Few economists have studied the informal economy of waste in all its dimensions, but Barbara Harriss-White – emeritus professor of development studies, senior research fellow in the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies and emeritus fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford ­– is an exception.

Much of her research, on production, markets, the state, wellbeing and deprivation, has centred on India. She is now studying the political economy of waste in a town of 70,000 people in Tamil Nadu.

In Bengaluru recently for a conference on the indispensable informal economy of waste, she spoke to Scroll.in.

India’s informal economy accounts for 93% of its livelihoods and, according to the National Council for Applied Economic Research, contributes to 60% of the Gross Domestic Product. Waste work is growing rapidly within the informal economy.

A 2013 study in Nature magazine said that South Asia, mainly India, will be the fastest-growing region in the world for waste by 2025. Roughly, a third of the waste in India is agricultural, another third industrial and the remaining household. Urban India produces roughly 260,000 tonnes of waste every day.

Caste plays a central role in the waste economy of the town Harriss-White is researching which, for obvious reasons, she is reluctant to name.

Among the unorganised informal workforce, Dalits predominate alongside very poor tribal waste-gatherers. Four of every 10 municipal workers engaged in disposing of waste in this town are Dalit, three out of 10 are scheduled tribes, while the rest are backward castes, other backward castes and most backward castes. Their work feeds the private waste recycling, bottle recycling, reprocessing and bagging businesses which tend to be owned by Nadars, higher up the ladder, while the emerging second-hand market for re-use is dominated by Muslims.

The town has about 130 public sector employees in sanitation work. They are entitled to complete work rights but even those are being eroded. In other state-controlled sectors such as government liquor stores that generate huge quantities of waste glass, employees may be “permanently casualised”.

The disposal of human excrement is officially state-regulated but it’s not so on the ground. Human waste in the town is now mixed with general consumption waste in open drains and headed for the dumpyard. Faecal sludge from septic tanks is dumped untreated in open spaces. They are not regulated by the municipality though the owners of septic tankers are fined by the police for dumping waste.

Excerpts from the interview:

Despite economic liberalisation and a high growth rate, forms of informal labour still prevail in the waste economy.
It is perhaps seen as India’s competitive advantage – to produce at very low wages in an unregulated market. There are far more livelihoods in self-employment than in wage work. This is not reflected in public discussion. Will what has served India so far serve it in the 21st century?

The waste economy of the town you are studying seems particularly interesting since no one has perhaps done a micro-study of such employment yet…
I don’t want to indulge in any finger-pointing. I don’t want to condemn the town in particular for what I find there – I believe it is quite representative. I have studied another town in northern Tamil Nadu, and intended the town I’m now studying to serve as a dress rehearsal for it. But within a week I realised that it’s so complicated that I decided to stay put; I feel I’ve only scratched the surface.

Is the privatisation of the waste labour force confined to the municipality?
No. It is happening in the hospitals and railways too. Historically, Indian Railways used to have an in-house labour force cleaning the stations. They were registered, with social security and work rights. Now, neo-liberalism, financial pressures and new public management have combined to force these public bodies to subcontract these services. This is relatively new.

The conditions under which this force has been privatised are important. There’s a dramatic deterioration in wages and terms of service from, say, Rs 20,000 a month to less than half of that with no entitlements. The quality of their work hasn’t slipped: you can fry an egg on the station platforms, they are so clean, though there’s a lot of shit on the tracks. So, to maintain their incomes, informal segregating work is bolted into the lives of these workers.

For every formal job, there are 10-15 employed in the informal sector?
Something like that perhaps. In addition to the regular, formal and informal labour forces, the waste economy is a huge labour sponge for people desperate for work who can’t find jobs elsewhere. There is quite big money to be made in the waste economy by the top dealers. But you can eke out a subsistence living here if you’ve been chased out of your village when you have broken rules and forfeited the right to be dependent on others.

