Cast(e)ing off Materials: Understanding the Meaning of Waste and Value among the Waste Pickers in Nomadic Communities in Delhi

Waste workers are generally seen from the lens of ‘disposable lives’ (Fredericks, 2014). The term disposable lives refers to the precarious lives of waste workers and their relationship with waste materials. In this paper, I seek to argue that the term disposable lives does not adequately capture the complex lives of waste workers from nomadic communities. This paper attempts to map the social lives of nomadic communities, living in and around Bhalswa landfill in Delhi, which are not traditionally associated with waste work. They have been pushed into waste work because of their historical marginalization and exclusion from their traditional work of animal taming over the last thirty years. Through a series of life histories, this paper examines the lives led by people belonging to these communities as waste workers and explores the relationship between nomadic communities and waste work. Through this exploration, the paper offers a lens to understand the newly formed social relations around the Bhalswa landfill, located on the margins of India’s capital city, and hopes to understand the multiple contradictory aspects in the life of a waste picker, belonging to nomadic communities.

Even though the bodies of the waste workers are exposed to hazardous working conditions and abject poverty on an everyday basis, but to reduce them to the conception of disposable lives can potentially limit our understanding about the sociality of their lives. For many waste workers, accessing the landfill on a daily basis is also a way of life and is more than the immediate necessity of earning money (Millar, 2018). They develop relationships with waste materials beyond the typical understanding of these things as dirt and discard. Having been historically criminalized by the colonial government and marginalized by the post-colonial government, the community has been always at the receiving end of the society. Their engagement with waste work has further solidified their socio-economic marginalization. Moreover, the waste workers belonging to these nomadic communities also bear the brunt of stigmatization and new forms of untouchability practices perpetrated by their relatively upper caste Muslim neighbors such as Khans, Qureshis etc. Thus, the community today stands at the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization- stemming from their historical identity of Khanabadosh (also known as Maang ke khaane wale) to that of their present day identity as waste workers. Looking at the complex layered past and present day socialities, I examine how waste workers belonging to nomadic communities construe the meaning of their lives beyond that of disposable lives.