How Kabariwalas Persist: The Changing Nature of Labor in High-value Recycling Markets in Urban India

Talk by Aman Luthra (Geography, George Washington University)

Similar to many countries around the world, recycling in Indian cities is sustained by a large population of informal workers who collect, transport, and trade in recyclable materials to eke out a meager living. One group of workers in this sector—waste-pickers who extract low-value recyclables from waste along its journey from source to sink—has garnered policy and scholarly attention. Another group–variously referred to as kabariwalas and raddiwalas who buy high-value recyclables from waste generators—has largely eluded the attention of scholars and policymakers alike. As a result, while there are policy safeguards in place for certain categories of waste-pickers, kabariwalas have been left vulnerable to market forces and have largely been ignored by policymakers. For instance, over the past decade, a number of new startup firms using online, mobile platforms are providing the same kinds of recycling collection services that kabariwalas have traditionally delivered. This talk will present the findings of five months of field research conducted as a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar in Delhi in 2023, which describes and analyzes how kabariwalas are navigating the fast-changing and complex landscape of the urban recycling sector. Unlike waste-pickers who have been able to organize and carve a space for their inclusion in official waste management policies, kabariwalas remain largely unorganized. Without collective organizations asking for state intervention aimed at protecting their livelihoods, kabadiwalas might be forced to compete against new corporate actors with vastly different amounts of resources and capacities at their disposal.

Aman Luthra is Assistant Professor of Geography at the George Washington University. He teaches courses in political ecology, development geography, and the geography of South Asia. Dr. Luthra received his Ph.D. from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD in 2015. He also holds an M.A. in Geography and an M.P.A. from Syracuse University. His research focuses on the changing landscape of labor and capital in the waste management sector in urban India, with a particular emphasis on informal workers in this industry. In addition to research on urban waste management, Dr. Luthra is also involved in an interdisciplinary collaborative project using citizen science to understand changing patterns of pollinator diversity and abundance in and around apple orchards in Uttarakhand, India. His research has been funded by Fulbright, the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Dr. Luthra has published articles in several journals in geography including Antipode, Geographical Review, Geoforum, Progress in Environmental Geography, and Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space and E: Nature and Space.

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