The Department of Sociology, School of Social Sciences under the auspices of UGC-SAP, organised a lecture by the Oxford University scholar, Emeritus Professor Barbara Harriss-White, on September 22nd 2015 at the School of Humanities Auditorium. The professor, who has been researching the capitalist economy in small town India since 1969, spoke on the topic of ‘The Indispensability of Informality in an Urban Economy: Narratives of Waste’. The field work for which she conducted in an undisclosed small town, with an official population of about 70,000, in Tamil Nadu, during early 2015.

barbara harriss

Prof. Harriss-White began her talk by stating that capitalist India was the fastest growing ‘waste’ producer in the world. All this waste in the form of viz. production waste, distribution waste, consumption waste and reproductive waste are dumped without much consideration towards the ecological and social hazards they might bring forth. She further argued that work on and with ‘waste’ both as a research topic as well as a livelihood option is stigmatised, both in India and elsewhere. However, it is a fast growing economy in the process of capitalist accumulation. As capital, both organised and unorganised, do not pay for its safe disposal.

Continuing with her studies on the interlinkages between the informal and the formal economy, Prof. Harriss-White argued that waste management in India is plagued with informal labour contracts and privatisation of labour. This means that for every 1 person in the permanent position as a sanitary worker, there are atleast 15-16 casual workers. This gap is increasingly widening, as for every permanent employee who retires, no new positions are created in the formal sector. Here, the relationship between the informal economy and the formal becomes important, as the work gets transferred to the casual worker (e.g. a rag picker). These casual workers deal with all kinds of waste products in highly hazardous conditions, for a pittance. The working hours for these workers have only increased with time.

However, with diminishing returns from these works, they are branching their work hours into multiple jobs to get atleast a sustainable level of income, all in the informal economy. Finally, Prof. Harriss-White argued that in the absence of any state regulation these labour contracts are socially regulated, with caste, ethnicity, language and region playing a crucial role, both in terms of recruitment and wage payments.