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From Balmikis to Bengalis

The ‘Casteification’ of Muslims in Delhi’s Informal Garbage Economy

Dana Kornberg ( is with the Department of SociologyUniversity of MichiganAnn Arbor, United States.

The reorganisation of informal household garbage collection work in Delhi is analysed, as migrants from eastern states like West Bengal have begun doing manual waste work, even as their Balmikis deal only with monthly cash payments. Drawing on fieldwork, the effect on the Balmiki jamadars is noted, and the Bengali Muslims, who newly contend with the practices of untouchability in their neighbourhoods of work, are focused on. These newer migrants come to justify the shame they experience by focusing on the equivalence of scrap with money, which has redemptive potential. This reveals a dynamic process through which caste differences are being remade—”casteification”—in relation to economic life.

Figure 1 accompanying this paper is available on the EPW website.

The author is grateful to Amita Baviskar and Vinay Gidwani for their ongoing and remarkably generous support for this work. The author thanks the two anonymous EPW reviewers who provided extensive comments; they have proven tremendously productive even if the author cannot account for them all here.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Madison South Asia Conference and the Yale South Asia Workshop, where the author was fortunate to gain new colleagues.

Darting between cars, speeding through the outermost lane, Rizaul1 used his long limbs and tall, healthy frame to hoist the bora (sack) full of maal (scrap) onto the raised median. It was late morning and, as in any Delhi colony, small clusters of domestic workers—cooks, cleaners, press-waale, chaukidars, etc—could be seen moving around or between houses in this area near Pitampura. We too were finishing the morning’s garbage collection route when another worker dressed in a black-embroidered salwar kameez stepped up onto the median to talk with Rizaul. When he went to throw the garbage in the dumpster, leaving me to watch, she turned to me quickly, explaining that she was ashamed that he was collecting garbage for a living. She said: “I always tell this guy that he is a Muslim, and Muslims don’t do this work.” When he eventually came back, she looked directly at him, scrunching up her face with disgust and disapproval and asking him why he did work that was defiling and done by a certain caste only.”2

Judgment, disdain, and discrimination remain sharp for those who earn a living by handling others’ waste in urban India. Just as upper-caste groups justify their continued dominance through new mechanisms such as the idea of “merit” (Subramanian 2015), they also seek to secure their positions by promoting cultural caste-based practices of subjugation and untouchability (Sarukkai 2009). In this paper, I examine the phenomenon whereby Delhi’s informal economy for household garbage collection has been reorganised—as Balmikis have employed newer Muslim migrants from West Bengal for collection and sorting work, so that the former deal only with monthly cash payments instead of garbage, or kooda. In turn, Bengali Muslims find themselves subjected to stigmatising practices of untouchability, as residents respond to their presence by covering their noses and mouths, telling them to stay far away, and ordering them to move their carts. As agricultural labourers or small merchants in their villages, such experiences are new for them, and they must be accepted in order to continue working. I analyse this transformation in order to show the durability of systems of caste distinction, while also indicating how the processes through which caste distinctions endure—as well as the groups subjected to their power—may change.

Casteification and Its Justification

The recent experiential and comparative turn in studies of caste reveals a dynamic set of practices that structure wider processes of status making and domination. When seen as a system of “ascriptive hierarchies” (Jodhka 2015), caste becomes the plane on which some groups wield the power, or cultural capital, to ascribe status. Such ascription can occur through everyday urban practices that include pollution and humiliation (Geetha 2009; Guru 2009), servility (Ray and Qayum 2009), forms of discrimination in the “modern” formal economy (Deshpande and Newman 2007), and affiliations with particular neighbourhoods (Vithayathil and Singh 2012).

Building on the recognised, and frequently violent, enforcement of untouchability practices against Dalits, I argue that similar forms of domination can be extended through “casteification,” 3 a term that indicates the mundane practices through which casted actors, groups, and structures are produced. To discuss “caste” in this way is not to delineate caste as a rigid system of hierarchy in the classic sense, or to invoke the language of Max Weber, but rather to recognise that “caste” is the English term most ubiquitously used to describe structures of cultural, hereditary, and ascriptive traits, described (when it is spoken of) by the terms jati, qaum, and biradri in North India. This also acknowledges how social practices and positions associated with caste—from lineage/surname to dietary practices and access to wealth—afford some groups high status while others are subordinated, exploited, and even humiliated. To see caste in this way is to recognise how this system for producing social distinctions “continues to be significant as a source of cultural capital that enters into the reproduction of class differences” (Harriss 2012: 2). Here, in particular, casteification functions in an urban context, where “to be middle class is to distance oneself from work on the boundaries of purity and pollution” (Ray and Qayum 2009: 18). Casteification, then, recognises how caste practices and positions change over time—even if those changes are rarely radical.

