27 February, 2021

Sifting Truth From Dross

A multi-focal reading of the complex world of scavengers

Sanjay Rawat
Sifting Truth From Dross

Corpses, cloth stained with menstrual blood, excrement, carcasses of dead animals—this age-old list of polluting things that require ritually prescribed disposal now includes the detritus of modern consumerism and industrial manufacture. Radioactive waste, industrial effluents, product packaging and cast-off computers figure among the fast-multiplying discards of contemporary India. But though materials change, the men, women and children who manage our mountains of waste remain the same and so does their position in the social hierarchy. Even as old-style pollution continues to be dealt with by social groups—Dom, Dhobi, Bhangi, Chamar—consigned to the bottom by a caste society that stigmatises their work and their persons, the trash-heaps of India Shining emerge as the new commons from which Dalit communities glean a living.

As Of Poverty and Plastic, Kaveri Gill’s informative book on the plastic recycling trade in Delhi, points out, dealing with other people’s shit has always been low-status...

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