the relatively lesser-known reports on the state of sanitation in India prepared by Florence Nightingale. These chapters also trace the sanitation concerns in cities in post-independence India, such as with the changing nature and scale of waste in Chandigarh. The third chapter details the question of municipal and sewage waste, faecal waste, dry latrines, open defecation and the impacts of the same on caste, gender, and child health. An important takeaway from their assessment of continuity and change in these chapters is that India’s waste problem bears a resemblance with the state of industrialised countries in the late 19th century; such as the pollution and stench in London (called the Great Stink) that forced the closure of the English parliament. India’s lesson from this history is the benefit of learning, from hindsight and the development of modern institutions, science and technology, to deal with waste.2

One of the highlights of the book is its rich case studies. In the chapter on “Recycling and Value,” the authors trace the lives of people working at different levels of a global supply chain of discarded materials and commodities. This includes the international trade in discarded human hair. It describes how the small-scale picker and trader of wastes in the streets of West Bengal and the large-scale trade from temples, both end up servicing the international retail market for wigs. The chapter also includes travails of the ship-breaking industry in Alang in Gujarat and the chain of collectors, traders and recyclers of plastic and e-waste in Indian cities. These chapters offer a thick description of the plight and hope of those who work with waste.3

Abolition of Caste

An important aspect of the question of waste is one of the people, institutions, technology and financial resources available to deal with the problem. This forms the bulk of the discussions in the latter chapters of the book (Chapters 5, 6 and 7). Some of the best discussions within the book look at the social and cultural aspects of toilet models used within the Swachh Bharat campaign. How are these toilets to be constructed? What about the absence of water and sewage, and the working of septic tanks? Who uses these toilets and who will clean them? On the other hand, there is also the mention of those who work with waste, including unions, organisations, social activists and social workers dealing with India’s waste problem. The achievements of the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) in Pune and its role in incorporating women waste worker’s rights, and restoring dignity to waste pickers and collectors, are of particular importance.

Apart from this descriptive account of India’s waste problem, the authors also talk about the peculiarity of the Indian context in dealing with waste. The break from the story of continuity and change arises with India’s threefold problem: density, volume and caste. The first problem is that of density, which refers to India being one of the most densely populated developing countries in the world. It is also one that has high per capita waste generation. The second is the sheer volume of waste generated by a population, which is growing and increasing its consumption. The authors point out that India’s 65 million tonnes per annum is ever-increasing. And further that its population density of 445 people per square kilometre (that is three times greater than that of China). The authors seem to contrast the growth of the economy and waste with India’s past, which made a virtue of frugality, and its consequent networks of waste management (for example, the kabbadiwaala). The third and perhaps the most important aspect of India’s waste problem is that of caste. This primarily centres on the exploitation, stigmatisation and marginalisation of Dalit (and in many urban areas it includes Muslims) workers who deal with waste and work in the lowest rungs of the waste collection hierarchy.

Doron and Jeffrey detail the constraints imposed by the caste system that includes narrative accounts of manual scavenging in Varanasi to waste pickers in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. Confounding the issue is the absence of economic, physical and social security for those working with waste. In contrast to the novelty and attention attached to the statements made by Jairam Ramesh and Prime Minister Modi, Doron and Jeffrey rightly highlight the long-held viewpoint of many Dalit leaders and intellectuals: without the abolition of caste and without restoring dignity to work, imagining a clean India is woefully inadequate and insufficient. This view draws of course from B R Ambedkar’s assessment that “under Hinduism scavenging was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of force” (p 261).

In more contemporary times, Doron and Jeffrey refer to the work of (to name a few) Bezwada Wilson (who has organised and fought for the rights of those engaged in manual scavenging), Sudharak Olwe (who has through his photography detailed the plight of manual scavenging in India) and the writer Chandra Bhan Prasad (who details the importance of modernity in undermining caste prejudices).

Waste and Capitalism

There is no denying that the problem of solid waste and sewage is important in terms of magnitude and its specific characteristics. However, the use of density and volume as measures of the quantity and quality of India’s waste must be taken with a pinch of salt. Population density in itself has no reference to the resources, institutions and technologies available within countries to deal with waste. At best, it can indicate the unavailability of land to manage waste. But, the problem of waste is one of reducing wastes sent to landfills and the need for recovering resources from waste (MacBride 2011). Its close relative, per capita waste generation (also used frequently to describe the problem), has been argued by many experts to be a non-precise measure. This is on two counts. The first is that it emphasises individual behaviour and consumption as the biggest contributor to waste generation, and second, it disregards that the biggest contributor to waste is from industry, construction and mining (Johansson 2014; MacBride 2011).4 In fact, as Doron and Jeffrey point out, India’s waste generation (per capita or total volume) is not the largest in the world, by far. For instance, India’s annual municipal waste generation is at 65 million tonnes as compared to the United States’ 250 million tonnes, indicating that we still remain a poor country.

