Informal waste work in Delhi


back to issue

THE street lies at the heart of Delhi’s informal waste economy. Discarded materials flow into the city from abroad and elsewhere in India, ferried from ports and across large distances on national highways. They also emerge from numerous urban sources that open onto the street: houses and high-rise flat complexes, illegal commercial establishments in residential neighbourhoods, posh shopping complexes, neat factories in legal industrial complexes and glitzy malls. It is an odd economy, for the producer of ‘waste’ is really the consumer of primary products. In that sense, it inverts the classical understanding of a market, its buyers and sellers, demand and supply.

The consumer is at her capitalist best in either the wealthy centre of the urban agglomeration or the white-collar work and big business satellite towns of Noida and Gurgaon. As some parts of the country and city become stratospherically rich, and the middle class expands in tangible numbers, a steep incline in consumption and hence the production of waste, that too of a higher quality, is assured. The supply and composition of waste is, therefore, only set to grow and change markedly as India becomes a heavily urbanized middle-income country.

Informal labour mediates the flow of waste from the inside of a home or building, to the outside of a bin or a street. The exception is pre-use industrial and factory waste, which is largely homogenous and voluminous, and therefore makes its way directly to traders with the aid of loading/ unloading workers. The itinerant waste buyer pays households for segregated recyclable waste, such as plastic, paper, metal and glass items. It is relatively clean and dry, hence of greater value, than the mixed wet waste that pickers scavenge from open dumps, concrete municipal dhalaos and other ostensibly open access sites.

The world of these informal collectors of waste is made up of daily interactions with recalcitrant household help, suspicious gatekeepers of colonies and caretakers of complexes, predatory policemen and superior municipal sweepers. It is consumed by artful negotiations, temporary compromises and subtle contestations over rights of movement and access to the ritually pure inside space by perennially placed polluting outsiders in the city. For all our modernity, we remain a deeply stratified society with implicit rules rigidly safeguarding a defilement of the relatively pure by the relatively impure. The subaltern recognizes his status, even while using every strategy to sustain himself, and gain any crumb of advantage in a vast and brutal urban milieu.

Identity continues to define those who work with waste to a marked degree. It is still Dalits, Muslim minorities, Christian converts and Bangladeshi migrants who ply this unconventional trade in secondary materials across the country. Hierarchy is subtly maintained between the formal municipal worker and lesser informal collector of waste, as well as the various sub-categories of informal labour and business operators further along each materially specialized recycling chain, each of which require various degrees of contact with differentiated scales of ritually polluting materials. On the one hand, the socially segmented labour market and carefully circumscribed activities of, and within, this sphere, mean that migration to an urban locale has afforded less than the promised freedom of release from the suffocating yoke of a traditional occupational order for low caste groups.


On the other hand, it has been turned on its head in an entrepreneurial – and in that sense surprisingly modern and capitalist – spirit, at least by those at the upper echelons of this work, who have used this very marginalized and excluded identity to enter and establish monopoly over innovative new areas, such as plastic recycling, and to flourish economically on the back of it, thus wresting upward mobility of the only available kind for themselves from a begrudging and socially resistant society. Ironically, its lucrativeness has drawn superior caste groups, such as Banias, to enter the market at its top end and compete with the original pioneers.

The itinerant buyer patiently ploughs the street of a well-heeled neighbourhood on a laden and delicately balanced bicycle, transporting the waste from the source to a median storage point of the kabadiwallah. The streets on his regular beat are negotiated and traversed alongside whizzing motorcars, with long distances covered in a day. It is the chance of finding a heist of material that is useless for the one getting rid of it, and a goldmine for the one looking to make a living off of it that appeals to the gambler. A lucky break might mean only a few hours work in a day, for oneself and on one’s own time, which makes the freedom loving and risk taking individual choose this informal sector work over others involving sustained hard labour every single day, such as mazdoori or beldari.

Kabadiwallah shops are strewn across the city, conveniently situated to gather a sufficient supply of recyclable waste from a wealthy surrounding catchment area, but invisibly tucked away in back alleys and on the illegal fringe of neighbourhood markets. Value is meticulously accumulated in these shops by building up volume and with intra-household labour segregating unsorted material. Many shops used to be located in jhuggi jhopri colonies in the heart of Delhi before they were razed to the ground in successive demolition drives, which are prone to intensify prior to large-scale urban renewal projects.


Further along the value chain of each recyclable stream of waste, the ability to access small amounts of capital, and hence have greater financial room for manoeuvre, is key. As assets are non-existent and bank loans not forthcoming for such subordinate groups, it is dependent on their ability to remain in work, earn, save, and become a part of a rotating credit association in order to use the resultant capital productively. This ability separates the ambitious labourer aspiring to become a petty trader, in plastic recycling in this instance, from those who actually manage to do so. If the injection of capital is less of an impediment, the scale of operation for traders in various informal enterprise roles – supplier, commission agent, factory owner – may be medium or even large-scale.

