ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Invisible Custodians

A Critical Inquiry into the Continuing Obscurity of Women Waste Pickers at Dhapa Landfill of Kolkata

A deficient official documentation, undercounting the number of active waste pickers at Dhapa, and the obliviousness regarding the hazardous working conditions render the pickers “invisible.” The women waste pickers of Dhapa seem to withstand the dehumanising disposition of their work by embodying a liminal “hybrid” identity to dissociate from their corporeal and sensorial selves. This finding aims to explore how women waste pickers exercise conditional agency to circumvent oppressive conditions by creating an insulated universe, a “third space” amid the overwhelming filth where they treat the “waste” solely as a means of subsistence.

In Indian cities, municipal sanitation workforce, supervised by urban municipal bodies, are comprised of scavengers and sweepers (Chaplin 2011). Despite the ubiquity of waste, the social relations surrounding it are dependent on its managing since it is essentially a dyadic set-up where one generates waste and the other manages waste (Gidwani and Chaturvedi 2011; Chaplin 2011; Harriss-White 2016). Urban local bodies (ULBs) delegate waste work to informal waste pickers/ragpickers, thus substituting for the infrastructural deficiency in formal urban solid waste management (SWM) (Harriss-White 2016; Dias 2016; Shankar and Sahni 2018). Waste pickers, exposing themselves to toxic contaminants (Wittmer 2020), develop an informal circuit of transactions or infra-economy (Gidwani and Maringanti 2016: 112) where the continuous flow of garbage is repurposed with negligible expense by the state (Wittmer 2020). Despite extracting value from waste (Shankar and Sahni 2018), waste pickers are marginalised within urban informal sector, as well as remain outside the imagination of mainstream society (Hayami et al 2006; Bagchi 2016; Gidwani and Maringanti 2016; Wittmer 2020).

Informal waste workers in urban municipal solid waste management (MSWM) stand at a confluence of multiple marginalities. In India, waste work is socio-religiously stigmatised for intrinsically attached notions of symbolic purity and pollution (Chaplin 2011; Dias 2016; Harriss-White 2017; Doron and Jeffrey 2018; Wittmer 2020). Most informal undocumented waste pickers are migrants belonging to either religious minorities or Dalit communities, stigmatised, earning meagrely, but continue in the occupation because of their limited skillset, and illiteracy (Doron and Jeffrey 2018). Waste workers belonging to upper castes are also deemed polluted due to their close association with garbage (Doron and Jeffrey 2018: 189). Although hygiene and sanitation are held in high priority, waste management is universally viewed as an unpleasant undertaking (Jaffe and Durr 2010). Repugnance evoked on beholding garbage, that we conspire not to see (Thompson 2017: 98), is projected to the figure of a waste picker (Largey and Watson 1972; Calafate-Faria 2013). Waste, in its materiality is projected with a culturally constructed olfactory imagery entrenched in moral symbolism. The pickers social identity is associated with this olfactory imagery (Largey and Watson 1972), constructing polarities of good and bad (Largey and Watson 1972: 1024; Synnott 1991: 437; Low 2005). The sensorial image of bad or a skunky group associated with pickers stigmatises them as dirty people lacking basic hygiene (Doron and Jeffrey 2018).

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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