Especially relevant to this case are theories of untouchability that acknowledge and theorise such practices at the bottom of the hierarchy in a relational fashion. In particular, I find useful Sarukkai’s (2009) forceful argument that “the real site of untouchability is the person who refuses to touch the untouchable.” This formulation not only recognises the relationality of caste (that is, there is only untouchability in relation to savarna-ness), but also explicitly acknowledges the role of upper-caste actors in determining who deserves to be touched. Formulated as a social practice, the act of denying particular groups the value and care of experiencing touch becomes a way of confirming higher status. While some waste workers “come to the city to escape the inherited burden of caste,” only to find themselves again confronting its cruelty (Gidwani and Kumar 2019: 156), the experience of new groups experiencing old forms of stigma and discrimination usefully extends how we conceptualise, and thus also recognise, the workings of caste and casteism in the urban context. Just as Punjabi labourers became Balmikis in Delhi during the late 19th century (Prashad 2000), so do contemporary urban migrants take on new social positions in the city. This phenomenon is particularly evident when it comes to working with wet household garbage—an unambiguously stigmatising material that has long been a marker of caste and status.

To recognise the extension of stigma of untouchability to new groups, however, also raises the question of why such groups might accept this penalty. What is novel here is not that people are subjected to practices of untouchability that justify and enable their exploitation—that is of course a much longer-standing phenomenon—but rather that the social penalties of untouchability actually come to be seen as a cost to be paid in order to realise economic benefits. Though limited, Muslim garbage workers in Delhi nevertheless tend to have options ranging from agricultural labour in their villages, to rickshaw pulling or construction work in the city. I argue that Bengali garbage workers are willing to handle garbage in pursuit of valuable recyclable scrap (maal or kabad) because scrap brings potential for money, capital, and perhaps even improved status. For Balmikis, the associated stigma has meant reducing, or in many cases eliminating, their direct contact with garbage, while for Bengalis and other newer rural to urban migrants, contact with wet waste is seen as a compulsion (majboori) but also a kind of expense—a sacrifice of cultural capital in the short term in order to attempt to gain the redemptive potential of economic capital over time (Bourdieu 1977).

Cultivating Distance from Waste

The last couple of decades have not only seen the persistence of informal systems of household waste collection and recycling in Delhi, but even their expansion. As markets for recycling rising amounts of plastics and papers deepened in the 1990s and 2000s, the scrap available in garbage for recovery and recycling swelled. Meanwhile, labour migrants arriving from West Bengal were eager to find work in Delhi, and many joined the city’s quickly segmenting waste workforce. They were facilitated by people like the scrap buyer I interviewed in north-west Delhi who lived in a jhuggi alongside Balmiki families in the 1990s. Spreading the word to the local Bengali community about the availability of work, village networks were eventually activated. She explained how their arrival in Delhi from West Bengal changed the existing system for informal household garbage collection:

At that time, I wouldn’t have thought that people would come from West Bengal to do this work or that they would go through such dirty garbage (laughing). The Balmikis would do their own collection and just sell what they got. It was all clean, and there was a lot of it. Now they’ve become contractors (thekedaars) and the Bengalis do the work, going through the garbage for things that wouldn’t have been sold before. It’s completely changed.4

Two important transitions are noted here: the arrival of Bengalis from their home district and the expansion of scrap material recovered for recycling, which expanded beyond relatively “clean” and valuable things to include “dirty” less-valuable materials. Before their arrival, Balmiki workers reclaimed only more expensive scrap items like unsoiled plastic bottles and metals, which they would sell for cash. Newer Bengali collectors, in contrast, extract even small pieces of newspaper, handfuls of long hair, and plastic bags dripping with the milky-sweet remnants of yesterday’s chai. Bengali migrants have thus added both material and social complexity to the robust yet informal system for garbage collection and recycling.

