Matter in Motion: Work and Livelihoods in India’s Economy of Waste

  • Barbara Harriss-WhiteEmail author


All human society produces waste matter which has no value: in the circuits of capital in production, distribution, consumption, the production of labour and the reproduction of society. Some waste matter remains without value indefinitely, and other regains value in reuse, recycling and reprocessing. India’s waste sector is one of the fastest growing in the world. This chapter analyses the livelihoods and life worlds generated by liquid and solid wastes in the circuits of capital of a small town in South India. It combines the analysis of 84 such livelihoods with four workers’ own descriptions, chosen to represent the livelihoods and life worlds of the public sector salariat, informal wage work, self-employment and petty capital. The workforce is disproportionately Dalit and Adivasi. Conditions are dangerous, and the work is extremely hard. Formal contracts prove incomplete and informal labour depends on patronage, discretion and bonding. This chapter concludes with reflections on incomes and social stigma in this sector.


Waste India Poverty Informal work Formal work Social discrimination 



The fieldwork reported here has been supported by a British ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) grant to the London School of Economics’s (LSE) project on Poverty and Inequality ( The essay does not represent the views of either the LSE or the ESRC. I am grateful to Alpa Shah who directs the LSE project and to Gilbert Rodrigo who carried out the field research with me.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Oxford UniversityOxfordUK

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