Between Obsolescence and Necessity: The Abiding Nature of Dhalao Infrastructures in Urban India

By Aman Luthra, Johns Hopkins University §

If you happen to frequent the broad tree-lined avenues of Chanakyapuri—an upscale neighborhood in New Delhi, India dominated by diplomatic missions and state government offices—you might see Mukta, as I did during the course of my dissertation fieldwork in Delhi from September 2012 to November 2013. Riding atop a giant white sack filled with recyclable materials on a rickshaw driven by one of her workers, Mukta looks like a queen on a chariot. Mukta “occupies” a dhalao, a concrete structure that houses garbage in this neighborhood of the rich. The rich produce rich garbage which makes Mukta’s spot in the patchy urban mosaic of Delhi highly prized. Everyone—other waste collectors, the police, municipal workers—knows that Mukta controls a lucrative turf. Over the approximately 30 years that she has been living and working in the neighborhood, she has managed to keep tight control over her territory—sometimes through friendships (such as those with the municipal sweepers who often stop by her dhalao for a quick chat over a cup of tea), sometimes through fear (she always carries a knife and is not afraid to flash it when needed).  Being Mukta is not easy. Not everyone in her position has been as successful as her particularly in these times when change—in urban spaces and infrastructures across India—is the only constant. Her livelihood as a waste collector and recycler and the space in which she works—the dhalao—are being threatened as cities decide to modernize their waste management infrastructures.

Image 1 Mukta
Mukta on her chariot of recyclables in Chanakyapuri, Delhi (Photo credit: Ragini Shankar)

From a purely technical standpoint, the dhalao is a critical part of the contemporary urban waste management infrastructure in cities across India—a concrete structure that is designed to temporarily hold garbage from the surrounding neighborhood before being transported to its final resting place such as a municipal dump or a landfill a few miles away. In the absence of formal waste collection services, the dhalao is where informal workers drop off daily waste collected from households and other waste generating establishments in the area. There the discards of urban life wait until it is time for their journey onward.

From a socio-economic standpoint, the dhalao serves other purposes. For many engaged in the waste trade, it is crucial space for sorting and temporarily storing recyclables before being sold onward into the complex recycling economy (Chaturvedi and Gidwani, 2011). For some, it is also a space to scavenge for materials that might have been missed in the first round of recovery. In this sense, dhalaos function as material recovery facilities (MRFs), spaces where materials from waste are recovered and sorted to then be fed into recycling or reprocessing cycles of secondary value production. MRFs are crucial infrastructure for recycling systems in developed countries’ modern waste management systems such as that of the U.S. For some like Mukta, a dhalao is much more than an MRF; it is also a place to live. Although both the structure and its contents are officially the property of the state, property rights are rarely strictly enforced, often informally negotiated. In a city starved of space, real estate is a precious commodity that only a few can afford. The concrete structure not only keeps the value of recyclable materials intact by protecting them from rain, it also keeps many people, particularly women and children, safe from violence. The smell of rotting garbage offers real protection. In a 2013 article in The Hindu, one woman noted, “I live here to escape being raped and assaulted by men on the streets. The stench keeps them at bay . . . Children too live here sometimes. It is far too dangerous to sleep in the open” (Perapaddan 2013). The right to live in a dhalao is not free. The Times of India reports that one family paid the “previous owner” INR 150,000 [approximately USD 2,200] to be able to call it their home (Akram 2014). Nearby neighbors are not happy with this set up. In the same news article, it is reported that neighbors of the dhalao claim that their streets are filled with trash as the place meant for storing their trash remains “illegally” occupied (Akram 2014).

Dhalaos in Delhi date back to the late 1800s, designed by colonial municipal authorities with the explicit purpose of monitoring the removal of nightsoil by the mohalla sweepers under the “vigilant gaze of the overseer” (Prashad2001:7). The municipal corporation assigned itself monopoly rights to the city’s waste by passing a resolution in 1884, commissioning the construction of dhalaos soon thereafter. These structures would come to play a crucial role in both undermining the “sweepers’ independence (their earnings from the sale of manure and other kabaari or recyclable trash) and enable the DMC [Delhi Municipal Corporation] to profit from the sale of the manure” (Prashad 2001:6). Over a century later, the struggle over the use of infrastructures in exerting social power and control persists.In recent times, municipalities across India  have been looking for ways to eliminate dhalaos. If dhalaos were originally designed to control the waste stream in the late 1800s, then ironically, in the 21st century, cities must dismantle them in order to regain control. While municipalities have recently started justifying the need for removal of dhalaos in public health and aesthetic terms, I argue that other motivations might be lurking underneath.

In an effort to modernize waste management systems, cities with dhalaos are trying to eliminate them. This is partly due to concerns over public health. The specter of the 1994 plague outbreak in Surat, in Gujarat state, continues to haunt municipal authorities across the country. Community bins or dhalaos are often overflowing with trash because they are not emptied often enough. Garbage also scatters as humans and animals scavenge through it, although the former turns out to be the scapegoat more often than the latter. A 2012 news report from the Hindu Staff Reporter in Chennai offers a case in point, stating that:

The Chennai Corporation has planned to replace garbage bins with specially-designed bags to. . . prevent ragpickers from spoiling the area around a garbage bin. . . A study by the civic body has found that ragpickers contribute to scattering of garbage on the roads.