Connecting with a person they called “jamadar,”5 usually a member of the Balmiki community, Bengalis created two jobs where previously there had been only one—a response to the deepening market for recyclables. Their entry also meant a significant change for Balmiki workers, who had often collected garbage (and human waste, especially in the past) for multiple generations. A primary source of livelihood that had been secured entirely through informal networks, Balmikis described their rights to conduct sanitation work in particular areas as khandani or purkhon ka kaam (familial or hereditary work). While many in the community hold formal municipal jobs (often men), themselves passed between generations, others (often women within the same family) rely on long-term, yet entirely informal, claims to collect garbage from particular areas of the city. Despite not having formal contracts or other legal title, both Balmiki contractors and Bengali collectors understood these claims as a right, as a Bengali collector affirmed by referencing the rural context with which he was most familiar:

It’s just like how we’ll get our father’s or grandfather’s fields down the road, and then after us our children will get them, right? That’s exactly how their jobs are. Before it was their father and grandfather (baap-dada), they did this work, but when their grandfather passed away, their dad got it, and when their father passed away then the son got it. I mean, they have exactly this kind of “chain system.”6

Balmiki jamadars described how they either inherited their areas, as described here, or claimed them when new houses were built. These claims were widely recognised and rarely, if ever, contested.

Given these long-standing claims, the fact that Balmiki collectors have been willing to give up a key source of income to Bengali newcomers, particularly when scrap was becoming more lucrative, is notable. When I asked a Balmiki jamadar whose family had collected from the same area for generations why they would take the reduction in pay and allow others to take the scrap, he explained his logic: “Unka bhi pet bhar jaye. Inke biwi bacche hain, inka bhi time pass ho jaye. Inka bhi time pass ho jaye, hamara bhi time pass ho jaye (They too will fill their stomachs. They have wives and children, they will also get by. They’ll get by, we’ll also get by).”7 In other words, he seemed to say, we are all making ends meet. Framing the work as “time pass” was relatively common, as it was seen as a way of making ends meet—subsistence rather than gain. Such logic also accords, however, with the fact that Bengalis were willing to dig out lower value materials for recycling—effectively contributing to an entirely new market of recyclables. The rise of kabadi wale (roaming scrap buyers) also had an influence, since Balmiki collectors had previously recovered the bottles, metal, and newspaper stacks from garbage that households now sell for money.

But as I worked in the neighbourhoods, I was able to see other benefits that Balmiki jamadars now enjoyed from giving up handling garbage and dealing primarily with money—their main task now being the collection of the household fee (usually between ₹30 and ₹100 per month). On a garbage collection round in Rohini during an unusually pleasant and cool sunny morning just after Diwali, the advantages of jamadars becoming contractors took on new meaning. I was with a slight man in his 40s who had just returned from a long stay in his West Bengal village, when a woman arrived around 7 am. She looked to be in her late 30s, wearing a bright salwar kameez, gold hoop earrings, a shiny nose ring, and pink lipstick. Without any formalities, she walked straight up to him to ask about the collector who worked in the adjacent area. After getting an answer, she turned to me, asking if I would join her for some chai. I followed as she walked off in the direction of an older local woman’s house, leaving him to collect garbage while we were invited inside for tea and snacks.8

Reducing Direct Contact

While this kind of invitation could have happened when jamadars did the collection work themselves—and even now, jamadars are far more often served tea outside—such an interaction reveals two notable aspects of their new position. First, not doing the collection work themselves means that jamadars have more time on their hands. While some use that time to take on other paid jobs, only coming to the neighbourhoods once or twice a month to collect money, others continue to come regularly, using the time to check up on Bengali collectors and cultivate relationships with residents. Second, these relationships are also afforded by the fact that Balmiki jamadars no longer have direct contact with garbage. Without soiled hands or clothing, upper-caste households are more likely to engage with them, even while they continue to bear the stigma of their Dalit identities.

Where Balmiki jamadars participated in waste collection, they notably avoided touching the garbage itself by handing off the bags or buckets to their Bengali workers, ensuring that they would not be handling the wet waste with their own hands. When I was out on a collection route with Abdul in Rohini, I was struck by his jamadar’s notably stylish clothing. A thin woman in her 30s, she arrived wearing a black leather jacket with white furry accents at the wrists (an outfit that would have been ruined had she been sorting through garbage herself). In fact, so much of her outfit was white, including her sandals, that it seemed as if she were deliberately taking advantage of her new status. The collector I was with quietly handed over the small amount of money he had collected from the houses we had already been to, and she accepted it without comment. Her 18-year-old son was there too, and when I watched him in his fresh jeans, blue-striped shirt, and puffy “Poma” vest pick up garbage buckets from residents’ doorsteps, I eyed the kids playing in the park and felt a pang of sadness. No sooner had I noticed this, however, than he was hopping over the fence to join the kids playing cricket on the other side. Our little garbage collection crew was still large at four people, and we wrapped up the rest of the work quickly.

