Dr. Shireen Mirza

Caste and Urban Infrastructure: Waste-work and animal slaughter on the margins of Mumbai

1 January 2021 – 1 July 2021

Research Description:

My book explores the role of caste in making Indian cities, with a focus on Mumbai. I am interested in understanding the relationship between caste and capitalism to study the framing of stigmatized labour as surplus labour to service the growing demands of the urbanizing context. Arriving at a philosophical understanding of stigma as both transcendental and distinct in ways stigma is central to urban sanitation, the project undertakes a historical ethnography of the landfill and slaughterhouse as sites that mobilize a distinction between pure and impure bodies, labours and communities that animate the materiality of its infrastructure. This is done by interlinking spaces, objects and social hierarchies to understand how meanings get attached to certain labour, spaces and materials associated with waste and animal slaughter as ‘disgusting’. In this sense, I study the materiality of waste and meat, disposal and slaughtering techniques, as well as the bodies of labouring communities as distinctly regenerative of caste as an urban structure. Waste and animal slaughter become an archive to reveal how space is produced through the exercise of power and politics, how epistemic boundaries that define risk and pollution are formed, and how social hierarchies are restated. In doing so my aim is three-fold. First, to describe parallel spatial histories of the landfill and the slaughterhouse as sites produced through the colonial disciplining that govern and classify the senses to create orderly civic space. Second, bringing in perspectives from science and technology studies – that interrogate modern ontologies that split nature from culture, object from subject, and knowledge from value — I argue for stigma as a residual category that frames the design of waste technology and animal slaughtering techniques. Third, to read parallels and different trajectories of forging working-class Dalit and Muslim identities, in which the Dalit identity emerges as politically mainstream, while Muslim identity emerges through the loss of caste as a religious identity that is politically exceptional. Yet both forms of labour I am looking at, that is, waste-work and animal slaughter, are bound or locked into caste identities, where stigma as the residual frames sanitary infrastructure and sustains the materiality of Mumbai’s sanitary infrastructure.


Shireen Mirza is currently an assistant professor at the Department of Social Science and Humanities at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi. She completed her PhD in Anthropology and Sociology from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2011. Her areas of interest include urban anthropology, ecology, religion, waste, anthropocene; climate change; sociology of risk, science, technology & society; stigma and contamination; labour and ritual practices.

Previously, she taught at Ambedkar University (Delhi) and at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has also worked as a visiting research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi and as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the ‘Urban Aspirations’ project at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (Gottingen). She is a recipient of the International Fellowship awarded by the Urban Studies Foundation, Visiting Research Fellowship at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) and Berlin Graduate School Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS, Germany) and has been a Charles Wallace India Fellow. Her publications in 2019 include ‘Becoming Waste: Three Moments in the Life of Landfills in Mumbai City’ in Economic and Political Weekly RUA special issue on ‘Waste and Pollution’, edited by Amita Baviskar and Vinay Gidwani, as well as ‘Politics of Waste and Social Inequalities in Indian Cities’ in Oxford Bibliographies in 2020. She has also published in Contributions to Indian Sociology, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society and several other peer-reviewed journals.

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