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Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron


Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey just published their book, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India, this month with Harvard University Press. The book examines national assets and obstacles for achieving a cleaner India. The authors argue that obstacles that appear unique to India are volume, density, and the caste system. The authors also discuss India’s assets, including old practices of frugality; recycling; global experience and science; and dynamic entrepreneurs, officials, NGOs, and citizens.

In a written interview with The Mittal Institute, the authors give insight into their book, research, and what India is doing to combat garbage growth.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey will give a book talk at The Mittal Institute on t Monday, March 19, 2018.


In Waste of a Nation, you focus on India. What are some of the waste management challenges that are unique to India?

In three words, we would say density, volume, and caste. Only Bangladesh, among substantial countries, equals India in population density. Even if India were very heavily rural, its growing population would mean vast amounts of vegetable waste, as well as human and animal excrement each day.

India will be close to 40 percent urban when we see the next census results in 2021, and that population increasingly consumes growing quantities of throwaway products that go with urban and middle-class life.

Finally, caste means that India does not have a tradition as, for example, China, Japan, and the Netherlands once did – of seeing even human waste as a valuable product. The intense revulsion felt in India against things — and people — seen as ritually polluting is very rare elsewhere – and probably unique in its complexity and intensity.

Working with garbage is not a great job anywhere, but in some parts of the world, young people from top universities might take a summer job on the local garbage truck because the pay is not bad and the work is outdoors and without many rules. In India, ideas about caste and ritual purity predispose people to a sense that there are “others” — low-caste people, Dalits — who are destined to deal with tainted things.


Why is it important that a clean new India becomes a model for other parts of the world?
The planet’s population has more than quadrupled since 1900 from about 1.6 billion to more than 7 billion. In addition, a larger percentage of those people now consume more elaborate, energy-needing “stuff.” We are running out of the “stuff” to make things and places to put the “stuff” we do not want any more.

If India can make big strides in creating a more hygienic and sustainable environment, it will demonstrate that significant changes in people’s behavior and attitudes are possible. It will also emphasize the sorts of technologies and incentives that succeed in specific — and difficult — circumstances.


Could you discuss the role of the kabaadiwala in your book?
In India, everyone over 30 has a kabaadiwala story – the bicycle with big bags on the back and the cry of “Ka-baaaa-dee” to let you know the waste-collecting person – or “rag-and-bone man” – is coming to purchase things you might want to get rid of.

Other places had rag-and-bone men but lost the frugal habits of turning disposable things into cash through door-to-door transactions. It lingers in India, and the kabaadiwalas and their networks offer practical, working ways of “recycling.” The trick is to make such practices systematic and to use innovative technologies to deal with the “stuff” that is collected. These days, India has a patchwork of inventive success stories across the country. Now, the question is how do we multiply them and make them comprehensive?


In your book, you discuss the complex relationship between waste and class in India. How do these interplay?
How to measure class has always been controversial. However, the short answer would be that all classes in India consume and excrete to a degree — even the very poor may have a mobile phone, which is a disposable product. Over the last few decades, the penetration of consumer items through the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) economy has been remarkable. Small sachets of washing powder, biscuits, and pan masala, to name a few, saturate the landscape in some places. The FMCG economy is built on the principle of cheap goods sold in small quantities but in large volumes. It is an economy of scale that, as we know, produces enormous amounts of waste and with little thought about where it would end up.

The more affluent classes generate a different kind of waste, more in line with what is familiar to people in industrialized countries. Urbanization has also turbocharged waste production. A real-estate sector and infrastructure boom generates a lot of construction and demolition debris. This form of waste is often dumped in rivers and floodplains with little consideration of how to deal with it more effectively.


In your book description, you write, “If a clean new India is to emerge as a model for other parts of the world, a “binding morality” that reaches beyond the current environmental crisis will be required.” Could you discuss what you mean by a “binding morality” and how it might be fostered?

