City of Waste: A French researcher finds caste, class and stories of humanity in Delhi's dumping grounds

Our relationship with waste and junk is peculiar. Instead of wiping it out of sight, our imagination revels in the many possibilities it offers. Countless Hollywood films present the junkyard as a site where many plot developments take place, from wheeling and dealing to epiphanies. Pop culture’s most recent phenomenon, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, imagines the future to be a scrap-yard of sorts. Wall-E, perhaps Pixar’s most innovative film, shifted the junkyard to another planet itself; the Earth’s junk, that is. Not to mention how TS Eliot, as early as the years during the birth of modernism, found something of value in it. One way or the other, we are headed towards an era where the waste that we produce may be the reckoning we make ourselves. A thing we so desperately want to avoid, or wish would remain out of sight, continuously permeates our thoughts – why? Because perhaps it is no different from the world we’ve created for ourselves. When French researcher Remi De Bercegol journeyed through the junkyards of Delhi, he found caste, class and a world unto itself.

All photographs by Remi DE BERCEGOL

All photographs by Remi DE BERCEGOL

“Beyond stories of misery, abuse or exploitation,” Bercegol says, “their violence ever-present, in this world, you will also find common stories, simple stories of everyday life. Stories of being a manual worker in Delhi, working in a recycling factory, discarding scrap metal batteries, segregating all kinds of plastics or washing used Kingfisher beer bottles and, in the end, making a decent living out of it.” Bercegol was part of a research team that studied waste management around the world. As part of the Bonjour India festival, his photographs with a chosen batch of others went on display at the India Habitat Centre earlier this year. He stresses on the fact that unlike us, the people in the waste industry are free of the stigma of waste. “I found here stories of entrepreneurs investing all their savings to buy a few tons of waste, recruiting people to segregate it before reselling it with added value. I found people who send their children to school after borrowing money, and there are the success stories of waste pickers becoming entrepreneurs and going on to manage other personnel and running their own waste-management businesses,” he explains.

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Until a few years ago, India was the leading site for waste deposit from Western countries

Waste, though it largely holds a fetishist appeal in the West and makes people fret in developing countries, is a huge man-made problem. Until a few years ago, India was the leading site for waste deposit from Western countries. The destination has now shifted to China and Vietnam, Bercegol says. “Urban waste presents a serious challenge for contemporary societies — Indian as well as Western urban societies — and leads us to question our lifestyles, which generate increasing quantities of refuse,” he adds.

The scale of the problem in Delhi is astounding if one goes by the numbers. “Delhi is unfortunately very symptomatic of this environmental deterioration, which is on par with the size of this huge metropolis. In addition to its demographic pressure, there is the spatial constraint of identifying new sites where it is possible to set up centralised treatment facilities to handle the 9,000-10,000 tonnes of domestic waste officially collected by the municipality to be treated daily. 9,000-10 000 tonnes — it’s a huge amount, it’s really big. And this volume doesn’t take into account the quantity of waste which is collected informally every day by waste pickers, estimated to be around 2,500 tonnes minimum (the lowest estimation),” Bercegol explains.

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An average waste-picker collects 40 to 50 kilos of waste every day

Not too long ago, a blast in the Ghazipur landfill which led to a loss of lives drew attention to the dumping sites in the city. One of the reasons why such incidents wake us up from slumber, Bercegol says, is the indifference towards people in the waste management cycle. “Despite the indispensable role they play in the waste elimination and treatment process, the wasteworker’s activity is rarely recognised, and they are often excluded from the decisions and restructuring involved in the reform of public services that upsets their practices. Recognising the existence of local recycling initiatives would improve the efficiency of the waste management system and contribute to reducing the mass of waste.” An average waste-picker collects 40 to 50 kilos of waste every day. Bercegol believes that though the system also provides employment, it only skims the surface while planning reforms.

Another issue that Bercegol wants to focus on is the ability of those who produce waste — the upper classes of society — to be able to generate cautiously. “At home, each of us can also play an active role by segregating our waste and putting aside the recyclable materials. I think that as individual consumers, we should also consider our own lifestyle and try to reduce our garbage at source, by generating less waste of course, and for those who can afford it, compositing at home and reusing it,” he says.

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India’s waste management system has sadly always operated on the backbone of caste

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Waste pickers demand human rights and recognition of their contribution

India’s waste management system, formal or otherwise, has sadly always operated on the backbone of caste. “There are communities in the waste business. The Khatik community is still dominant in the PVC market of Delhi, the Sikhs dominate scrap metal in Mayapuri, whereas a large chunk of e-waste managers in Seemapuri are Muslim. As for waste pickers, they are predominantly from Dalit communities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal. They demand human rights and recognition of their contribution to the collection and recycling of waste,” Bercegol says.

Though the research Bercegol has been involved in is largely academic, the photos, he hopes, will illuminate a side of life we choose to neglect, despite our defining roles in it. “If we don’t see it, we contribute to their marginalisation, so this exhibition is offering the possibility to open our eyes to the life of the city of waste. It’s little, but it contributes by opening the debate,” he says.

City of Waste will be on display at the Mandi House Metro station until 30th June


Updated Date: Jun 14, 2018 17:43 PM

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