Production and waste are central to industrial capitalism, and the importance of waste and scale requires a forward-looking approach. In comparison, frugality of consumption and dealing with waste are outcomes of poverty and there is a risk of it being romanticised. In order to treat new volumes of waste, there must be the presence of institutions and technology that are scaled upwards. The rise of industrial production and consumption presents not just a problem, but also the opportunity to handle waste. This is seen in the presence of greater recycling rates seen in China (Qi et al 2016).5 It is also seen in the historical examples of synthesising aniline (an important product in the chemical and dye industry) from coal tar (a discarded substance that polluted cities) and the processes of meat packaging in Chicago (which tackled the health hazard of discarded meat waste in the early 20th century) (Desrochers and Leppälä 2010). An important lesson from economic history is that waste must be present in a large scale in order for it to be recognised as a problem and for it to be resolved institutionally and through technology.6

Crisis or Modern Transition?

Throughout, the book’s motif is that India’s waste and sanitation problem represents a moral binding crisis. A moral binding crisis is one that affects the poor and the powerful, not equally but inescapably (p 80). It includes the bubonic plague of Surat, air pollution in Indian cities, and the impact of open defecation on child growth. The recognition of such a crisis necessitates action even from the ruling elite. While agreeing with the universal and physically binding nature of these crises, one does need to point out that the appellation of “moral” attached to them seems to be misplaced. The appeal being made here is that of a universal crisis, such as the Great Stink of London or the advent of cholera in the United Kingdom, affected the ruling class and the elite, and compelled them to act on it. However, what is missing in this analysis is an assessment of the character and nature of the Indian state and its ruling elite. From the absence of universal public education and the presence of child labour (Weiner 1991), to the question of public sanitation and child malnutrition (Kumar 2017), what characterises India’s ruling elite is its sheer backwardness. This backwardness is in comparison to the history of other industrialised countries and even with the priorities accorded by developing countries. This backwardness represents an incomplete transition to modernity and it specifically reflects in the failure to deal with caste in the case of waste.

The question is: How can a modern and just transition be envisaged? One that is premised on the need to incorporate scale and technology that is forward-looking? A transition which, as the authors themselves suggest, looks not only at employment and economic security but also at dignity (and its lack thereof).7 Perhaps, at the heart of India’s waste problem, is the failure to see this. And, perhaps, this is why the efforts of the ruling elite and the initiatives of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seem backward and wholly inadequate.


1 There is also an appendix, with an interesting email correspondence of questions and responses sought from Prime Minister Modi on the origin and genesis of the PMO’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This contains clues to the larger political context of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the Prime Minister’s personal motivations for the same.

2 A point that is also made within development theory in general, but one which has in recent times been applied to specific cases; such as health and sanitation in India (Coffey and Spears 2017).

3 The references and endnotes throughout the book are in themselves an essential resource for those who are investigating and researching the subject of waste and its treatment in India.

4 Some of the references warning about industrial waste are, in fact, referred to by the authors themselves. However, the implication of the measures missing the mark is not reflected in their characterisation of the problem.

5 There are two inferences to be made of the Chinese example of increased recycling rates and transition to circular economy (though incomplete and at its infancy). The first is the need for increasing levels of production of materials such as steel and plastic before there is enough scale to treat waste and recover resources. The second is the larger trade in international waste and scrap that aids these capacities.

6 This refers to the works of Charles Babbage and Karl Marx, and the environmental historian Joel Tarr (1996).

7 In their own words Doron and Jeffrey describe this in the following statement: “[the waste of a nation] does not include poor and marginalised people, but is restricted to inanimate matter—minimised, collected, neutralised, and reused in ways that provide models for other places in an environmentally fragile world” (p 15).


Coffey, D and D Spears (2017): Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste, HarperCollins.

Desrochers, P and S Leppälä (2010): “Industrial Symbiosis: Old Eine in Recycled Bottles? Some Perspective from the History of Economic and Geographical Thought,” International Regional Science Review, 33(3), pp 338–61.

Johansson, N (2014): Misleading Waste Statistics, Discard Studies,, 4 July.

Kumar, Awanish (2017): “India’s Unique Enigma of High Growth and Stunted Children,” Wire, 7 September.

MacBride, S (2011): Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Press Trust of India (2013): “Build Toilets First and Temples Later, Narendra Modi Says,” Times of India,, 2 October.

Qi, J, Zhao, J Li, W Peng, B X Wu and H Wang (2016): Development of Circular Economy in China, Singapore: Springer.

Ramesh, Jairam (2014): “A Toilet for Everyone,” India Today,–2014–06–06, 6 June.

Tarr, J A (1996): The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective, Akron, Ohio: The University of Akron Press.

Weiner, M (1991): The Child and the State in India: Child Labour and Education Policy in Comparative Perspective, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Updated On : 8th Jan, 2019


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