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Garbage as a metaphor

By Nityanand Jayaraman

There are many who claim that modern-day discrimination is based solely on economic terms, not on caste or communal lines. But the view from Kamatchi Devi's house in the Kodungaiyur garbage dump in Chennai is different. Where there is hazardous waste you will only find dalit and other backward castes. Like trash, some people are still considered disposable

Garbage as a metaphor

Sixteen-year-old Ramachandra Dikshitar finishes his morning rituals early. Bathing is a waste, considering he will be neck-deep in garbage within the hour. But as a practising brahmin, sandhya vandanam -- the thrice daily prayer to the gods at dawn, noon and dusk -- is a part of his life. Ram, his mother and brother all work as ragpickers in the city's garbage dump. They live in a traditional agraharam -- a cluster of brahmin households -- built around a Shiva temple. All of this is now surrounded by the garbage dump. This is one of many garbage dumps that have come up near the agraharams of indigent brahmins across the country. As recently as a decade ago, the local Shiva temple used to attract numerous pilgrims. The livelihood of the brahmin families in the agraharam was, in one way or another, associated with the temple. Now, with the expanding garbage dump, visits to the temple by pilgrims have dwindled, pushing the agraharam families into near destitution. Like many of the country's less fortunate, Ram's family and many other brahmins too saw the silver lining in the project imposed on his community and sought to earn a livelihood in ragpicking.

If the above story were true, or even conceivable, we could agree with the many who claim that modern-day discrimination is based solely on economic terms, not on caste or communal lines. But Dikshitar is fiction, as is his garbage-dump agraharam and the band of brahmin scavengers.

The real story goes like this.

A solid door with auspicious tantric motifs guards a ramshackle hut that is falling apart at the roof and on all sides. There is nothing firsthand about this house. A piece of corrugated asbestos gone soft with age covers a portion of the roof. Wooden boards, some tarpaulin, mismatched pieces of bamboo, and plastic wires as lashings complete the picture. Every last item that went into the making of Kamatchi Devi's house was locally mined, hand-picked by her from the garbage dump within which the house is located. Barely five metres in front of her house runs a stream carrying a foul-smelling reddish-orange liquid -- juice from the rotting mountains of garbage stretched out on all sides of her house. Across the juice river is a ramshackle temple to the God of Wars, Murugan.

No matter which way the wind blows, Kamatchi's house is assailed by toxic smoke from north Chennai's perennially smouldering dump. The Kodungaiyur garbage dump, which receives more than 2,000 tonnes of Chennai's daily garbage generation of 5,000 tonnes, is the largest in the city.

Kamatchi's house is one of 15 dalit households in the cynically named Panakkara Nagar (Rich Man's Nagar). Local reports say about 7,000 people make a full or partial living by extracting, sorting, processing and trading in resources relegated to the dump by the city's consumers. At least half of them are engaged in sifting through and sorting the garbage in the dump -- glass, plastic, coconut shells, metals of different kinds, gunny sacks. A smelly sewer -- the Captain Cotton canal -- choked with plastic trash defines the western edge of the dump yard. All along this canal and a few streets on either side are flimsy hutments of thatch, tin, tarpaulin and any salvageable building material... MGR Nagar, Ezhil Nagar, RR Nagar. Around 6,000 households live with insecure tenure along the margins of the stinking canal. Another 1,500 households live in similarly squalid conditions in Raja Rathinam Nagar across the main road from the dump.

garbage dump

RR Nagar was constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board to house the Chennai Corporation's conservancy workers in the early-1990s, nearly a decade after the dump was inaugurated. There were no takers among the workers for the 'dump-view' apartments. Eventually, the brand new houses in the tenements were filled with families evicted from various parts of the city. Residents from the beggars' colony in Chetpet, families ousted to make way for the Royapuram bridge, a few hundred Tamil refugee families from Sri Lanka were sent to the same place where Chennai sent its trash.

A major proportion of all these people -- the workers in the dump, the residents of Panakkara Nagar, MGR Nagar, Ezhil Nagar, RR Nagar, the conservancy workers for whom the government chose to build the 'dump-view' tenements, the oustees who eventually took up residence in the tenements -- belong to scheduled caste/scheduled tribe (SC/ST) communities.

The people here are too poor to have generated all the trash that surrounds them. Per capita garbage generation is a good measure of prosperity. Indeed, while the rest of the city's trash is cleaned and brought here, the potholed mud lanes that pass for roads in this locality have never seen a municipality broom.

Is this a coincidence? Or is there an invisible quota for SC/STs and other backward communities in occupations that nobody wants for themselves -- say, as garbage and sewage workers, as contract labourers engaged in the most hazardous of industries, in chemical units as cleaners of effluent treatment plants and reactors, in construction and road-building, in granite quarries and sand mining, in leather tanneries and dyeing units.

It is a fact that, as a matter of practice, garbage dumps don't come up near agraharams. It is also a fact that agraharams don't come up near garbage dumps.

In 2003, within Howrah municipal limits, a shameful incident occurred that highlights the face of modern-day untouchability. On February 3, more than 500 armed police and bulldozers descended on a massive dalit settlement in Bellilious Park. Armed with a court order in a case for city beautification filed by a professedly 'civil' society organisation, the Howrah municipal body cleaned the park of nearly 7,000 residents -- all allegedly from the scheduled castes.

How did the dalits get to Bellilious Park? And where did they go when evicted?

According to a petition (1) circulated by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, the park was the place where night-soil headloaders, manual scavengers and conservancy workers were allowed to pitch camp more than 100 years ago because they were denied rented accommodation in the city on account of their low caste. Over the decades, many others similarly rejected by the growing metropolis of Kolkata found refuge in the park. Some even had title deeds to their holdings.

