Caste, greed, and unending need: the story of India’s waste crisis

Something’s gotta give.
Something’s gotta give.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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India seems to be drowning in garbage.

From Delhi to Mumbai to Bengaluru, mini hills of untreated organic and inorganic waste can be found even outside high-end shopping malls, tech parks, and eateries. Piles of plastic, paper, bottles, fruit peels, and more accumulate every day on the side of the road, too.

But how did it get to this?

In a new book titled The Waste of a Nation (Harvard University Press), Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey, professors at the Australian National University, show that it was decades in the making, spurred by the combination of population growth, urbanisation, and the embrace of consumer capitalism. The last one in particular has sparked a break from the age-old Indian habits of frugality and recycling. The tendency today is to consume more disposable goods, which is straining India’s capacity to handle waste.

“Never in history have so many people had so much to throw away and so little space to throw it as the people of India in the second decade of the twenty-first century,” the authors write.

Their comprehensive study analyses the history and evolution of India’s waste crisis and looks at the ways authorities have tried (and often failed) to address the issue, even as millions of poor, informal workers brave horrifying conditions to make a living within the waste economy.

In an email interview with Quartz, Doron and Jeffrey detailed how the caste system complicates India’s waste crisis, and why the Narendra Modi government’s Swachh Bharat programme needs to be about more than just meeting toilet targets.

Edited excerpts:

You argue that with technology and a change in attitudes, India’s waste can actually become an asset. Can you elaborate on this? 

India has at least three advantages: the kabaadi tradition lives on—there are people who know about collecting recyclable waste; the frugality of an older India hasn’t died out completely—waste not, want not; and large numbers of people are prepared, for this generation, to do manual work. In return for decent payment and dignity, they can give India the capacity to perform remarkable feats of recycling.

India has the capacity to collect, dismantle, and re-purpose materials in labour-intensive ways that other countries can only dream of. What’s lacking is widespread, systematic recycling. Achieving that goal requires incentives: dignity and fair payment are basics.

If India can expand the small success stories from around the country, it can provide lessons to the world about the importance of local and intensive programmes dealing with waste. If you add decentralised, superior technologies, you can see the great potential. Most waste isn’t waste at all. It’s material waiting to become something else, and the something else can be useful and profitable.

How does caste complicate India’s relationship with waste?

Caste does two things. It predisposes large numbers of people to the idea that tainted things—touched things—need to be jettisoned as far away from one’s personal space as possible and as quickly as possible. Never mind the neighbours—get this stuff away from me. Caste also leads to a widespread sense that “waste” is somebody else’s job to deal with. It’s not that the citizens of New York, Seoul, or Berlin necessarily greet their sanitation workers with sweets and garlands when they do their work, but such workers do not experience the indignities, so often seen as justified by birth, that sanitation workers in India do.

Given the microeconomy associated with waste-picking, which, as you demonstrate in the book, provides incomes to millions of Indians, how can India address its waste problem without taking away the livelihoods of these people?

We know from experiences around India that people who live poorly from freelance waste-picking can be brought into organised systems for waste management and recycling. But they need predictable payment, training, and respect. That requires leadership from local governments, NGOs, neighbourhood groups, and most of all from among workers themselves. For a generation at least, India will have no shortage of people willing to do such manual work in a systematic way in return for improvements in the way they live. This is happening in some places, but leadership is crucial. Spreading and sustaining such practices over wide areas have so far proved difficult.

How would you rate the success of the Swachh Bharat programme so far? 

There have been clean-up campaigns in India before, but this one has unprecedented, high-level political pressure behind it. That in itself drives some forms of change, especially at the school level, and encouraging schools to teach basic public health facts has long-term value. Kerala has a better record in public health and sanitation than other states, and Kerala has had virtually 100% primary school enrollment for three generations.

We think the record of Swachh Bharat so far is mixed, as you would expect in a country as diverse as India. The successes are patchy, not yet system-wide. Top-down approaches with web-site tickers recording how many toilets have been built can lead simply to “meeting targets.” A badly built, unwanted, and unusable toilet does nothing to advance the cause of better public health. Officials know how to “meet targets.” It’s what happens afterwards that counts.

What would you say is the way forward for sanitation management in India? 

Implementation depends on state governments, so successes and failures will vary. Sustained change at the level of people’s dwellings depends greatly on demonstration, suitable technology, and education. This is especially true where toilets and open defecation are concerned. Relentless follow-up and examples are essential, especially in rural areas. Go easy on the target-driven campaigns and go harder on follow-up, maintenance, and hands-on demonstration. Let’s see some BDOs (block development officers) and tahsildars (senior government official) showing how you empty the first pit of a two-pit latrine.

More systematic sharing of knowledge among local governments will help, along with better incentives for well-prepared people to enter local government as officials and elected councilors. And educating poor people, whose livelihoods come from waste, in the use of effective technologies empowers them. There is status—and increased income—in being able to operate complex equipment.

How can India make sustainable living more accessible for everyone? Is there a way to minimise the effects of consumer capitalism on a large scale in India? 

At the domestic level, putting a price on plastic and glass bottles helps ensure they are collected and reused. Such charges ensure that collectors know the value of their collections.

And we need to remember that municipal waste constitutes only a fraction of the waste produced by industrialising societies. Human urine and excrement need sewers and sewage treatment plants or alternatives. Medical and pharmaceutical waste, hazardous waste, construction and demolition waste—all these require expensive facilities to neutralise them and reuse them effectively. They also need strict penalties for violation, and that requires well-trained and well-paid staff with sufficient powers. Extraordinary things get done if dedicated people enforce rules and implement programmes.