While the social benefits afforded by these transformations are likely to be relatively small for Balmikis, and I am not able to fully assess the longer-term effects here, they are nevertheless notable. Reducing direct contact with garbage in a society where substances have long tended to demarcate status is itself an important change. Even more important, however, is the fact that such distance has been combined with a role that deals instead with money, outsourcing waste-handling labour to a new group of actors and leaving more time to take on other paid work, attend to children’s schooling or job prospects, or care for family members.

Bengali Muslims and Contending with Stigma

While Balmiki contractors have been able to cultivate greater distance from polluting materials, Bengali collectors have had to contend with their new relation to them. In their transition from farm labour (kheti-bari) to garbage collection, they have become subject to long-standing practices of untouchability, which they must navigate in order to continue working. Compounding this are two other sources of social degradation: their tendency to be labelled Bangladeshis and accused of illegal immigration,9 as well as being accused of theft.

Of the more than 50 informal collectors I interviewed over the course of my research, most had been agricultural labourers in their villages, though some had moved to the city when they were young or came from smaller towns or cities. Yet, trying to assess Muslim migrants’ social status in their villages in comparison to Delhi was difficult, as they nearly universally responded that “all Muslims are equal.”10 At my field site in north-west Delhi, however, nearly all shared the surname “Sheikh.” It took two visits to the same area of West Bengal to confirm what I had suspected based on earlier village studies (for example, Ahmad 1966; Bhattacharya 1973): that despite claims to Muslim unity in the collector settlements, there were significant cleavages between landowning and labouring groups.11 It was only after visiting a few villages in Birbhum district that I came to learn that the Sheikhs lived in areas of the village where houses tended to be kaccha and constructed from mud, bamboo, and palm; had relatively small pieces of land; and possessed little to no agricultural land. This contrasted with the high-status Muslim Sayyads, or Miya, who had large plots, concrete homes, farmland, and servants. An older Sheikh man with a white wispy beard described the difference between the two groups plainly: “Miyas are rich, Sheikhs are poor.”12 Yet this economic distinction did not translate into social distinctions based on purity and pollution, with members of the Sheikh community joining the Miyas for weddings and other ritual events. And certainly, dirty work was not a part of their lives before moving to the city.

In their new positions as part of Delhi’s vast informal garbage collection workforce, Bengalis were socialised to regard their Balmiki jamadars with the respect of bosses, even while some privately acknowledged that they saw their Balmiki employers as socially inferior based on their association with dirty work. For example, one collector explained that he had to refer to his contractor as “jamadar” because he would get angry if he said “Bhangi” or “Balmik,” while another elaborated that it was a matter of their “prestige.” Becoming socialised into their new roles within the caste hierarchy meant that Bengali Muslims had to learn to demonstrate respect and appropriately position themselves as inferior in relation to their Dalit employers.

As the ones touching wet (gila) household garbage on Delhi streets, they quickly encountered new forms of stigma and discrimination. Most commonly, collectors described that residents would tell them to move their carts away, or more to the point, stay away completely. Mohammad, who had been working in Delhi for 10 years when I spoke with him, described this frankly:

It’s like this, I mean, not a single person regards this work as being good (accha). They say it’s bad work (bura kaam), it’s dirty. Some people say things, like if I’m going to a mohalla, then no one will even touch13 me. They’ll say bhai, stay away from here (isse dur raho).

Accha, so they’ll say that, or that’s how you feel?

