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The World of Waste Pickers

Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India's Urban Informal Economy by Kaveri Gill (New Delhi: Oxford University Press ), 2010.

The World of Waste Pickers

Poornima Chikarmane

O
f Poverty and Plastic brings to the centre stage the fact that marketdriven waste recovery and r ecycling flourish in India without external intervention providing livelihoods to m illions of workers and entrepreneurs. It interrogates questions about waste pickers and scrap trading entrepreneurs in the plastic commodities recycling chain. The first question relates to who gets what, r elative to their location in the recycling pyramid and on what terms. The second r elates to the dynamics of the plastic scrap recycling market in Delhi and the ways in which it perpetuates caste i nequalities while opening up economic opportunities for those working in the market. The thesis is meticulously r esearched and well-argued.

The monograph has eight chapters and an appendix. The introductory chapter provides an overview of informal recycling and its linkages with municipal solid waste management. The second chapter sets out the context in Delhi where the study has been carried out. The rest of the book is broadly divided into two parts. The first part (Chapters 3 and 4) examines the issue of poverty among subgroups of recycling workers in relation to those working in other trades in the informal economy. It then turns to explore the intricacies of the exchange relations between waste pickers and itinerant waste buyers and their respective traders. The second part (Chapters 5, 6, 7) takes a view of the higher entrepreneurial segments of the trade. It looks at the process of price determination, incomes earned, risks taken by different levels of trader entrepreneurs and the dynamics of caste as exhibited within the scrap plastics trade. Chapter 7 has two very interesting case studies on the bill to ban recycled polythene bags and the judicial order regarding relocation of industrial units. The chapter focuses on how the disparate groups relate to these developments and attempt to change the

book review

Of Poverty and Plastic: Scavenging and Scrap Trading Entrepreneurs in India’s Urban Informal Economy by Kaveri Gill (New Delhi: Oxford University Press ), 2010; pp 280 (hardcover), Rs 650.

course of events. It is followed by the c oncluding chapter. Extensive notes that are immensely useful are provided in e very chapter.

The monograph is based on a field study carried out in Delhi. Methodologically, Gill uses the French filiere (or chain) of activities and exchanges approach to commodity chain analysis. The filiere method is field-based, practical and rooted. It weaves together the disciplinary traditions of field economics, anthropology, and sociology. Gill uses both qualitative and quantitative methods. The study is empirically grounded. It analyses the journey of a single commodity – plastic – from collection to recycling through the vertical and lateral relations between transacting agents in real markets. The monograph establishes that the approach is particularly suited to u nravel the complexities of commodity chains in informal plastic r ecycling markets.

On Poverty and Deprivation

Gill estimates income poverty and h uman deprivation using two methods. The first is the narrowly defined income poverty measure using indicators of mean monthly income and mean hourly income. The second is a composite measure of deprivation. This measure incorporates tangible functional indicators such as health, housing, energy source and education as well as capability indicators such as entertainment, play, financial savings and work assets to construct a deprivation index. Methodologically, she grapples with the difficulties in measuring the intangibles associated with broader capability and human well-being,

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which include dignity, self-respect and agency that would give the worker the power to choose the means to reduce income poverty. She also discusses the difficulties of deriving qualitative data from

the field not least of which is the fact that respondents privilege basic needs over broader capability.

Gill compares poverty among and between two groups. The first comparison is between levels of poverty within the vertical waste sector hierarchy group comprising waste pickers, workers in the plastic godowns, itinerant waste buyers and plastic godown owners. The second comparison is between the waste sector group and a group of workers in assorted informal occupations such as construction, fruit vending, cycle rickshaw pulling, domestic help, car driving, and municipal sweeping. The decision to include godown owners in this list could be debated but Gill contends that it does not influence the estimation in an upward direction. She finds that there are no significant differences in the poverty levels between the waste and non-waste groups with respect to mean monthly income and the deprivation index. The mean hourly income of the waste group is significantly higher than that of the non-waste group. Within the waste vertical, as can be expected, godown owners and itinerant waste buyers rank significantly higher in all estimates in comparison with plastic workers and waste pickers. However, income distribution is far more unequal in the non-waste group than in the waste sector vertical. It is interesting to see how waste and non-waste work fare relative to each other because the former has some social stigma attached to it.

She concludes this part of the book with the observation that waste picking is a subsistence activity while those at the subsequent levels of the pyramid have a better standard of living. Gill finds that every single respondent is far above the incomebased poverty line applicable to Delhi. She is scathing about the fact that the poorest subsistence workers, like waste pickers, are excluded from accessing government benefits because technically they are above the poverty line.

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Economic & Political Weekly

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On Patronage, Exploitation and Entrepreneurship

The author describes the nature of work carried out by waste pickers who carry out free collection from waste containers and dumps, and by itinerant waste buyers who purchase plastic scrap from households and establishments. She then examines the relations between the workers and their respective dealers within a framework of exchange of goods and services, the terms on which they are carried out and the power that each party brings to and derives from the relationship. She e xplores the concept of exploitation and questions whether these relationships can be termed as exploitative.