You talked of social expulsion. Is it greatest when it comes to human waste?
My understanding, after my field work in 2015, is that dry latrines and manual scavenging were abolished in Tamil Nadu in the early 1990s. No manual scavenging means no inheritable job passing from mother to daughter. What replaces it?

This is a town that is expanding rapidly; it isn’t a poor town. Yet only half the households have septic tanks. With these, drain-pipes are built at an inclination which carries the urine and faecal waste into the drain. What remains is the faecal sludge, which should be voided every five years.

People don’t do this – they void it once every 25 years or when it breaks down or when there’s going to be a family festival. The septic tank service is private, and is no longer contracted to the municipality. Human waste isn’t treated; it’s carried away by tanker and dumped on river banks or ponds.

The other half doesn’t own septic tanks. I’m going back to confirm that their human waste finds its way into the open drains between houses, where it mixes with consumption waste, a disgusting mixture, which the municipal sanitation workers have to deal with.

All-India, the untreated product of the septic tanks which have replaced manual scavenging is said to be responsible for 80% of India’s surface water pollution.

Municipal workers classify dry waste as women’s work and wet waste as men’s. Faecal waste has gone from being a woman’s specialised responsibility to becoming a general one for men employed by the municipality.

Is there a taboo about using human waste as fertiliser in fields?
A 2008 study showed that there are some 20 million hectares of farm land fertilised with mostly untreated human waste worldwide. This includes China and Vietnam, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, a total of 200 million farmers. It also happens in India.

The disposal of all waste seems a really huge problem. What can be done about it?
Many solid waste management manuals list processing technologies. It’s a bit like climate change, where we are always told that the technologies exist. But using these in the informal economy poses two questions.

One is that the technical manuals pay little to no attention to labour. It’s the same in the EU. For example, when Turkey joins, it is faced with EU regulations which displace workers. This is exactly what I found in my field-work. If the guidelines are followed, very large numbers of people will lose livelihoods with nowhere else to go. We don’t mainstream the costs of such displacement and of the provision of alternative work. I would insert victims’ compensation into the discussions of technology and policy.

Bezwada Wilson, a Tamil Nadu campaigner against manual scavenging, has made this point: it is one thing to end this practice but quite another to reskill such people to find other jobs, like driving auto-rickshaws. The new technologies are capital-based, like all new technologies. The authorities are mostly clueless about how many people would be displaced by improvements “in the public interest” – this enormous invisible labour force that’s not registered.

The other thing I learned is that retrofitting technologies is going to be so expensive that it will have to be at public cost. Where is that money coming from? Municipalities face the problem of tax evasion just as the nation faces capital flight.

Let’s not only point to those who evade property tax at a municipal level. It is systemic; it’s happening throughout India. Corporations hide their income, as do those who should pay commercial taxes. It’s not easy to put an elastoplast over this. But the state is being starved of resources which could be used, amongst other things, for new infrastructure for waste.

I don’t see concern for informal labour and settlements reflected in the guidelines for disposing of waste. That’s one discovery provoked from field work.

How did your four-decades-long research in India begin?
I came to India in 1969 when I was a student mountaineer in Cambridge. I and my to-be husband, John Harriss, were invited to the Himalayas. We drove to India in an old van and climbed in Kishtwar. We had to cross Punjab in the third year of the green revolution. I had already been reading agricultural science and economics.

BH Farmer, who set up the Centre for South Asian Studies in Cambridge, had visited the Planning Commission and brought back raw data on the green revolution and shared these statistics for my dissertation. So after that, driving through Punjab was extremely exciting; it was a life-changing experience. I found the drama of market places quite intoxicating and found not much had been written about them, so I began to plough my lifetime furrow. Most of my research has been in two districts of Tamil Nadu and two districts of West Bengal.

The governing question that has threaded its way through years of field research is the relationship between agrarian structure and functioning of markets. That led me to towns, to aspects of deprivation, and its relationship with markets. From looking at India, I realised that every activity produces waste but it wasn’t till I retired that I was able to embark on field-work on it.