They even say it. “Bhaiyya, stay away, stay over there, don’t come over here.” I mean, we shouldn’t touch their clothing. The garbage will be over there, so it’s like don’t touch their clothing; just take the bucket and go.14

Of course, collectors were also quick to point out that if they did not collect the garbage, residents would be upset about that too. The point here, of course, is not for Delhi’s middle classes to get rid of this servile workforce, but rather to assert their dominance via familiar caste practices of untouchability that keep lower-status workers in their place. A moral distinction between ideas of “good” and “bad” work expressed in the quote above serves to justify why mohalla residents defend themselves against the perceived threat of Mohammad’s touch. Being instructed to stay away and “take the bucket and go” are disciplinary measures that ensure that he is socialised, like other Bengali Muslims, into their new roles as garbage workers. Subjecting them to the idea that their bodies are dangerous, workers thus reorient themselves to abide by
upper-caste desires to avoid touch in order to perform pliable and subservient labour.

Apart from touch, smell (badboo) was also central to calls for Bengali workers to maintain physical (and thus also social) distance, with residents holding their noses while handing over their garbage or telling them to move their carts. Such visceral practices—which not only refer to the cart, but also the worker attached to it—come to define the role of the worker according to caste-derived ideas of pollution. Naseem described in an especially poignant way how these ascriptions can attach to the body itself:

So, when I’m standing next to an accha admi, I myself feel ashamed …


Because our work is so very dirty that our sweat turns into poison (zehar). Our body’s sweat becomes poison. If I were to give anyone the sweat to drink at that time, then they would die.

But how could poison come from a person?

It’s dirty work. We live in filth (gandagi). When we go off work, we sit inside the garbage sheds and eat our food.15

After this powerful divulgence, Naseem continued to describe how he had become inured to the facts of his life, which too frequently included dirt and poverty. He described, like others, how he now cleaned off his hands and just ate as a matter of preservation. Nevertheless, the internalisation of pollution as dirt, and the sweat that becomes poisonous, powerfully captures how externally ascribed stigma—here personified by the accha admi—can be so deeply integrated into one’s own sense of being. The direct effect of these experiences with social status was made unambiguously evident when I was occasionally admonished by local residents not to handle the garbage. Although I tried to ensure that my whiteness was not visible to passers-by (who anyway tended to avert their gaze) by covering my hair and skin, on two occasions local residents came up to tell me that I should not be sorting the garbage because my “status will drop.”

In order to continue working, Bengali Muslims have had to become habituated to both their status and treatment, rationalising and internalising their new status as well as negotiating its effect on their lives. A 23-year-old collector from Assam described his process of coming to acceptance as follows: “Look, at the very beginning even I, at first when I entered the scrap trade, I also felt ashamed for picking up garbage. So then I thought about it and if I’m going to be ashamed, then there’s no point.” He went on to explain that he decided he had to get used to it in order to earn a living, reasoning that “there’s dirt even in our stomachs (apne bhi pet mein gand hai).”16 For him and many others, accepting dirt as a regular part of life was a central part of the process. Salma compared herself to nurses, explaining that they too have to deal with blood and other “dirty” things, implying that they are not stigmatised like
garbage workers despite this contact.17

As Muslims, Bengali collectors have also negotiated these sources of physical and social pollution with their religious practices. For some, this has meant drawing on Islam to assert that no matter what one touches, everyone is pure in the eyes of god. Others, however, expressed finding it difficult to sustain prayer practices, explaining: “How can you pray when there is so much filth (gandagi) in this work?” Another added: “It takes so much time because first you have to come back and bathe, and only then are you fit to pray. I had to stop it.” There are tensions that thus remain when it comes to navigating physical and social pollution, especially when it comes to eating and praying (particularly during Ramadan).

Back in the village, meanwhile, the nexus between khetibari and kooda strengthened. At the beginning of the migrant flow, many collectors avoided telling people in the village what they did in Delhi, instead saying they worked in construction. Many relatives seemed content to not ask too many questions. However, after a while, there were so many people working in Delhi that it was no longer a secret. An elder Sheikh man described: “There were people who, I mean, who wanted to go (into waste work), but they said no, it’s dirty work, I’m not going to do that … But the ones who said it’s dirty, now they’re all in this line (of work) in Delhi.”18 Yet, even if Bengali waste workers internally rationalise the stigma they face, and their communities come to accept it, they nevertheless contend with and seek to compensate for the discrimination they are subjected to while working in Delhi.

Money Compensating for Stigma

Collectors tended to see garbage as polluting material that must be handled in order to access scrap; it was dirt to be tilled in pursuit of value. This was aptly described as follows: “in the search for scrap, they also have to collect the garbage (maal ke chakkar mein inka kooda uthana padta hai).”19 In order to compensate for the stigma of handling wet waste (kooda)—vegetable peels, yes, but also menstrual pads—collectors tend to focus on the scrap (kabad or maal) that they will pull out and eventually exchange for payment.

