Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview: Economist and Author Kaveri Gill

On Tuesday, we reviewed Kaveri Gill's book, Of Poverty and Plastic. Gill uses an interdisciplinary approach to poverty analysis in the Indian plastic recycling industry.  In the process, she gives us important insights into the ways in which poverty, development and the environment interact in urban India. You can read our review here; we think that Of Poverty and Plastic is a rigorous, ambitious book that will be appreciated by both activists and academics alike.  Today, we are pleased to follow up our review with an interview with the author.

Tell us how you became interested in plastic recycling in the first place. 
Well, more than plastic recycling, as an economist I have always been interested in poverty and employment / labour markets. And in fact, that remains the key focus of the book, as suggested by the title, which alludes to Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men' and its themes of poverty during the Depression, migrant workers, and their dreams of a better life. Informal plastic recycling, as one of many informal sectors, provides a 'free' livelihood to lots of migrants to the city in the context of liberalisation , and I was struck by the great irony of these people - especially those at the lowest levels of the chain - not passively accepting of their poverty and expecting handouts, but instead exerting great agency through a market to better their lot in life, even as they contribute to the greening of the city. And yet they come up against an unhelpful state, and prejudiced judiciary and civil society.  

Your book is based on interviews, surveys and focus groups conducted in slums and markets where many of Delhi's plastic workers live and work . Can you tell us a little about that experience? Any moments or lessons that stand out for you in particular?
Well, I spent more than fifteen months at a stretch in the slums of Jwalapuri and the Mundka recycling market, a decade ago now.....and have returned regularly since. During this time, I have made good friends, and really seen the view from the other side. The thing that struck me most, and remains with me, is how the opposite of powerless and passive these people are in accepting the deal handed out to them by life. As development economists and specialists, we spend our lives hearing about the importance of the poor 'exerting agency and voice'. And that is exactly what these people have painfully wrested for themselves. In a context where they are given no security and certainty about the legality of their slum plots, are rarely the recipients of regular service delivery of water or electricity -- ironically, they are underserved by the municipality as regards solid waste management and are instead themselves the free providers of the same! -- have no access to the formal labour market or any social security from the state, they have managed to painfully negotiate all of the above through creating this informal sector work, and establishing hegemony over it, thus gaining some measure of economic and political power. This they use to overcome the social stigma they face on the ground of their doing 'polluting' work, in a ritual as opposed to environmental, sense!  

You argue that middle class urban environmentalists tend to privilege “green agenda” issues like climate change and biodiversity over what what you call “brown agenda” issues like safe water, sanitation and housing. Do you see these agendas as exclusive, or is their room for common ground?
Well, I don't see the 'green' and 'brown' agenda as mutually exclusive. By all means, let the middle classes be concerned with both! But in privileging the former over the latter, we are in danger of internally reflecting the developed country / developing country hierarchy and divide so clearly in evidence at Copenhagen. Our elites and expanding middle classes cannot wish away the 50% of the other half forming our largest metropolitan cities, like Mumbai and Delhi. And unless we take their basic needs -- housing, safe water, sanitation -- into account as a matter of priority, even as we increase our own conspicuous consumption, we are setting ourselves up for great inequality and trouble.  

Your portrayal of waste pickers and the small godown owners for whom they work is complex, but you seem to agree that society could do better by them. Given extremely low margins of profit in this commodity chain, is it possible to imagine an effective system of plastic recycling that provided these workers with a better standard of living?
Yes, first, the state and judiciary and civil society shouldn't hinder the work they are doing. If we can't help them, leave them alone - but don't create unnecessary obstacles and hurdles by banning the recycling (again, great irony but no surprises there, we have never considered banning the primary production and consumption, which would solve the environmental problem far more effectively!), by requiring they fulfill expensive regulatory requirements which would render this low value added industry economically unviable (like printing recycled content and polymer type on each product, which even the primary industry is not yet enforced to do, as it is in industrialised countries!)

If we want to help them improve their standard of living, then there are means -- give them technological aid; make banking and microfinance loans available to them etc.

You point out that lion's share of the job growth that has occurred in the past 20 years has occurred in the informal sector. You seem ambivalent about this. On the one hand, the informal sector has been the source of a lot of innovation in areas like plastic recycling; and in many cases it does the work the state seem incapable of doing. On the other hand, informal sector work offers little security, and often reinforces the "hard bar" of caste. Do you see a way out of this? 
Let me be clear about my position on the informal sector. The reality is, it accounts for 93% of the labour force in our country at present. In an ideal world, it would be far less and many more would have formal sector employment, with social security and other benefits. But we are far from that point. In the meantime, none of my informal waste worker groups fall below the official state poverty line for Delhi, not even the waste pickers working on dumps. This is perhaps the most key finding of my book, yet it has been overlooked by many. This means they are not eligible for any handouts from the state. It is against this backdrop, and in this context, that they are delivered to the doors of the informal plastic recycling 'market' to survive and make a living for themselves. To take that away from them without offering a viable alternative is to consign them to the life of even greater destitution. Of course, one hopes in the long run, as the economy grows and develops, and more numbers are able to participate and benefit from an inclusive economy, this kind of work dies a natural death, as it did in post-industrial societies of the west. In the meantime, let them survive through an independent, and in it's own way, dignified employment and market opportunity. 

To find find out more about Of Poverty and Plastic see  review from Tuesday.  There you will also find out how you can enter our contest to win a free (and well-used) copy of the book--but hurry, you've got less than two weeks!  Want a brand new copy?  Here are the links you need:
Buy Of Poverty and Plastic in the UK from Amazon

Don't forget to celebrate to India's refusal to allow Bt Brinjal into the country!  If it hadn't been for the thousands and thousands of people who marched, testified, fasted and petitioned, the outcome would have almost certainly been different.  Hats off to the people who worked so hard to make this victory possible.


  1. Great interview! I hope her book get lots of attention outside of India.

  2. fantastic read! thanks HB, will be coming back to read this again.

  3. @plastic and anu-- thanks for stopping by. It's one of those subjects I find fascinating. In some ways trash is what India does best--and worst.

  4. She is a pioneer in her area of work..and has developed into a great economist.Very insightful book indeed!


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