Many of those evicted that February morning from Bellilious Park ended up in makeshift tent camps in the Belgachia garbage dumping yard.

The Howrah incident is by no means an isolated one. In virtually every state of the country it is the poor, the dalits and the adivasis that have to move to make way for dumps, industries, roads, flyovers, bridges, dams, mines, parks...

Social exclusion is a theme that connects Kamatchi's life and choices with those of the Howrah oustees who moved into the secure, though Hades-like, confines of the Belgachia dump. As American scholar Buvinic points out, social exclusion involves "the denial of equal access to opportunities imposed by certain groups in society upon others (2)".

The lack of access often translates into acceptance by marginalised communities of undesirable land use. In Gangaikondan -- a scheduled caste-dominated village in southern Tamil Nadu, where Coca-Cola set up a controversial bottling plant in 2006 -- the predominantly dalit (Pallar community) hosts did not oppose the plant too vociferously although all of them shared concerns about the impact the plant would have on groundwater.

marginalised communities

P Kirupairaj, a member of Puthiya Thamizhagam -- a dalit political party led by Dr K Krishnaswamy -- explains the dilemma that Pallar residents faced. "The reason why some people support the project is probably because it has been 15 years since (the industrial estate) started and there have been no takers. Some people feel that this area is being neglected because we're Pallars, and that it is unwise to oppose the first company that comes here. People feel that resistance is futile; that all this is fated and that we don't really have a choice (3)."

Evidence from the US suggests that racism plays a powerful role in identifying which communities will bear the brunt of our environmental problems, and which will gain the most from environmental solutions. In 1987, the Commission on Racial Justice, a wing of the United Church of Christ (UCC), published a watershed study titled 'Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States'. The study concluded, with evidence, that "the best predictor of where to find hazardous waste is to classify communities by race, not income or real estate values (4)."

Studies prior to and following the UCC study have also confirmed that the discriminatory apportioning of environmental ills and goods transcends national boundaries, with the economic logic of the free trade ideal providing a convenient justification. This justification is best articulated by former World Bank Chief Economist Lawrence Summers who was immortalised by his infamous memo of December 1991, where he established the economic basis for environmental discrimination.

"The measurement of costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality," he wrote. "From this point of view, a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. The economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that."

Economics as a confounder in caste analysis is not new. The debate around reservation in higher education too has to contend with the extent to which poverty, rather than caste, determines an individual's access to opportunity.

But, as one dalit ideologue quite sharply pointed out to me, it is not poverty alone that drives a dalit to the garbage dump. The historical conditioning of society and the entrenched association of dalits with impurity, with traditional occupations that are considered too demeaning for the middle and upper castes to perform, determine who will clean up after the party is over. "Demeaning jobs should be eliminated," says Ravikumar, a dalit ideologue and general secretary of the Tamil Nadu-based Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (Dalit Panthers of India). "Let all dirty jobs and dangerous jobs -- where humans are not or should not be permitted -- be mechanised. He (the dalit) is not born to clean shit. It is better to die than to live cleaning others' shit," he says.

Protection and encouragement of traditional occupations only perpetuate the caste-based economic structure. "Tradition and caste are one and the same," emphasises Ravikumar.

The presence of dalits and some scheduled tribes in the conservancy sector is probably the result of an evolved casteism. The bhangis, the thotis, the valmikis were accommodated in new variants of their traditional occupations.

However, across the country, several ragpicker and kabadiwallah trade unions have come up. Most of these pay attention not merely to wages and working conditions of their members but also work to increase educational opportunities for their children. Not only is there no aim to perpetuate the demeaning occupation, action is taken to ensure that the children too do not fall into the same profession for want of access to better opportunities.

A caste-focused analysis of environmental issues would need to challenge the prevailing definition of environment as "everywhere but here". Or the notion that what is worth saving are areas with abundant water reserves, multi-cropped agricultural lands, biodiverse, verdant forests and charismatic megafauna, or spectacular coral formation, or clean, green urban enclaves with nice-smelling, soft-spoken upper castes as residents. Seldom do blight spots and environmental disaster zones, or the marginal and arid scrub lands that provide succour to marginalised communities make it to the priority list of environmental campaigns.

In contrast, consider the definition of environment as put out by environmental justice advocates in the US. Environment is the place where we live, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the place where we work, and where our children play.

This definition makes it difficult for us to argue that Kamatchi -- who has been denied a healthy environment in every sense -- is truly being treated as an equal. As Kamatchi said: "No matter what happens, I will suffer. Due to the dump, because I live there, because of the burning, and of being in the profession of waste-picking. If the government decides to shut down the dump to improve things without offering me an alternative, I will suffer." From the frying pan into the fire.

The American definition makes it difficult for us to even argue that Kamatchi's exclusion is merely a function of economic criteria. Rather, it reaffirms a conviction that like trash, some people are still considered disposable.

Truly, in a caste-riven society like India, garbage is a metaphor.

(Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher focusing on investigating corporate abuses of the environment and human rights. He is based in Chennai and is associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal)


1 http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2003/485/
2 'Social Inclusion in Latin America'. Mayra Buvinic in Mayra Buvinic and Jacqueline Mazza (eds) Social Exclusion and Economic Development. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. 2005
3 'Water Wars and Bottle Battles'. May 24, 2005. India Resource Centre. http://www.indiaresource.org/campaigns/coke/2005/gangaikondan.html
4 'Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites'. Commission on Racial Justice. United Church of Christ. 1987. http://www.ucc.org/about-us/archives/pdfs/toxwrace87.pdf

Infochange News & Features, October 2008