By “binding morality,” we mean a readiness of very large numbers of people of different backgrounds to recognize that “we are all in this together” and to treat others as “fellow passengers” rather than “ticketless travelers.”

We appear sometimes to get periods of “binding morality” after a “binding crisis” — a period of extreme danger and discomfort that seems to affect everyone, rich and poor, and that can only be ameliorated by overcoming status distinctions and working for some common goals. The Great Stink in London in 1858 was a “binding crisis.” The Thames stank putridly right underneath parliament, and parliament resolved to build a great sewage network and improve water supplies. In public health terms, these things benefited even the poor. We argue that the so-called “plague outbreak” in Surat in 1994 was a similar “binding crisis,” and led to Surat going from being India’s “dirtiest city” to one of its cleanest.


How does waste affect rural and urban communities differently?
In the old days, most of what rural places had to throw away was biodegradable. Wind, sun, rain, and foraging animals could handle it. Random defecation harmed health, which was not understood, and the important thing was that it was somewhere else — far away from one’s dwelling.

Even in the past, urban life made disposing of things more difficult, and urban life usually brings more “things” with it — packaging, for example, and limits on vacant spaces to defecate.

Today, many villages are part of great, sprawling cities and experiencing similar difficulties. As anyone in the FMCG trade will proudly tell you, disposable products are available everywhere. There are close to two billion mobile phones — dead ones and living ones — somewhere in India today. That is a lot of waste — or a lot of raw material for well-organized, semi-urban kabaadiwalas.


Do you see viable solutions in the near future? What role does (and will) technology play in waste management?
Some remarkable technologies can mitigate aspects of waste. Nevertheless, the danger lies in the attempt to implant single technical and organizational “solutions” that are supposed to work everywhere. Even something as simple as a rural toilet is a bit complicated: What is appropriate in Rajasthan will not work well in Kerala.

One example of new technologies is the work of an Indian scientist and his team at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. They have a process into production that takes discarded plastic, uses the heat from a steel mill to reduce the plastic to its chemical components and reconstitutes these into high-carbon bricks that go to fire the steel mill.

You can make arguments about plastic and carbon, but they are both going to be with us a while. Here is a way of keeping them out of landfills and water bodies, and reducing the need for increased extraction of fossil fuels.


On what scale will initial solutions need to take place? National, municipal or community?
The weight that the BJP government has thrown behind the Swachh Bharat program is important, but the negative side is that it is top-down and target-driven. There is an echo of the disastrous nasbandi (family planning) campaign of Mrs. Gandhi’s 1975-77 “emergency.”

If the national effort of Swachh Bharat is sustained and spends more time and effort on education, demonstration, and follow-up, the program over time will be immensely influential. However, relentless follow-up and demonstration are keys in the medium term.

Sustaining, educating, and following up, will have to be done by local governments, and local government in India is under-powered and under-valued. Huge expectations are placed on local governments that lack experienced, dedicated people, partly because the funds are not there to train and reward them fittingly. For most up-and-coming officers, local-government duty is something you do on the way to something else. But local government, and its connections with citizens, whether as NGOs or individual families, are crucial elements in the success of Swachh Bharat, because much of the day-to-day work falls on them.


How did the two of you collaborate to write this book? Could you describe your process of research and working together?
Assa is an anthropologist. Robin was trained as a historian but worked most of his career in a department called “Politics” — not “Government” and not “Political Science.” Our backgrounds are very different, but they seem to complement each other. We both were admirers of the work of Anthony Low and Barney Cohn — trying to bring the skills of anthropology together with the historical foundations on which people build their lives.

The way we have done research is like this: We broadly agree on things we need to know, and then we burrow away like truffle-hounds in areas of our expertise and write up our findings. Then we play ping-pong, sending fragments back and forth for the other one to work on, question, or cry out in horror. Then, a skeleton of the chapters begins to suggest itself, and we move the main bones around a lot; perhaps we are a pair of wannabe Dr. Frankensteins. However, we hope this book, and the one we did on mobile phones, do not end up in the horror section of the library.