The Garbage Economy: Pursuing Money and Scrap in Urban India’s Casted Institutions


ACLS Fellowship Program




Since economic liberalization in the 1990s, consumer goods and garbage have proliferated across India, leading some to comment wryly that plastic waste has grown faster than the country’s GDP. In response, cities like Delhi have rolled out private garbage collection trucks and incinerators, putting them in direct competition with a system excluded from formal plans: hundreds of thousands of informal low-caste Dalit and Muslim recyclers. Despite widespread concern for their livelihoods and the future of recycling, two years of ethnographic research revealed that this informal collection and recycling workforce had managed to survive. "The Garbage Economy" takes up this finding, conceptualizing intersections of economy, environment, and caste as "casted institutions": the patterned relationships through which hierarchical social positions based on caste and community are reproduced. Much as racialized institutions contribute to deeply unjust systems of racial capitalism, "The Garbage Economy" examines a key site through which processes of "caste capitalism" are forged. In particular, the book details how global and local sources of stigma shape transactions of waste and money, patterns of urban segregation, and claims to environmentalism.