Assa Doron's book bags the SASAA President’s Inaugural Book Prize for 2018–19

25th November 2020

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“Never in history have so many people had so much to throw away and so little space to throw it as the people of India in the second decade of the 21st century.” — Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey

In 2012, Professor Assa Doron visited Seelampur in northeast Delhi, India, where electronic waste is recycled. The visit threw up nagging questions, and this led to the genesis of a four-year-long journey by Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey to explore India’s monumental waste crisis.

Eight years on, we are thrilled to congratulate the duo, now winners of the SASAA President’s Inaugural Book Prize for 2018–19 for their path-breaking book, Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (Harvard University Press 2018).

The jury for the President’s Inaugural Book Prize for 2018–19, Dr Malini Sur (Western Sydney University), Associate Professor Peter Mayer (University of Adelaide) and Professor Emerita Marika Vicziany (Monash University), had the pleasure of assessing a large number of praiseworthy books in architecture, anthropology, geography, history, international relations, political science, religious studies and sociology. They were extremely impressed with the quality of entries received and were heartened by the health of the South Asian studies field globally.

The jury unanimously selected Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India. This book explores the dense connections between what we discard and economic growth, of caste and value, discrimination and populism, and technology and the rise of the Indian nation. Readers are taken on a journey through the by-lanes of northern India where questions of purity and pollution gain salience, to the putrefied waste-clogged Ganges, the ancillarised industries in urban settlements, and to the circulation of e-waste. The book generates new insights on India’s complex history of nation building in relationship to caste, labour, waste and place-making. It is notable for its rich ethnography and historical rigour. Written in engaging and clear prose, the book is an important teaching resource, makes a valuable contribution to the study of waste and nation-building in anthropology and history and is a must-read for anyone interested in South Asian societies and politics.

We caught up with Professor Assa Doron recently to congratulate him on this well-deserved accolade and to chat with him about the journey and experiences that culminated in this book…

What was the genesis of the idea/concept and key themes of your award-winning book?

Robin Jeffrey and I have both lived and visited India for several decades now. Our previous work looked at India’s mobile phone revolution, which we learnt also generated an enormous amount of e-waste (see extract available in the Guardian). This led us to think about the problem of waste more broadly. We realised that India’s relationship with waste has markedly changed over the years. The practices of frugality and husbanding that were once widespread in a largely rural society have been replaced by a people enthusiastically embracing consumerism and throwaway culture, especially as population shifts to cities and towns expand to include the countryside. In the wake of the economic reforms of the early 1990s, the magnitude and composition of waste in India has changed dramatically. The population is more than 1.3 billion people — densely populated, with nearly 40% living in urban areas. The challenges extend far beyond consumer waste, as building and infrastructure projects were producing enormous amounts of waste from construction and demolition debris, along with new volumes of waste from mines, factories, and agricultural industries. Growing demands for water increase the difficulties of managing sewage and run-off.

How has the book been received across the world? What are some of the unusual responses and reactions you have received since its launch?

I think because of the subject and the timing, the book received quite wide coverage in both academic and non-academic platforms (see here). In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was spearheading the largest-ever clean-up campaign in its history. In fact, we managed to have an e-interview with the Indian PM, which appears in the appendix of the book. So in that sense the book proved timely, and the Indian media was extremely interested, with many favourable reviews. What was somewhat surprising, for us, a historian and an anthropologist, was the wide coverage the book received in outlets like Nature and New Scientist, as it seems India can also offer many lessons to the rest of the globe. I also think the book generated interest amongst the vast Indian diaspora, many of whom seem frustrated with the country’s inability to deal with its waste and sanitation problems, and are seeking a better understanding of the multiple factors and issues involved.

Do you think the new normal brought on by COVID, lockdowns and physical distancing will influence any of the cultural aspects of waste management that you address in your book? Or is there no connection at all?

First and foremost, it is India’s disadvantaged groups who are suffering the most and often targeted as spreading the disease (see, India’s Corona Casualties). But more specifically, over the past few months open dumpsites and landfills are filling up with tons of contaminated biomedical waste, which is left untreated. This poses a huge risk to those poor living and working near dumpsites, many of whom are waste pickers and scavengers, with little recourse to protective gear. The infection cycle is perpetuated, disproportionately affecting the poor and reinforcing enduring stereotypes about pollution and filth.

Dump Local dumpyard, Hyderabad 2020

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