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A Wasted Opportunity (Review)

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Nandini Sen. 2018.
Urban Marginalisation in South Asia: Waste Pickers in Calcutta
Abingdon and New York: Routledge
ISBN 9780815357667

In many ways, Kaveri Gill’s Of Poverty and Plastic (Oxford University Press, 2009) set the tone for engaging, provoking work on waste in South Asia. Much of such scholarship has tended to be interconnected in recent times, with academics crossing disciplinary boundaries to deepen their work from colleagues’ methodologies and findings. Informative and readable in equal measure, Gill’s writing is a good example of how research on this key urban problematic should be framed and articulated: for anyone working on waste and inequality in the urban informal sector in the subcontinent, Gill’s book is a pit stop which cannot be bypassed.

This is why Nandini Sen’s Urban Marginalisation in South Asia: Waste Pickers in Calcutta came as a big surprise. Not only does Sen seem fully unaware of Gill and the interdisciplinary body of work her research has given impetus to, she also operates in a strange isolation from the considerable corpus of global scholarship on not just South Asia but also the Global South. For a doctoral thesis undertaken in one of the better known centres of South Asian Studies as also a monograph under the banner of one of the leading multinational academic publishers, Urban Marginalisation in South Asia appears as a woefully inadequate critique on the socio-economic depredations faced by the waste pickers of Kolkata.

A topical subject
To be fair to Sen, her subject is of immediate topical interest. Concerns – even panic – over waste have redefined the way cities are imagined and governed in our times. The past few years have seen waste management and disposal take centre stage in public discourse in India with central sector schemes such as Swacch Bharat Mission. As Indian cities burgeon with millennial aspirations of an unsteadily globalizing workforce, it has become necessary to sustainably address the deep footprint which accelerated consumption leaves on our resources. Tackling waste, at all levels of its production, is a significant component of this new urban imperative.

Thus, in researching and writing about the multidimensional marginalisation experienced by waste pickers in Kolkata, Sen contributes pertinently to scholarship on the four R’s (reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery) in operation. Waste pickers, much maligned in modern history, have recently seen civic recognition come their way in a number of Indian cities. Bengaluru’s Hasiru Dala, for instance, is a successful example of a cross-sectoral partnership involving municipal authorities at one end of the spectrum and informal waste workers at the other. Such public–private partnerships are coming to increasingly characterise waste management in South Asian cities. In revealing that Kolkata lags way behind its counterparts in similarly synergising the formal with the informal in its waste sector, Sen’s findings – emergent from two sustained rounds of ethnography – are significant for policy-makers and scholars alike.

Lopsided theorisation
However, even though Sen’s subject is pertinent and her field work adequate, the presentation of her work suffers from many pitfalls. Prime amongst these is the inadequate and ad-hoc theorisation of marginalisation in her research. Though Chapters 2 and 3 are dedicated to this exercise, it is sad to note that nowhere does she refer to a single urban theorist or practitioner from the South in constructing her critical framework. Pierre Bourdieu, James Holston, and Loïc Wacquant form the bedrock of her argument on marginalisation of waste pickers, but Kaveri Gill, Swati Sambyal, and Anant Maringanti are conspicuous by their absence. Hence, even though Sen cites the former in declaring that ‘the process of marginalisation involves elite strategies asserting control over labour, culture, politics, resources and information’ (p. 14), she betrays no interest in enriching these formulations with theories and cases from the South.

Likewise, Sen’s narrative is littered with terms and claims which float about with no sound critical mooring. In Chapter 4, titled Silent defiance and subtle negotiation, Sen contends that waste pickers in Kolkata are considered ‘non-citizens’: ‘the government does not count them as citizens or intend to give them any official identity’ (pp. 55–56). In the same breath, though, Sen informs us that waste pickers ‘are used … to cast false votes’ (p. 56); elsewhere, the reader is told that many waste pickers come from agrarian families in rural Bengal or Bihar, and often invest in building up their ancestral land holdings. These and other glaring contradictions do not detract Sen from her project of condemning all involved stakeholders in the informal waste sector – including waste pickers – for the plight of her respondents: that she confuses residency with citizenship, key critical frameworks in urban studies, is just another casualty in her zeal to pontificate upon the matter.

Mired in personal biases
Unfortunately, the ease with which Sen’s personal opinions and value-judgments creep into her representation of her respondents, the waste pickers of Kolkata, undermines her efforts in working up to this book. To say this is not to lament the passing of some gloriously objective scholarship in our ostensibly post-structuralist times, nor is it to deny authors – scholarly or otherwise – narrative agency towards articulating their politics. Instead, in Sen’s case, this is simply to make a plea for a more self-reflective politics and more careful writing.

Consider, for example, her deep moral discomfort at the supposed sexual promiscuity of waste pickers, men as much as women. ‘Sexual licence is endemic’, Sen announces in C4: ‘this follows’, she argues, ‘with relentless logic from the position of a marginalised class left to itself, with no means to make fitting use of its freedom’ (p. 57). Similarly, in Chapter 6, on kinship ties, Sen informs the reader that ‘partly due to the scarcity of other forms of creative entertainment unprotected sex remains one of their most attractive amusements in life’ (p. 93). The waste pickers’ lack of social capital is identified as one of the key reasons for their continuing marginalisation in Kolkata: and they too must take the blame, as they have little understanding of nutrition and parenting, eat ‘cheap food’ (p. 53), and often consume drugs and ‘degrade themselves to sub-human levels once these substances have been consumed’ (p. 77). This, Sen wonders, might be causing them to become ‘stoics, and as such, completely disconnect themselves from both their own and mainstream society’ (pp. 77–78).

Bewildering statements such as these make the book an extremely curious read, making it difficult to believe that Sen is actually concerned about the betterment of the waste picking community and is not just describing them thus for sensational impact. Her recurring disdain of her respondents’ lifestyles mingles with her criticism of state and civil apparatuses, producing an effect reminiscent of the benevolent paternalism of Andrew Mearns and other Victorians of his ilk. As opposed to 1883, however, such condescending attention does little to move the reader in either appreciating Sen’s politics or her writing style. She would have served her work better by being more self-aware of her biases in evaluating her respondents’ characters and lifestyles without recourse to baseline data of any kind.

Inadequately researched and poorly presented
Without any theoretical or contextual layering, the recurrence of ‘marginalisation’ as a narrative mantra through the text will tire most readers to a stupor of disappointment. Working out of the North, Sen seems to have written this monograph exclusively for the global audience which a publication such as this garners. Being profusely punctured by small quotations from Northern theorists of her choice, Sen’s narrative appears to be in a desperate struggle to live up to the paradigms which will bring her recognition. In her Conclusion, for instance, she finds ‘a direct counterpart … in a similarly ghettoised community of black people in the US city of Chicago’ (p. 108): apparently, waste pickers in Kolkata and African-Americans in Chicago face similar kinds of discrimination.

If this is an attempt at comparative urban criticism, then it falls woefully short of establishing any cogent solidarity. While Sen has clearly worked consistently over a sustained period and has had ample interaction with her site and respondents, her work and intentions are subverted by the book’s insularity, insensitivity, and carelessness. By only confirming ‘the chasm that separates’ (p. 114) waste pickers from mainstream society, Sen leaves us with only a commonly known platitude that adds little to the existing corpus of scholarship on the informal waste sector in India. For these and allied reasons, Urban Marginalisation in South Asia cannot be considered more than an inadequately researched and poorly presented monograph on the subject.

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