Spaces of Waste | Invisible Cities

Oct 2015

Invisible Cities | BLOG

 

Filth, refuse, trash, and waste of all kinds are consistent and unwanted features of the urban landscape in Lahore. Despite its ubiquity, waste material is a thing that must be moved, whether from a household, commercial establishment, mohalla, or even a street, to an elsewhere. It is constantly in motion, being moved from one space to another. But waste must be (re)moved by someone. One of the most obvious routes that this material takes is from points of waste collection by garbage compactors to the dumping site at Mehmood Booti. However, there are other, less visible routes that this movement takes. Tracing these kinds of routes makes visible much more than the movement itself. It brings into the limelight how waste is tied to, and is a product of, uneven development of space within Lahore. The underlying question is: how is space differentiated so that waste is invisible in some spaces while, in others, it accumulates and shapes the kind of work, social relations, and life of those who move it?

 

Lahore is estimated to produce anywhere between 3,800 to 5,000 tons of waste on a daily basis. Though an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus exists to move this material to a dumpsite, an equally important network consisting of – what are usually glossed over as – “informal” waste collectors [1] exists to support this movement. This term is a placeholder for those who collect waste from private spaces, such as households or commercial establishments, on a gaddha gardee (donkey cart) and reside in jhuggees – informal settlements consisting of clusters of tent-like homes. These waste collectors are often placed into the category of Khanna Badosh in which several subcastes exist (Chungar, Nau-Muslim, Musali, Muslim Sheikh, Oudh, etc.).

 

Gaddha Gardee with waste that has been collected from households in the Kot Lakhpat area.

Gaddha Gardee with waste that has been collected from households in the Kot Lakhpat area.

 

 Waste deposited in a jhuggee

Waste deposited in a jhuggee

 

A sizable settlement of jhuggees is located near Multan Road, close to Thokar Niaz Baig, and has developed over the past 30 years along with the rest of the city. These groups have been forcibly removed from their settlements during this time through a cycle of displacement and resettlement. Many inside this settlement trace their movement from Data Sahib to Icchra to Yateem Khanna and several other points between Multan Road and Wahdat Road. While previous settlements were on land owned by the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), the city’s primary planning agency, the contemporary settlements are located on private land, ensuring them some protection from the whims of the LDA. At the same time, they are forced to pay rent, approximately 1,500 rupees, to landowners in addition to payments for services such as an electricity connection, access to water, and a cable line. The growth of the jhugees is connected, in social and material ways, to development going on elsewhere in the city.

 

Each morning an exodus of waste collectors, on gaddha gardees or refitted motorbikes, leave this settlement and traverse the city to collect waste from various locations throughout Lahore, in areas stretching from Gulshan-e-Ravi and Township to Shadman and Gulberg. Establishing turf over an area, to ensure that they are the sole collectors of waste in that designated space, depends on a number of factors.  There are two ways in which turf is established. In some areas, since LDA owns the land that will be developed into a housing project, waste collectors are oftentimes already living there, as this is previously undeveloped, government land. Because of their presence, they can easily make contact and formalize relations with households in regards to waste removal. If waste collectors are not already present, households typically just throw their waste away in other nearby plots that have not yet been developed. These open plots full of waste draw the attention of waste collectors to the area, and as they carry out their work, they make contact with and, over time, build relations with households but more importantly, members of local bodies, such as the Union Council, Market and Traders Associations, and other influential groups. Members of such bodies provide, in some instances, waste collectors with a statement printed on official letterhead that they can then present to others in that designated area, giving them authority and support. As relations are formed and maintained with households in a particular area, waste, especially recyclables, will move in regular, interrupted flows from more developed to less developed areas of the city.

 

Low quality unsorted paper in khabardee located next to the jhuggee

Low quality unsorted paper in khabardee located next to the jhuggee

The more successful waste collectors establish control over multiple areas with anywhere between 150 – 200 households. Others are not as lucky and remove waste from as few as 50 households. The amount paid for their services depends upon the socioeconomic makeup of particular areas. This is why housing blocks in Gulberg, ahigh-income neighborhood in Lahore, pay as much as 500 rupees per month while a mohalla in Kot Lakhpat, a working class neighborhood, pays as little as 80 rupees per month. The socioeconomic makeup of particular areas matters for recyclables too. Those at higher income levels have higher levels of consumption in general but also dispose particularly valuable recyclable materials, such as PET bottles, cardboard packaging, and high quality paper. The combination of “service charges” and recyclables constitute the monetary value of this work. Yet, many waste collectors have been removing waste from one area since childhood and through time have built trust and intimacy with households. Doors are left open for them so they can go in uninterrupted and remove trash bins. Households also regularly give out food and clothing, while waste collectors borrow money for costs related to health and illness, weddings, and funerals. There is a hierarchical relation of dependence between waste collectors and households, in which work (in the form of services) is exchanged for monetary value (in the form of a service charge and recyclables). This monetary exchange is formed around and through affective relations of intimacy, trust, and even care between them. This is the way in which distinct spaces within the city become materially and socially linked with one another as waste is moved.

 

Work is organized around this material in a very specific way. Not only is the labor power of immediate and extended kin relations exploited, waste collectors who have multiple areas draw upon the labor power of others in the settlement, and in exchange, give them either daily wages or recyclables. The potential monetary value of recyclables is significant in many ways. As they collect waste, waste collectors immediately remove recyclables and place it in a large synthetic bag (“kit”). The remainder is dumped into the municipal department’s containers (adding to their daily waste collection statistics). Recyclables are brought back to the jhuggee where they are deposited and sorted – something that is carried out mostly by female kin relations. Many jhuggees have mounds of recyclables of different kinds that are incrementally sorted. Some sell it on a daily basis, acting almost as a source of daily wages, while others hold on to it, accumulating and then selling it offer for a greater return.

 

Recyclables of various kinds in khabardee located next to the jhuggee. Owner of the khabardee sitting in the foreground.

Recyclables of various kinds in khabardee located next to the jhuggee. Owner of the khabardee sitting in the foreground.

The jhugee is one of the primary spaces through which this material moves. After being sorted it is sold off to one of the innumerable junkyards (kabardhian) found throughout the settlement. These junkyards sort this material further and then, sell it off to a middleman (beopari) that owns a warehouse (gawdam) where more sorting happens so that this material can be sold off, once again, to different kinds of units (mills, factories, and foundries). The jhuggee acts as a transit point for goods that have been disposed of (recyclables) that supply various industries (paper, plastics, and metal) with raw material, which will then used in the production of more goods. Tracing the movement of waste details how spaces that are differentiated through uneven development are, in fact, dependent in critical ways. For life to be sustainable in either of these spaces, waste must be in constant motion. This is true as much for a kothi in Gulberg that pays a waste collector for their services as it is for a jhugee that sells recyclables to a junkyard on Multan Road. After all, the jhuggee is a household as well.

 

[1]  A senior official recently estimated that almost 40% of this material is collected by the “informal” sector.

 

Waqas Butt is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at University of California, San Diego and is currently finishing his fieldwork into the infrastructures of waste and recycling in contemporary Lahore. His broader research interests include bureaucracies, labor/work, and development in South Asia.

Invisible Cities is a Tanqeed blog that seeks to explore alternative discourses on the urban question in cities of the Global South. For pitches and submissions to the blog, please contact fizzah.sajjad@gmail.com, halabashirmalik@gmail.com and editors@tanqeed.org. 

 

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