Kooda is wet, organic, laden with personal marks of use such as bodily fluids (saliva, shit, blood, semen), and prone to instability via decomposition. Its contents range from fresh
cucumber peels, which are neither marked by saliva nor rotting, to highly polluting items like used condoms and baby diapers that contain waste produced by human bodies. Somewhere in the middle fall things like rotting mango peels or leftover cooked food, which is marked with saliva. In contrast to garbage, maal is relatively dry and stable. During the process of segregation, collectors shake papers and bags to loosen as much of the organic garbage as possible from the dry scrap (Figure 1, see online version). The fact that scrap is regarded as a relatively uniform and unpolluting set of materials is further evidenced by the fact that the Hindi word used to describe the scrap, maal, does not exactly translate into the English word scrap; the word kabaad does. Maal denotes a uniform, commercial material. In this case, maal is scrap, but in another industry it could be plywood or clothing. Maal, in this context, is a commodity—anything that can be bought or sold in bulk.

Bengali collectors thus create physical distance from polluting garbage while producing standardised maal to be sold for payment. Indeed, it was the earning of money that mattered to my collector respondents, and scrap was just a conduit for its acquisition. In contrast to the status of waste material, which was a more ontologically varied category, money was more standardised—thus relatively stable and dependable, if always inadequate. And, despite being physically quite tainted—smudged, worn, and manipulated (written on, folded)—by the many hands and substances it comes into contact with, currency endured as a relatively pure symbolic material. In its physical form it was, for example, kept close to the body. Like many women, one of the scrap buyers I worked with regularly kept her money tucked into her bra, held directly against her skin.

Money thus offered an important—if uncertain—opportunity to gain material resources in their home villages that might help to redeem their social status in the city. A Bengali woman sorting the scrap that her husband had collected one day in Delhi responded with an amused look when I asked her about why they would come from the village to do work that many considered to be dirty. Looking at me, she smiled and replied easily: “There is more money in it.” In the village, too, another woman similarly explained that she thought she would have to go back to Delhi again soon. When I asked her why, she said that in the village you can earn just enough to eat, but in Delhi they were able to save ₹20,000 a year. The other women sitting with us nodded in agreement.20

The consequences of saving money became apparent during one of my visits to Birbhum. There, I saw how kabadi work was allowing many previously landless villagers to replace clay-constructed homes with concrete structures and to buy small plots of land for housing and farming. Apart from this, some of the less-educated but landed Miyas who started scrap-buying businesses were building larger homes. In response to my surprise, someone commented (riffing on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 election slogan): “Gaon ki tarakki bhi hai”—the village is also improving. A young woman revealed another side to these small capital accumulations as a crowd in the village looked on and laughed: “When people doing kabadi work in Delhi come back to the village, they strut around in their nice clothes and gold watches and talk constantly on their mobiles as if they have nothing else to do.” She went on to say that when you look at them, you would think that they were all doing regular office jobs (using the words “service” and “naukri”). They’ll do this for a few weeks, she explained, but then they have to go back and earn more because they run out of money. She shook her head, “Why spend that money on this stuff when you could be saving it for a house or some land?”21 The image of young men strolling around, showing off their hard-won accessories, provides a striking contrast to their roles as garbage collectors in Delhi. Doing so offers both material and symbolic benefits, as status cultivated in the village can result in a repaired or improved sense of self (through the eyes of others) to compensate for stigma, as well as potential material benefits as houses are built and land purchased.

In the city, too, many families were eager to show off the interior of their homes as places of cleanliness and rest. I stepped into Salma’s house in the jhuggi one day, her worker’s hands clasping my arm hard (as she usually did) and leading me to the back room, only letting go once we were finally there. Motioning to a brand new, shoulder-height, raspberry-coloured refrigerator, she fed me some ice while pointing to a mixie, a TV they had now had for more than 10 years, and a cooler, making sure that I noticed these important objects. Cultivating a home space with the comforts and symbols of modern life provided an important contrast to life outside, which was frequently chaotic, hard, and disappointing. By taking on the taint of garbage work in the city, new migrants are able to gain access to modern conveniences in the city and also potentially save money to accrue the capital needed to purchase land in their villages, construct new homes, and pay for weddings. It is these experiences, things, and promises that keep them in the “line” of garbage work in spite of the related stigma.