The supplier specializes in a handful of plastic types and products, engaging daily wage labour to manually segregate material into rigid compound categories, which is the technical prerequisite for a stable recycling process. The commission agent stores vast amounts of waste coming in from across the country, and makes money on actual volume bought and sold. The factory owner uses basic indigenous technology to transform the material into pellets, which mostly feed into the making of usable products, from shoes, to spectacles for poorer clients. Some of it quietly makes its way alongside fresh plastic into the fashioning of high end products, produced by mainstream companies, for domestic or international markets.


After successive relocations from the centre to the changing periphery of the city, the plastic recycling market, where the above activities go on, is perched precariously on the northwest edge of Delhi, bordering the state of Haryana. Here the streets become highways, as it lies off National Highway 10, and large freight trucks ferrying plastic waste from other parts of the country come in on major arterial roads. Medium sized pickup lorries criss-cross kabadiwallah shops across the city, gathering material to carry back to the market across newly built flyovers.

Within the market, a warren of narrow unpaved galis dissect small plots of rented land, some still completely open air spaces and others with a makeshift awning or temporary shed constructed in its midst. The boundary between the outside and the inside is blurred, and the ‘streets’ – such as they are, more spindly rastas which shift at the first hint of a monsoon downpour – are used for transporting materials and people, even while merging seamlessly into a spillover space for productive activity, and which also sometimes serve as a living and sleeping area too.


In a congested city, neatly demarcated and singular land use, be it of a street or a plot, is the luxury of the well-off, while a fluid gradient of pragmatic multipurpose use is the reality of the relatively deprived. This dichotomy holds true even where the Master Plan of Delhi fancifully portrays otherwise and seeks to artificially impose order on a recalcitrant metropolis.

For the affluent, a street is simply a transport passage to get from one point to another, like it is in most developed cities of the world, and not a space to make or facilitate a livelihood. The elite might transgress the master plan’s definitions of spatial land use, for example, by blatantly setting up shop in a residential neighbourhood, or by ostentatiously building or extending a home where it is not allowed. They rarely veer, however, into multipurpose use of the same space – be it public or private – because they are not forced to do so by constrained circumstances.

It is quite different for informal sector actors, be they of labour or enterprise. Much of their lives are built on compromise, binding constraints, transience and on eking out a livelihood or a profit from the most minimalist and fleeting opportunities. This translates into a certain amount of disorder, which by definition defies slotting into neat and mutually exclusive categories of the master plan. What is rather fanciful is that the elite imagines itself as distinct and deserving of first world cityscapes and clockwork services, while rubbing up daily and unseeingly against the toiling classes of labour carrying away their waste, and being firmly tethered to a gargantuan urban sprawl of vast inequalities and disparities.


An aerial socio-economic survey of Delhi (leaving aside Noida and Gurgaon extensions) would clearly show the difference between the relatively rich and spacious centre of government, formal white collar business and old trading activity, and the congested residential neighbourhoods and commercial shopping complexes that fan out from it in every direction. Still further out, the city would be shown snaking into legal industrial estates and sites for concentrated informal sector transformative and productive activities, before finally petering out into a peri-urban landscape of agriculture and village land, which is over time being inexorably sucked into the built up area of the city.

The social lens would reflect the subconscious divide between inner and outer Delhi inhabitants, which cut across multiple axes of discrimination and hinge on subtle markers of marginal identity and vernacular language, to the lesser status of informal work. An added chronological dimension would tell a distressing tale of a burgeoning population over recent decades, and in the case of the plastic recycling market, a constant displacement from an unstable centre to a changeable periphery on the baffling grounds that it is ‘polluting’ and ‘non-conforming’ by some interpretation of the fictional ideal of the Master Plan of Delhi. For there are citizens and there are citizens, with their disparate claims to the scarce resources of a city, especially land.

The suspicion of shadow lines between the elite and the rest in the urban sphere, between the formal and informal, between big corporate capital and relatively modest enterprise or labour, and the protection of the interests of the first grouping on each spectrum by the state is confirmed by the quickening pace of change and the nature of supposed environmentally beneficial ‘development’ chosen for cities in recent times, within the sphere of waste. The first is the state blessing the contraction of private companies to take over the door-to-door collection of waste, and in so doing, literally closing off access to the street and the resource for the itinerant buyer and waste picker.

In the last few years, corporate capital has, all of a sudden, begun expressing interest in such a traditionally low status area of work. It is doing so precisely because of its potential for yielding exorbitant profit, which in this case is a corollary, as only a single or a handful of companies aim to take over the entire sector across the country, mirroring the concentration of capital in other sectors in liberalized India.


