A westerner who knows nothing else about India is likely to have at least heard of the country’s “sacred cows,” which roam crowded cities and answer to no masters but themselves.1 While it is true that Hindus refrain from eating beef on religious grounds, India’s street cattle serve an important practical purpose apart from their religious significance. In Indian cities, towns, and rural areas, cows and other animal scavengers consume organic waste that might otherwise become a breeding-ground for diseases. Despite the religious proscriptions against killing cows, animal scavengers are by no means unique to India. In the nineteenth century, feral hogs performed the same task in American cities.2

A well-fed goat picks through offerings at a temple in Guwahati.

A well-fed goat picks through offerings at a temple in Guwahati.

A trash pile in Guwahati, with a feral hog rooting through it.

A trash pile in Guwahati, with a feral hog rooting through it.

Scavengers do a useful job, by removing and repurposing materials that would otherwise go unused. Street cattle produce dung that is used as a low-grade fuel source. In a similar fashion, human scavengers sort through waste—both organic and inorganic—in search of items of use. This is another task that is not unique to India, and was practiced on a large scale in the West as recently as a century ago.3 Richard Farmer wrote that societies go though phases of wasting, from the poor, underdeveloped society where junk goes unused, to the society of affluence and cheap goods, where waste is generated in such quantities that it piles up and does not go to any use. In between is the intermediary society, where labor is cheap but materials are expensive, which means that items that broken items get repaired or repurposed.4 Modern India is an intermediate society, where much of what a westerner might consider worthless waste gets reused in another form.

Cow dung drying on a wall in Varanasi.

Cow dung drying on a wall in Varanasi.

As an example of the reuse of materials in India, expat blogger Dave Praeger relates that empty liquor bottles found new uses after he and his wife discarded them outside of his flat in Delhi. Sheila, the building’s maid, saved the Praegers’ liquor bottles and sold them to a kabadiwallah, a scrap-dealer. (Kabadiwallahs are twenty-first century Indian counterparts to nineteenth-century American ragpickers, who collected rags for reprocessing into paper.) The liquor bottles would find their way to stores, where customers would buy them and fill them with cheaper brands of liquor for serving to less-honored guests.5

Rickshaws and Pepsi bottles find new uses in modern-day Kolkata (Calcutta).

Rickshaws and Pepsi bottles find new uses in modern-day Kolkata (Calcutta).

Scavenging takes place at the end as well as the beginning of the waste stream. Since being featured in the Dominique Lapierre novel The City of Joy, the Kolkata (Calcutta) dump has gained international notoriety for the trash scavenging that takes place there.6 The Calcutta Telegraph reported in 2011 that hundreds of children make a living from scavenging through the city’s Dhapa dump. The children sell their scavenged plastic and metal for Rs. 20 or 30 each day. The scavenging work is dirty and dangerous, and many of the children turn to tobacco and alcohol before the age of ten.7

Kevin Lynch notes in Wasting Away that contact with waste is socially polluting and therefore degrading. Lynch quotes V.S. Naipaul describing sweepers at work in India. After the sweepers had passed, the floor was as dirty as it had been before. According to Naipaul, the purpose of the sweepers was not to clean, but to be degraded.8 The quote reminds me an episode from my sojourn in northeast India. Returning to the Garo Hills from a shopping expedition in Guwahati, I stopped with my friends at a dhaba (roadside restaurant) on the Goalpara Road. After we had take our seats at a dirty metal table, a weary-looking boy came over to our table and wiped it down with a rag. His cleaning was completely ineffective at first; like the sweepers that Naipaul observed, he left the table as dirty as he had found it. Only after one of my friends had snapped at the boy several times did he actually clean the table.

  1. A 2006 “News Brief” in the spoof newspaper The Onion mentioned among the hazards on Air India flights: “wandering cows that flight attendants refuse to remove.” “Air India Now Offers Business Caste Seating,” The Onion, http://www.theonion.com/articles/air-india-now-offers-business-caste-seating,5247/ (accessed April 4, 2012). For mid-twentieth-century American conceptions of Indian cows, see Andrew J. Rotter, Comrades at Odds: The United States and India, 1947-1964 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 17-18. []
  2. Martin V. Melosi, Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 18. []
  3. See Susan Strasser, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999), 114-118. []
  4. Cited in Kevin Lynch and Michael Southworth, Wasting Away (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990), 68-69. []
  5. Dave Praeger, “The Economy of Our Empties,” Our Delhi Struggle, http://ourdelhistruggle.com/2009/08/13/economy-of-empties/ (accessed April 5, 2012). []
  6. See Dominique Lapierre, The City of Joy, trans. Kathryn Spink (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 401-408. Both the book and subsequent movie versions of City of Joy came under criticism for perpetuating western conceptions of Kolkata as the symbol of overwhelming poverty. Jeffrey N. Dupée, Traveling India in the Age of Gandhi (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008), 108-109. Despite the backlash against the book, street sellers in Kolkata sell Indian-printed copies of City of Joy. []
  7. Samhita, “Childhood lost in garbage dump,” The Telegraph (Calcutta), September 7, 2011, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1110907/jsp/calcutta/story_14441140.jsp (accessed April 5, 2012). []
  8. Lynch, Wasting Away, 16-17. []