Waste Beyond Management: Understanding the Waste Crisis at the Intersection of The Human and Non-Human Worlds

When I started the research for my PhD project in the field of waste studies, my aim was to understand the spatial history of Bhalswa landfill at the periphery of northwest Delhi, India. I wanted to understand the waste crisis beyond the common notion that it is simply about the burgeoning amount of trash that we produce and how to “manage” it (Reno, 2016). It is undeniable that proliferation of discarded materials is a real and pressing concern that we (both the human and the non-human worlds) face today. However, to understand it in narrow terms of technocratic waste management solutions obscures the presence of other agents, forces, and actors—materials, waste pickers, animals, and water bodies—whose lives and after-lives are knowingly and unknowingly entangled with the crisis. 

As I began my fieldwork around the landfill in July 2019, little did I know that I would encounter various communities of waste- and other informal-sector- workers, cattle dairy owners, animals including cows, pigs, wild dogs, and carrion birds, discarded materials, and water bodies (extensions of the Yamuna river in Delhi), all entwined with one another. While growing up, I often drove past the landfill and saw it as just another dumpsite—full of foul odour and “unwanted” materials. It was only when I immersed myself in field research that I realized the landfill and its surroundings have a life-world of their own. In this essay I aim to draw a brief spatial history of the Bhalswa landfill and understand the symbiotic relationships between human and non-human species surrounding the landfill site. I build this essay on the premise that the discarded nature of “waste,” and its management as such, is central to a critique of human and natural exploitation. It shapes our understanding of what is made precarious and polluting labour, and how one engages with the questions of environmental justice and failures of modernity (Reno, 2020).

Visible from the towering concrete and modernist infrastructure of the Delhi Metro Haiderpur station, the Bhalswa landfill is distinct and peculiar. City dwellers know it by its gigantic height, ablaze with fire, circled by carrion birds, and emitting visibly toxic clouds of air pollution. The regular commuters often dismiss its presence with disdain and a sigh of disgust suggesting that this “wasteful,” “dirty” reality is distinct from and alien to the city’s development process. The landfill is construed merely as a necessary but undesireable piece of municipal physical infrastructure: a receptacle of the city’s trash. The distant location of the landfill from the main residential districts of Delhi also adds to detachment and alienation from objects that are relegated as trash, where the subject-object relation between the producer of trash and the trash itself is automatically diluted (Reno 2016; Latour 2005). Once the unwanted objects are labelled as trash, they are the “unwanted excess” of society.

However, as I entered the surrounding areas of the landfill, the previously blurry distant reality acquired a new meaning. It was not just merely a space of discarded materials and “disposable” lives (those of waste pickers).[1] The area was inhabited by people from different communities, as well as animals, plants, and water bodies whose lives are connected. There is a form of inter-dependence between human and non-human lives in the area which are also tied to the lives of city dwellers. As per North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and newspaper reports, the landfill first started receiving waste in 1994 and exhausted its capacity by 2007, yet it continues to receive 2000 metric tonnes of city’s trash on daily basis. Yet oral history interviews and my fieldwork on site revealed alternative narratives.

At the start of the post-colonial era, the land that would become the Bhalswa landfill was mostly jungle, surrounded by acacia trees and sparsely populated. Then in 1975, during the infamous national emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Tarlo, 2003), a number of cattle-milch dairy owners were relocated to the site. Since then, the area has been continuously inhabited by dairy owners, mostly Jaat, Yadav and Gujjar caste communities, which form an essential part of the local metabolism. After a few years members of two nomadic communities joined the cattle-owners: the Qalandar and the Maset. These communities were involved in animal taming practices and conjuring tricks. As per the memories of the nomadic communities and dairy owners, Delhi municipal authorities started dumping waste in the area in mid-1980s, which eventually, albeit partially, shaped the ecology of the area from then on. It was only in the mid-1980s that the Bhalswa region started becoming more densely populated; until then it was mostly surrounded by acacia trees and sparsely populated. The low rental rates attracted communities from varying backgrounds, including Hindu Schedule caste, Other Backward Classes (OBC), and Bengali Muslims.

The above-mentioned communities steadily resorted to waste picking in and around the unsanitary municipal landfill and the surrounding areas. Bengali Muslims, who dominate informal waste picking in northwestern part of the city to this day, especially found it lucrative to settle near the landfill area. Extracting value from waste became a daily mode of existence for many of them.[2] In so doing, they interacted deeply with a wide variety of human and non-human actors and forces, forming a new and ever-changing ecosystem at the landfill. 

Initially I assumed many of the animals loitering around the landfill, especially cows and pigs, were stray or feral. As I explored the area, I realized that these animals were actually owned by cattle dairy and piggery farm owners, who let their animals roam in order to feed off the garbage. Later their produce (cow/buffalo milk and pig meat) is sold in the market. In what ways the animals’ presence around the landfill affects their lives as well as that of the humans who consume their milk and meat deserves much more study. Needless to say, landfills are a site of disease, full of bacteria, viruses and pathogens, which have a direct effect on the animals and humans who live and work near them as well as the more distant humans who consume the landfill’s by-products. 

The Bhalswa landfill in North-West Delhi Photo by author.
[Image description: a cow and a pig loiter around a landfill full of left-over garbage.]