The justification that the absorption of informal collectors of waste into an integrated behemoth of a firm will herald respectability and liberty for these Dalit and marginal workers – for that is the very target group from which a subset of people shall be employed for these jobs! – is in actuality a fig leaf for a state seeking to further the interests of capital. It is not borne out by evidence for the broader nature of employment in the country. This shows a trend for increasing informalization of work within the exalted formal sector, minuscule as it is and with all that it implies in terms of labour therein having neither any security, nor decent work conditions, nor benefits, and certainly not the right to organize and protest against any of the above.

In fact, corporates newly entering the world of waste and seeking to squeeze as much profit as possible out of a low value add industry, are most likely to offer wages below what these workers could previously earn operating on their own, as also unreasonably demanding greater productivity by a smaller number of them. Waste collectors may therefore find that they are better off left to informal market engagement with their own kind, even if subordinate to the interests of (relatively small) capital in that chain, for with all its inequalities and vicissitudes, it trumps the kindness of powerful strangers. But this avenue will be definitively closed off or reduced under the new system of waste management, displacing some itinerant buyers and waste pickers from the source of their livelihood (thus expanding the reserve army of labour) and incorporating others on more unequal terms.


The rank order of preference of alternative solid waste management options on scientifically proven environmentally beneficial grounds (and not their relative labour intensity and hence employment potential) is as follows: reduction, reuse, recycle, energy recovery and disposal. And yet, despite the global acceptance of this rank order, private waste to energy recovery plants are being planned across the country. In Delhi, these units are conveniently located in the outer fringes of the city, at Okhla, Ghazipur and Bawana, where lesser citizens’ justifiable not-in-my-backyard arguments fall on deaf ears in policy circles that are oriented largely towards acting on the concerns of the elite.

The technology will divert a lot of recyclable waste and disrupt the informal waste economy, less obviously displacing labour at its higher ends engaged in relatively decent work, and not just waste pickers mining landfills for recyclable scraps. Recall that on purely green merit, such technologies and incineration activities are less preferred options than that of recycling, and have in fact been proven to spectacularly fail in the particular Indian and Delhi context more than once. And yet, the state continues to push forward such projects with the support of the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism, and the cooption of some NGOs in endeavours that are now justified by involving claims of reducing emissions and earning carbon credits for transglobal market exchange by big capital.


So what is the future? The informal plastic recyclers of Delhi form a distinct constituency in our parliamentary democracy, represented by Dalit politician businessmen, many of whom also sit actively in government. In the past, they have successfully resisted or renegotiated through democratic channels attempts made by the state to forcibly relocate and shut them down. When an overzealous judiciary stepped into the fray of urban governance, with the (ironic) instrument of the public interest litigation, to give a judgement biased towards the elite on the cusp of the new century, the informal market had no recourse but to submit to its demands.

The Supreme Court’s industrial relocation order of 1999-2000 swept up the market in its wake, subjecting it to turmoil and ruin, although only of a temporary nature. And this is the likely outcome of an ongoing public interest litigation at the Delhi High Court that has the plastic recycling market in its sights as a ‘polluting’ and ‘non-conforming’ interloper, an unwelcome and passing migrant after decades of impeccable residency in the city. In all likelihood, however, it will not manage to permanently displace or wipe out the market, much as before. To give one tiny but telling instance of the ingenuity and adaptability underlying its resilience, a recent visit showed that small traders have made it easy for other traders to locate them in a physically rapidly changing city by adding the nearest metro pillar number to their formal address!


This begs the question of how far the elite – be it in its manifestation of big capital lobbying by stealth, the executive arm of the state acting on behalf of big capital, or the judiciary acting through the instrument of the public interest litigation – can superimpose its will on the majority in a representative democracy, with what degree of success and for how long. For we are that developmental curiosity, in which extreme wealth and affluence for some sits alongside abject poverty and a lack of basic capabilities in education and health for countless others, resulting in structural inequities that will not be ameliorated by fast growth alone. The contrast between these two tracks of citizens, as well as the contest between the two is nowhere more apparent than in the close confines of the city, to which a rural supply push is adding more numbers every day.

So while the desire and impetus might exist for the powerful to prevail over the rest, and the means – via non-transparent and non-democratic instruments, including sheer force – may be available, the struggle for survival by those who remain excluded from this urban dream, too, will ensure resistance at every level and of every kind, some overt and some covert. For the informal waste economy this might be more apparent on the chimerical edges of the city, where the streets have no name, but it would be a mistake to lose sight of how deeply and closely connected it is at so many different levels with the heart of the metropolis, and a Parliament’s unfilled promise to its people.


* Kaveri Gill is the author of Of Poverty and Plastic, Oxford University Press, 2010.