India, socio-cultural anthropology, caste, cleanliness, development, political economy, waste

Delhi, a sprawling metropolis of some 22 million residents, has been described as a city with two populations: those who make waste and those who manage it. With increasingly rapid urbanization and limited sanitation infrastructure, everyone recognizes a crucial need for improved mechanisms for handling human waste. Development discourse conceives of this improvement as a linear trajectory from a caste-based manual scavenging model — in which cleanliness is understood in terms of purity and produced in the relationships between hierarchically-arranged communities and persons — to a mechanized waste management model — in which cleanliness is configured in terms of hygiene and practiced by disciplined, autonomous individuals as a civic responsibility. Despite the clarity of this trajectory in Indian development discourse, my preliminary research with prominent sanitation NGOs in Delhi found that they situate themselves in radically different ways relative to these two models. Thus, my research poses two related questions: first, how do sanitation NGOs in Delhi draw on the models of purity and hygiene to produce and articulate ideas of cleanliness and social relations in their organizational structures? And second, how do NGOs’ orientations toward these two models generate strikingly different development programs in sanitation?

To answer these questions, I conducted 16 months of ethnographic research in India’s capital city, Delhi. I situate this research within a burgeoning body of work on waste in globalizing, urban centers around the world, and my contribution to this literature, which is inundated with economic and environmental critiques, is to put it in dialogue with an issue of enduring importance in the anthropology of India: caste and purity vis-à-vis modernity and development. If waste management problems cannot be solved by technocratic solutions alone — as 60 years of development projects have demonstrated — my research posits that there is a crucial need to reexamine the cultural categories informing and inhibiting waste work in India.

This project was funded by a 2014-15 Fulbright-Nehru Grant, a Wenner-Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant, and the National Science Foundation with a research affiliation at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.