Image 2 Dhalao
A dhalao on top of a drain in Mustafabad, Delhi. (Photo credit: Aman Luthra)

Concerns over public health are also intertwined with aesthetics. Scattered garbage in and around dhalaos scarcely fit the imaginations of aspiring world-class cities. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi tried to make the city dhalao-free in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, when the city’s image as the host and as the capital of a powerful global player was at stake, but the campaign failed (Anand 2010; Khullar 2010). More recently, in an effort to become compliant with international standards for health services, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation has been pursuing many initiatives, one of which focuses on creating “dhalao-free zones to keep away ragpickers from the city” (Tribune News Service 2014). New Delhi Municipal Council is planning to introduce changes to its waste management systems by collecting garbage from the doorstep and delivering it directly for processing and disposal which will “eliminate the need for “dhalao” points, which have caused unhygienic conditions and dissatisfaction among people” (PTI 2014).

Yet, a closer examination of the push towards dhalao-free cities reveals something else. Since dhalaos serve as crucial spaces for social and economic life in the informal economy of waste in urban India, their removal would disrupt the fabric of that economy. But planned obsolescence of these infrastructural spaces is also an effort to provide control over waste streams to private firms that operate ‘modern’ waste management facilities such as waste-to-energy plants. It turns out that such facilities need inputs (waste materials) of a certain quality. In extracting recyclables from garbage, informal actors also lower the quality of the waste, making it unusable as input for waste-to-energy facilities. Indeed, if the system were to modernize in such a way, there would be no need for dhalaos. Delhi already has two such waste-to-energy facilities in operation and a third one is under way. Mired in controversy over pollution emissions, the success of these plants is crucial for not only the private firms that operate them but also for government officials that permitted them to be established.

These recent attempts to eliminate the dhalao from the urban waste management infrastructure landscape in India could be understood as a modernist attempt to sanitize and cleanse the city by relegating those unsightly flows of materials to the city’s underbelly, and therefore rendering them invisible (Kaika and Swyngedouw 2000). The drive to modernizing the system is partly aesthetic, targeting both the city and those who dwell in it. The objective is two-fold: to transform the sensory experience of the city—garbage is both unsightly and it smells; and to create hygienic, modern, urban subjects by mediating their relationship with their garbage. Invisibility is a marker of infrastructure substrates (Star 1999). In these terms, the desire to render urban Indian waste management infrastructure invisible is somewhat understandable as a general motivation to becoming a particular kind of modern subject. However, as Larkin (2013) points out, visibility is only one lens through which we can analyze infrastructures and even through that lens, the argument of invisibility often falls short. Advocates of waste-to-energy at public events often showcase the visibility of those physical structures in cities in the developed world, celebrating them as contemporary monuments of modernity. (In)visibilities aside, the proposed elimination of dhalaos also shows us that aesthetic and public health modernization belie the material underpinnings of proposed infrastructure transformations—dispossession of the informal economy to make way for profit-driven enterprise in ‘modern’ waste management systems. Until that happens, Mukta’s fortress—the dhalao—will continue to serve as the vital space for her socio-economic life in the city.


Works Cited:
Akram, M. 2014. No Room for Waste as Dhalao Turns Home. The Times of India. Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/No-room-for-waste-as-dhalao-turns-home/articleshow/41970736.cms
Anand, S. 2010. Solid Waste Management. Delhi: Mittal Publications.
Chaturvedi, B., and V. Gidwani. 2011. The Right to Waste: Informal Sector Recyclers and Struggles for Social Justice in Post-Reform Urban India. In W. Ahmed, A. Kundu, and R. Peet (eds.), India’s New Economic Policy: A Critical Analysis, pp. 125–153. New Delhi: Routledge.
Hindu Staff Reporter. 2012. Bag and Dispose: Garbage Bins in City to Go. The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/bag-and-dispose-garbage-bins-in-city-to-go/article4190227.ece
Larkin, B. 2013. The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure. Annual Review of Anthropology 42(1): 327–343.
Kaika, M., & Swyngedouw, E. 2000. Fetishizing the Modern City: The Phantasmagoria of Urban Technological Networks. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24(1): 120–138.
Khullar, M. 2010. The Treasure of Trash. The Caravan. Retrieved from http://www.caravanmagazine.in/print/1283
Perapaddan, B. 2013. Home is Where the Garbage Dump is. The Hindu. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/home-is-where-the-garbage-dump-is/article5092270.ece
Prashad, V. 2000. Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of Dalit Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
PTI. 2014. NDMC Set to Introduce New Waste Management System. IBN Live. Retrieved from http://ibnlive.in.com/news/ndmc-set-to-introduce-new-waste-management-system/455193-3-244.html
Star, S. L. 1999. The Ethnography of Infrastructure. American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377–391.
Tribune News Service. 2014. SDMC Plans to Get ISO-9000 for Health Services in One Year. The Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.tribuneindia.com/2014/20140526/delhi.htm


Aman Luthra received his PhD from the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University in December 2015. His research interests and expertise lie broadly at the intersections of political ecology, economic geography, and urban planning.


This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure

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