Garbage, Money, and Status

Bengali migrants taking on the dirty work historically done by Dalit Balmikis in Delhi reveals a process through which new groups are subjugated through practices of casteification—in this case, as they experience practices of untouchability. While on the one hand this indicates how caste formations are changing in contemporary urban India, on the other, it also reveals how the informal economy of waste work in Delhi is being reorganised. Historically shaped and regulated by caste relations, Bengali Muslim labourers now contend with stigma and discrimination, while Balmiki jamadars are relieved of contact with stigmatising wet garbage. The residents who hold their noses or shout about badboo, then, perpetuate forms of untouchability that mark the workers as being out of place, and worse, will them out of sensory perception.

And so a system for household garbage collection is re-made, at once based on long-standing divisions between upper-caste households and a servile class of garbage workers. Yet, we see how those workers are actually produced through ascriptive subjectification, as disciplinary, discriminatory, and disparaging caste practices put them in their place (in the neighbourhoods), as well as in the wider social hierarchy (as dominated actors). This is not a matter of caste as identity then, or as caste as a relatively stable hierarchical system, but rather the way that an economy of practices together structure social relations in a way that is relatively durable but also shifts over time. Collectors are subjected to them, and become habituated to them—learning not to cross into residents’ homes, to show their Balmiki jamadars respect, and to move their carts when asked—without too much protest. In turn, some Balmiki workers have been able to relinquish doing garbage work themselves, instead focusing on the collection of payments. While giving up garbage work certainly does not eradicate centuries of caste-based discrimination, it is nevertheless a notable shift, particularly when it affords a position of dominance over a new group of actors.

Like their Balmiki bosses, Bengalis are willing to do waste work and negotiate the stigma it entails in the pursuit of money, an object that denotes both economic and cultural capital (as a symbol of modernity) to counter the polluting attributions of kooda. Transactions of waste and money, then, entail one group—Bengali Muslims—receiving polluting waste from the city’s middle classes, while another—Dalit Balmikis—cultivate distance from garbage and instead collect money. The stigma taken on by newer migrant collectors, both as a sense of personal impurity and more direct forms of discrimination, offers the possibility of a better daily living, and potentially also the ability to accrue capital in order to improve their social status in the village. This process, I contend, is not only likely to have analogues in other contexts, but also offers a fruitful approach for subsequent analyses of how caste and status relations are transforming in contemporary India, accounting for both stability and change over time.


1 All names are pseudonyms.

2 Field notes, 3 December 2013.

3 Ifeka (1989) also uses this term to describe practices of caste differentiation by Christian women in Goa.

4 Field notes, 9 December 2013.

5 According to Vijay Prashad (2000), jamadar was the title used by people in charge of the sweepers when the Delhi Municipal Corporation began its sanitation programmes at the turn of the 20th century. In more recent times, the title has been used to refer to those tasked with domestic dirty work (Ray and Qayum 2009).

6 Interview, 7 July 2013.

7 Interview, 8 February 2014.

8 Field notes, 24 November 2013.

9 I have frequently been asked if (or told that) the Muslim collectors I worked with were “actually” Bangladeshi, not Indian. The identity politics inherent in justifying their Indian West Bengali origins perpetuates a pernicious tendency to frame Bangladeshis as “infiltrators” who pose economic and security threats to the Indian nation, as Shamshad (2017) poignantly describes. Collectors did know who was Bangladeshi by their accent or through personal ties, but very few had remained after several rounds of deportation from the city.

10 See Trivedi et al (2016) for a recent discussion of pollution-based discrimination towards low-status Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. The evidence for this remains mixed and is likely to vary by context.

11 Kaveri Gill (2007: fn 9) describes a similar situation when she conducted her study of plastics recycling in west Delhi in the early 2000s.

12 Interview, 27 June 2014.

13 He uses the English word “touch” here.

14 Interview, 21 June 2013.

15 Interview, 13 July 2013.

16 Interview, 2 December 2013

17 Interview, 26 May 2013.

18 Interview, 26 June 2014.

19 Interview, 16 November 2015.

20 Field notes, 22 June 2014.

21 Field notes, 26 June 2014.


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Updated On : 6th Dec, 2019


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