State, Labour and Sanitation: Making and Unmaking of Sanitation Worker
July 2021- January 2022
In modern India’s push towards urbanisation, public sanitation has always been a contentious issue, taking into account the fact that “untouchables” continue to perform this task despite technological advances and changes in social structures. This forces us to question the relations between capital, labour and state authority, in particular the role of the State in maintaining the tension between the identity of a municipal sanitation employee and that of a marginal. For many years, municipal sanitation work in Jaipur provided employment stability to Balmiki caste groups, while at the same time giving them a particular identity as caste-cum-occupational-class group, which set them apart from other untouchable groups within the city. However, since the early 1980s, following a sharp decline in municipal labour recruitment, sanitation work has witnessed a growing contractualisation and informalisation. Since 2017, the addition of a private company for door-to-door garbage collection has established yet another system of labour production. While the privatisation process competes directly with existing practices of waste recovery and recycling, it is not always a smooth process as its functioning relies on the private company’s relations with the municipal corporations, the state government as well as with the workforce. The diversity of contracts has had an impact on existing labour relations leading to the accentuation of internal class hierarchies between permanent and temporary labour forces. Moreover, and in the absence of organised municipal labour movement, it has reinvigorated old caste identities of Balmiki, which reinform and take over institutional identities. These changes raise a number of questions which focus on the forms of employment that have replaced the old municipal regimes, how has it led to the disappearance of organised labour movements, how workers have experienced their transformed economic, and in turn social, positions and how experiences of unemployment and casual labour reframe the memory and representation of municipal work. By exploring the relationship between work, marginality and self-identity in the Jaipur Municipal Corporation, my project illustrates how the relationship between the state and sanitation labour is fluid, the terms of dominance and servitude ever changing. Moreover, the changes in forms of employment lead to a revival and reinvigoration of caste identity of Balmiki, which is used to act as a formal barrier regulating entry not only of its own caste members but also of other Scheduled Castes (SC), Hindu and Muslim groups, who are more and more willing to take up sanitation jobs.
Gayatri Jai Singh Rathore is an urban ethnographer trained at Sciences Po-CERI, Paris. She teaches at the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences at the University of Lille, France. Her research interests are focused on urban citizenship and infrastructures in contemporary Jaipur, India where she has conducted research on municipal sanitation workers and waste privatization. Other research projects are centered on e-waste in Delhi; wastefulness, recovery and reuse of food waste in Paris as well as art discards through the “récupérathèques” in the art schools in Brussels and in France.