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Assa Doron On How India Can Turn Waste Into Wealth

‘Middle-class notions of what’s clean and tidy are a luxury. If you’re poor, you have more important things to worry about than garbage management.’

In Cell Phone Nation (2013), anthropologists Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey explored how the mobile phone revolutionized the lives of people in India. The research for this book led the authors to their next one, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (2018). The book delves into waste economics, a topic that does not usually find its way into everyday conversations. Interestingly, their research for this book happened even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government were announcing and implementing Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This, perhaps, lent further credence to their work.

The book explores almost every aspect of the creation of waste—from production, to management of waste (or not) and reuse. What makes the book even more interesting is how the authors draw historical and anthropological connections between caste, societal hierarchy and technology—from the hair recycling trade in Varanasi, to Moradabad’s smooth transition from brass manufacturing to recycling of electronic waste.

Doron is currently an anthropologist at the Australian National University and Jeffrey is a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.

In an email interview, ahead of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, Doron (with some inputs from Jeffrey) spoke about his fascination with India, the wealth of information in public records and India’s potential to become a recycling superpower. Edited excerpts:

You’ve written around five books about India till now. As a cultural anthropologist, what is it about India that fascinates you?

As a child I remember we always travelled with my family and being fascinated by people and what we share with others and how we differ in the way we carry out our lives and see the world. Then traveling overseas after the army service was a kind of ‘rite of passage’– see other places, then come back and begin adulthood. I went to India and never looked back. I felt I could relate to the place, the people. My interest in the country continued to grow as I began studying about Indian history, philosophy and culture in Israel and Australia. I did much of my early fieldwork in Varanasi and of course, many books and articles have been written about this remarkable city. But I was surprised to find that relatively little was written about the more ‘everyday’ aspects of the city. The focus is always about Varanasi the sacred city, a centre of Sanskrit and learning. And so I chose to work with the boatmen of the Ganga—an iconic community identified with the city and the river, and one uniquely positioned at the juncture of ‘tradition’ and modernity’, ferrying pilgrims and tourists along the river for generations (Life on the Ganga, published in 2012). And in learning about their lives, fears and aspirations I could also get a better understanding of wider debates taking place in modern India, including that of caste relations, environmental degradation and identity politics.

In Cell Phone Nation, you explore crony capitalism, favouritism of politicians and bureaucrats and the intense 2G scam. What was the research process like?

Doran and Jeffrey: The public record is remarkable for what it reveals. Piecing together public documents, participants’ interviews and journalists’ accounts gave us what was needed for our purposes in the book. The book is intended to be about more than simply the politics of frequency allocation and licensing. It aims to be a book about the social effects of a new technology—think of the Coca-Cola bottle in the film The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Based on your research, how do you think cell phone penetration has changed Indian society in the last decade?

Doran and Jeffrey: Somewhere in the book we say that every time a family has to make a decision about who is allowed to have a mobile phone, their action represents a grain of sand in a shifting sand dune of social attitudes. Those shifts raise questions about the empowerment of women and marginalised groups. The availability of cheap smartphone adds even wider potential. The latest TRAI figures show close to 500 million broadband subscribers—that means the whole of internet becomes available.

“Caste beliefs and practices add to the difficulties of public sanitation.”

Coming to Waste of a Nation, how would you summarise the effect of capitalism and consumerism? What role do they play in the spectacular rise of India’s garbage generation?

Doran and Jeffrey: Think of it in terms of individual objects, such as motor vehicles or toothpaste tubes. India had 1.7 million cars on the road in 1985. By 2015, Indian manufacturers alone were producing more than 3 million cars a year. In the late 1980s, manufacturers estimated only 15% of India used toothpaste; today, it’s more like 60%. That’s a lot of hard-to-get-rid-of toothpaste tubes. There’s more waste because there is more consumption of more elaborate products. They create waste in their manufacture, and they become waste when they outlive their original lives. These changes accelerated with India’s economic reforms from the early 1990s, which dramatically altered the magnitude and composition of waste.

Why do you think it is difficult to bring about change in behavioural patterns of Indians when it comes to garbage generation and management? Does caste have a lot to do with these mind sets?

Doran and Jeffrey: Middle-class notions of what’s clean and tidy are a luxury. If you’re poor, you have more important things to worry about than correct disposal of the few items you might want to throw away. That’s been true of every urbanising country. The task is harder in India because of widely held ideas about ritual pollution, tainted things and tainted people. Caste beliefs and practices add to the difficulties of public sanitation.

What more can the nation do, in your opinion, to perhaps make it the ‘recycling superpower’ that you refer to in your book?

Doran and Jeffrey: China’s National Sword policy, now more than a year old, of refusing to accept waste paper and plastic from other countries is creating a waste crisis in many developed countries. At the same time, countries like Singapore and Japan are developing mechanised ways of retrieving valuable materials from electronic waste and items like solar panels. India already has examples of innovation in, for example, recycling toothpaste tubes. India also has the labour that effective recycling requires. To combine labour and innovation—and ensure workers get fair rewards—would give India an opportunity to be the world’s exemplar in turning waste into wealth. In the waste and recycling world, nothing effective happens unless somebody is earning a return.

Considering the topics your books have dealt with, was it difficult to access the right documents, information and people?

In fact, the topic of waste and rubbish is somewhat less attractive for people, than say our previous work on mobile phones and media in India. Few are willing to expose the ‘dirty laundry’ to foreigners’, not least when discussing hazardous waste like the secretive e-waste economy. But there are always the committed ‘garbologists’—NGO workers and administrators—who have generously guided us and shared their ideas and practices about how to capture, reuse or dispose of discarded things. And of course, Robin Jeffrey is a historian familiar with India and its vast archives.

What are you working on next?

The waste project has led me to think about the problem of hazardous effluents, especially from the pharma sector, which flow into the environment with little oversight and regulation. This has severe repercussions for India’s ability to control resistant bacteria – or ‘superbugs’ as they are popularly called. I hope to be able to bring anthropological insights to look at this issue because it touches on multiple aspects of our lives, cutting across age, social status and political boundaries. I tend to choose unsavoury subjects. Maybe I should go back to mobile phones. It might be safer!

Assa Doron’s Favourite Books

In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh: Ghosh was trained as an anthropologist, and this book is for me a brilliant example of how anthropology and history can be woven together to tell a wonderful story about Jewish merchants in the Middle East and to capture Ghosh’s own reflections on being an Indian conducting fieldwork in the Nile delta.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: I read this book as we began our waste project and I come back to it repeatedly. Boo’s narrative is both moving and hard-hitting in its ability to render visible the lives of people who are routinely ignored and whose lives are locked into waste materials in so many ways. And yet she also shows how the lives of a few families who draw livelihoods from waste in a single locality in Mumbai are themselves inseparable from wider structures of oppression and dispossession.

Books by Amos Oz: Oz died late last year. This is a huge loss. He was a master in storytelling – any of his novels would be on top of my top list. But it was also a loss of a public intellectual, and an activist, someone who believed and fought for bringing about more just society in the Middle East and was unafraid to speak truth to power: repeatedly, persistently, thoughtfully. Re-reading his essays about the Middle East and Israel is both inspiring in its anthropological insights and disturbing in its predictions.

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