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

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Waste Picking, Data Activism, and the State

Neo-liberalising Inclusion?

Non-governmental organisations and civil society actors have mobilised in several Indian cities around issues facing informal waste pickers. Data (surveys, narratives, visualisations) is a key basis on which ngos premise such negotiations with the state. How a data-based ngo–state collaboration can provide the state new modalities of intervention and control over informal labour and its unaccounted value chains is discussed. However, the state’s response, as observed in Chennai, had been fractured and idiosyncratic. Given this, it is also shown how this selective “hearing” by the state is articulated with certain dynamics of data and ngo activism to facilitate the roll-out and rollback processes of neo-liberalisation in Chennai.

Meet KS.1 He is 30 years old. Starting from six in the morning to noon, KS picks waste2 in Kodungaiyur, the open dumpsite in which Chennai’s unsegregated waste has accumulated for the last 30 years. He calls the dumpsite “kuppamma” (“kupp” + “amma,” a portmanteau of the Tamil words for trash and mother), a term that gestures to its divinity and motherhood, perhaps because these 300-odd acres not only watch over him, but also give him food and livelihood. KS takes the recyclables he gleans to a nearby scrap shop to sell, earning about ₹150 a day. The scrap dealer also loans him money from time to time, perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of the below-market rates that KS is invariably offered for his daily collection.

KS has one leg. The other is a stump—on which he sports a plastic “false leg”—the result of a compactor vehicle severing his leg. KS remembers lying bleeding on a mound of waste, watching his severed leg going into the caverns of the compactor with a craneful of rotting mixed waste. No ambulance was called in to the dump yard, nor could he apply for any worker’s compensation. He does not have official access to the dump yard or its contents, which are regarded as state property. Yet, he is an important cog in the wheel of Chennai’s solid waste management (SWM) systems.

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Updated On : 6th Dec, 2019

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