Socially, there are wide differences between the lives of cattle dairy owners and those of waste picking communities.[3] Yet their lives are interconnected not only because of the common neighborhood they inhabit but because of the fact that dairy owners are dependent on waste pickers for feeding their cows. When waste pickers visit middle-class areas to collect garbage, they collect roti [bread] from them and give it to the dairy owners. For many of these households, especially Hindu ones, cows are considered sacred animals. On an almost daily basis they spare leftover rotis for cattle as a religious and charitable act. Interestingly, most of the garbage collectors at my field site (who visited residential areas in northwest Delhi) were Bengali Muslims. With the growing rash of cow-related crimes in the country, Muslims and Dalits have been the target of violence led by dominant Hindu right wing groups.[4] Thus this unique interdependence between the cattle dairy owners and Bengali Muslim waste pickers throws light on two contradictory phenomena. On the one hand, this interdependence challenges the trope where Muslims are seen as a threat to “sacred cows” and are instead providing food for their daily nourishment. On the other hand, there are Hindu cattle dairy owners who leave their livestock in the landfill to feed off garbage. 

Similarly, the presence and absence of other animals around the landfill, such as dogs and vultures, was rather concerning. Many waste pickers mentioned that the dogs around the landfill are wild and ferocious. They often got bitten by dogs while climbing up mounds of trash or when they were visiting residential areas. These dogs are known for their highly sensitive olfactory perception; the moment they smell garbage they start running towards waste pickers. Waste pickers in my area told me that they prefer walking around barefoot so that the dogs are not alerted by their presence by sound when possible.

In contrast to the plague of dogs, there has been a significant decline of vultures around the garbage dumps and landfill sites (Kumar et al., 2019).  Vultures are known for their critical role in “defining an ecosystem” (Doron, 2020), so their decline bodes poorly for other species in the landfill’s ecosystem. Although I did see some vultures hovering over the Bhalswa landfill, Assa Doron observes the decline can be attributed at least, in part, to the “widespread use of a cheap anti-inflammatory drug (diclofenac) to treat bovines in India and Pakistan [which] has dealt a lethal blow to the population of vultures, who suffer renal failure as a result of ingesting the drug” (2020, 29). 

 There are many other harmful interconnections between the landfill, human, and non-human worlds. Trucks frequent the Bhalswa landfill from 8am–6pm daily, dumping fresh mounds of waste on the already-existing decades of trash. While most of the valuable fresh waste is picked up by waste pickers, the rest continues to pile up. The accumulated waste, over time, creates leachate and seeps into nearby water bodies. This contaminated water then directly affects the lives people residing in nearby areas, and even more so the lives of the waste pickers. It is often a cause of typhoid and bodily rashes among waste pickers. Moreover, they struggle on daily basis to meet their hydration needs and the deteriorating water quality in the area forces them to buy packed bottles, which costs around 30-40 rupees/day (30-40 pence/day).

This essay is an exploration of understanding more than just the obvious dangers of waste crisis that we face today. The burgeoning growth of waste material alone is a certainly a matter of concern. However, the effect of waste crisis is multi-layered. It not only disturbs the “aesthetic visuals” of the spaces it occupies but also disturbs the entire eco-system which includes human and non-human worlds. When I started this journey of understanding the waste crisis, my only hope was to take a deep dive into the world of materials, what gets qualified as waste, who are the actors involved in dealing with waste materials and the spaces that it occupies.

Today, as I write this article and my thesis, there is a growing pessimism about overhauling of the waste crisis. Our “modern,” “urbanized” lives are intricately connected with the burgeoning world of materials and consumerism. My research attempts to understand how the material afterlife of the waste world is not merely about understanding the managerial processes. Rather, it is deeply interconnected with the biophysical world and further accentuated by the life processes in our capitalist world. 

[1] Here the term “disposable lives” refers to a set of population which is crucial for the reproduction of social order, yet, is rendered “useless” by the state authorities, left to fend for themselves and are not absorbed in formal job economy  (Fredericks, 2018; Gidwani 2018).

[2] Tracing the life trajectories of waste pickers and how and why they got into picking is something I explore in the larger course of my DPhil thesis. For the purposes of this essay I limit myself to how these communities engage with their surroundings.

[3] Most of the cattle dairy owners in the area are from other backwards class (OBC) community (their OBC status varies depending on the states they part of), albeit socially dominant. Whereas most of the waste picking communities are socially marginalised communities and are either scheduled Tribe (ST), Scheduled Caste (SC) or OBC. There is a significant difference in terms of their social status and the latter (waste pickers) are usually looked down upon and are seen as socially dangerous by the cattle dairy owners. 

[4] The cow is considered a sacred animal among certain caste communities in Hinduism. On May 26, 2017, the Indian government imposed a ban on the sale and purchase of cows for slaughter. This subsequently led to the increase in cow vigilantism in certain parts of the country. Members of some radical Hindu organisations started acting as vigilantes—especially against minorities (Dalits and Muslims), who were “supposedly” and “purportedly” transporting cows for slaughter. 

Doron, Assa. 2020. “Stench and Sensibilities: On Living with Waste, Animals and Microbes in India”. The Australian Journal of Anthropology. 32:23-41

Fredericks, Rosalind. 2018. Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructure of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Gidwani, Vinay. 2020. “For a Marxist Theory of Waste: Seven Remarks”. In The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries of Global Present, edited by Jimi Kim Watson and Gary Wilders. New York: Fordham University Press.

Kumar, N, Aprajita Singh and Barbara Harris-White. 2019. “Urban Waste and Human-Animal Interface in Delhi.” Economic and Political Weekly. LIV NO ( 47): 42-47.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, UK, US: Oxford University Press.

Reno, Joshua. 2020. “Waste and Waste Management”. The Annual Review of Anthropology. 44(1): 557-572

Tarlo, Emma. 2003. Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi. University of California Press. 

*Cover image: Early morning at the Bhalswa landfill, Delhi. Photo by author.

[Cover image description: a black-and-white photograph of a landfill with cows, dogs, and carrion birds moving/loitering around the dump site. In the middle, a person picking up waste.]

Edited by Anastasia Day, reviewed by Emily Webster.

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