Gill finds that itinerant waste buyers are given money by their dealers to purchase scrap daily and are also given a dvances to retain loyalty and ensure that the supply of raw material is maintained. They do not sort the scrap, and they are less likely to depend upon the kabadi d ealer for protection from harassment or for access to government schemes; they prefer to deal with these issues through other networks. They are also able to exert political influence to protect and further their own interests. Gill finds that the itinerant waste buyers enjoy a relatively equal relationship with their kabadi dealers. The latent power that the buyer has is drawn from the potential threat of changing dealers. Gill classifies the relationship between the itinerant buyer and dealer as that of a patron-client connection.

The panni (plastic) dealer on the other hand provides land for housing to the waste picker. He pays out as much as the waste picker requires daily. The balance remains with the dealer and is paid out when the waste picker needs it, sometimes also supplemented by a loan. Waste pickers do not have access to other avenues of credit or networks that will ensure access to government schemes and services. Neither can they call upon the panni dealer who is equally powerless in the external world. The panni dealer does enjoy much more power relative to waste pickers, but does so within the limited sphere of being able to control their labour with the threat of eviction from their homes. He merely uses his higher economic status to enable pickers to earn their livelihood. Gill refers to the relationship between waste pickers and their respective panni dealers as a tied relationship. Both itinerant buyers as well as waste pickers maintain long-term r elationships with the scrap traders over several years.

Gill provides a fascinating account of the real market in plastic scrap located on the outskirts of Delhi, how it operates and the nuts and bolts of trading. The Delhi market deals in plastic scrap from all over the country. She examines how prices are determined and the kind of living the market offers to all those along the vertical from the waste picker to different levels of dealers. Her findings reveal that the market is highly competitive and has many buyers as well as sellers so that no one person is able to influence prices. Trading volumes are high and margins are low. Traders at the lower level do not have the capabilities to be able to cut out the middle man. In terms of income across different levels, she shows that income levels are higher at the upper end of the pyramid. This corresponds to the financial risk t aken by those at the higher levels. She finds that it is proportionate to returns on capital deployed. However, Gill also points out that it is a high risk, low value commodity chain and therefore intensely competitive.

On Caste and Plastic

The significance of caste as a variable in the informal waste recycling sector is something that Gill rightly keeps coming back to. She first brings it up in the case of waste pickers and itinerant buyers, and their respective panni dealers and kabadi dealers, who belong mostly to the scheduled castes. She points out that waste pickers and panni dealers are from castes that are ritually engaged in unclean, polluting livelihoods and continue to scavenge from mixed waste and handle more unclean waste. Their occupational mobility is restricted by larger social discrimination. Itinerant waste buyers and their kabadi dealers on the other hand handle cleaner waste in the work sphere. They are also from the same caste as the traders in the plastic recycling market. Caste identification along the vertical consolidates into considerable political influence.

Gill goes back to caste to look at how this dimension influences the plastic scrap market. She vividly describes how an SC community exploits its entrepreneurial abilities to embrace trade in “modern” materials like plastics. The entry of other castes notwithstanding, she highlights the fact that trade in waste plastic commodities is still considered “lower” in status. Gill brings out the ways in which

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traders have consolidated along caste lines to further their own interests in the political space.

Gill provides two case studies to illustrate how misdirected policies and judicial fiat actually penalise informal waste recyclers and shrink the space available to them to operate. In the first, the Delhi state government sought to ban recycled plastic bags. The order was to prevent their manufacture and use based on the understanding that it was polluting. No similar attempt was initiated to ban primary plastic, the production of which has grown exponentially in the last two decades. It was not clear whether the interests of primary manufacturers of plastic were behind the intended ban.

The second case study is one in which the court ordered relocation of what were considered to be polluting industries from within Delhi to the outskirts in response to public interest litigation. It put informal recyclers out of work and pushed traders and recycling units into bankruptcy. The pollution caused by the units was also relocated to the fringes since measures to reduce it did not feature in the list of actions to be taken.

Conclusions

At its core, Gill’s thesis is about arguments for strengthening the enterprise of recycling. The findings of her study on Delhi are remarkably similar to those of a study of scrap collectors, scrap traders and recycling enterprises in Pune carried out by the ILO-UNDP in 2000.

Gill’s study comes at a time when urban India is undergoing change. The government of India has embarked on the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The avowed purpose of the mission is to build inclusive, sustainable, world class cities. The interpretation of what this means often depends upon which side of the class divide is being represented. The ubiquitous waste picker sitting by the roadside with her ungainly sacks sorting scrap, the trundling itinerant waste buyer on four-lane roads populated with speeding cars, and the scrap dealers and reprocessing units that operate at great efficiency with minimal infrastructure are all battling for survival.

Gill argues that convergence is possible between decent livelihoods, universal urban public service provision in respect of waste collection, micro-enterprise development in collection and processing, solid waste management and environmental good. She highlights the need for greater coordination between the disparate agencies (government and donors) that are responsible for financing, policy formulation, implementation and regulation.

The contribution that Gill makes is to study the plastic recycling value chain and to present her arguments in the best scholarly tradition. This book is a must read for researchers, activists, environmentalists and policymakers.

Poornima Chikarmane (pchikarmane1@gmail. com) is at the SNDT Women’s University, Pune, and is involved in research and action on waste management and informal recycling workers.

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june 5, 2010 vol xlv no 23

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Economic Political Weekly

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