A book tour of India’s waste mountain

d41586-018-03012-y_15518838In Waste of a Nation, an in-depth investigation of India’s feeble fight against mountains of consumerist waste, are robust statistics, compelling history and telling case studies. The authors, anthropologist Assa Doron and historian Robin Jeffrey, also throw the occasional philosophical curve ball, such as: “waste is in the eye of the beholder”. The result is both beguiling and disturbing.

As Doron and Jeffrey show, waste in India has generated a vast recycling culture — a world apart, of kabaadiwalas (garbage buyers), scavengers and ‘rubbish rajas’. The authors reveal the complex cultural, social, political and religious hurdles that hamper the country’s struggle with waste, from unjust pressure on ‘Dalits to collect human excreta to unenforced environmental regulations.

Despite India’s tradition of frugality, the rise of consumerism contributes to these issues. The dark side of the economic liberalization of 1991 is the generation of new waste from mines, factories and industrial agriculture. The gradual switch from natural, biodegradable materials to plastics is changing behaviour even among the rural poor. For instance, twigs (daatuun) of the medicinal neem tree (Azadirachta indica), once used to brush teeth, have given way to plastic toothbrushes. The latter are a recycling nightmare: separating bristles from the handle is labour-intensive and unrewarding.

Read the book review in Nature