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Contextualizing Waste and Recycling


Padmini Swaminathan

OF POVERTY AND PLASTIC: SCAVENGING AND SCRAP TRADING ENTREPRENEURS IN INDIA'S URBAN INFORMAL ECONO
By Kaveri Gill
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, pp. 280, Rs. 650.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 3 March 2010

In a refreshing departure from existing studies and understandings of urban informal economy in general, and, scavenging, waste and recycling economy in particular, the above book provides a contextualized picture of a waste and recycling chain, which study necessitated that the author supplement field economics with anthropology and sociology, quantitative with qualitative methodology, and traverse different levels—micro, meso and macro. The result of this multidisciplinary, multi-methodology and multi-level effort is a brilliant scholarly piece of work that is academically enriching, even as it calls into question received notions, and, very often unsubstantiated assertions, of and about, informal work, urban poor, waste pickers, and environmental concerns. While literature relating to value-chain framework does not explicitly figure in the book, its implicit deployment enables the author to so structure the book that each chapter situates and captures, simultaneously, the complexity and relatedness of different ‘nodes’ of a value-chain. Thus, for example, while the book as a whole is concerned with poverty and the urban informal sector with specific focus on Delhi’s garbage collectors or scavengers and the plastic recycling or scrap dealers, it begins with those involved at the lowest levels of the waste recovery and recycling chain living in slums, and ends with those operating at the highest reaches of the plastic recycling value chain, namely, the wholesale scrap market situated a couple of kilometers away. Touching upon the larger theme of solid waste management (SWM), the author makes some telling comments on the state of administration of SWM in Delhi. ‘For administrative purposes, the M[unicipal] C[orporation] of D[elhi] area has been divided into twelve sanitary zones, which are further divided into municipal wards, which are further broken down into beats. The institution employs about 37000 safai karmacharis or sweepers as permanent employees of the government. It devotes approximately 15–20% of its operational budget to SWM and still fails to serve half of the urban population, overlapping mostly with poor residents of slums.’ (p. 49, emphasis added). While, ‘the theme that the recycling industry was standing in for negligent and financially strapped local municipal authorities, with inadequate formal waste management services indicative of a much wider laxity in urban service provision and governance, was a recurring one among labour in the market’, the terms of public debate on environmental issues were moulded by concerns of the privileged sections of society. Worse, plastic recyclers openly accused the government of hypocrisy ...


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