Anomalous Waste: Reckoning with Radioactivity in a Metal Scrap Market

Photo by Ishani Saraf, December 2015.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Ishani Saraf, University of California at Davis §

Photo by Ishani Saraf, December 2015.

ABSTRACT: In April 2010 workers and dealers in one of India’s largest metal scrap and parts markets, unknowingly encountered radioactive waste. As per the practices of the market, they had cut pieces of the material and circulated those amongst themselves in an effort to identify it and find buyers for it. As a result, one person died, and many others were diagnosed with radiation sickness. Amidst speculations of a terror attack on the capital city of India, where the scrap market is located, the radioactive source was traced to a Chemistry laboratory at the University of Delhi. The laboratory had negligently disposed of a gamma irradiator—which is partly made up radioactive materials—as metal scrap in a routine process of ‘condemnation’ and disposal’ of public property. In this paper, I provide an ethnographic account of the anomalous out-of-place-ness of radioactivity in the metal scrap market to explore public forms of reckoning in the aftermath of the incident. I follow two responses to the incident, one by state actors and another by residents in the vicinity of the market, to explore the entangled contestations and unanticipated unfoldings that emerged around questions of harm, toxicity, blame, livelihood, and livability.

The market in which this incident occurred is one of many materially specific urban waste markets scattered across Delhi’s landscape, and is the chief focus of my dissertation research.

Within the market, I explore the everyday sensory worlds of work, commerce, and material transformations through which a variety of scrap commodities are produced from metallic discards. I consider how the market emerges as a contentious site in the city: on the one hand, it accumulates mass-produced metallic discards from all over the country and beyond, and transforms these into valued commodities, while on the other, its practices of recovering and processing materials and parts are considered by many to be dangerous, exploitative, polluting, and toxic. In this context, I study how the market’s place in the city has been periodically challenged since its establishment in the 1930s during the colonial reconstruction of Delhi. A significant challenge was the displacement of the market during the 1975 Emergency in India, from the city center to land designated for industrial purposes near what was then the city’s outskirts. For many, this experience echoes that of the Partition in 1947 when many refugees found their livelihoods in this market in the face of mass displacement, becoming over time established dealers and shop owners. The market continues to see newly arrived migrants looking for work and a foothold in the city. In this way the notion of the market as a place of livelihood is central to understanding questions of belonging and legitimate presence in Delhi. The scrap market, as entangled with the history and material processes of this constantly transforming megacity, provides a unique perspective on urban lives and livelihoods in contemporary India.

The market is also a significant node in the local, regional, and international circulation of metallic discards and their commodified forms. Alongside the market, I take up the dry port (inland logistical container hub) as another important site in the production and circulation of scrap through various channels combining different institutional, logistical, and infrastructural, modalities. I trace the movement of scrap through various unregulated and regulated economies to identify forms of post-colonial urban capitalism in South Asia.

Through these multi-scalar operations of scrap, my project explores (trans)local logics and events that constitute and shape the lives, livelihoods, and experiences of those who work and trade in the building blocks and discarded residues of capitalism, as well as the ways in which their material practices are etched in bodies and the city’s landscape, marking out a shifting, multiple, and discontinuous urban form-in-the-making that I call the “scrap-scape.”

Photo by Ishani Saraf, December 2015.

In my paper, I reflect on the effects of dangerous materials, the making of environmental accidents, and public forms of reckoning with disaster. The dynamics of reckoning that I describe focus on state institutions’ responses in the immediate aftermath of the incident and a case initially filed as a Public Interest Litigation soon after it. As such, my account focuses on the effects of official and public modes of reckoning that ultimately had long-term and sometimes unexpected trajectories and consequences.

As the tragic incident unfolded, industrial accidents such as the Bhopal chemical leak, and nuclear disasters like the detonation of American atomic weapons in Japan became the dominant frames of reference to comprehend the magnitude of danger. As state institutions scrambled to contain the disastrous effects of the anomalous out-of-place-ness of radioactive materials in the scrap market, they encountered difficulty in classifying and thus managing a response to the presence and effects of the anomalous waste. Concerns around the containment of nuclear disasters were directed towards making scrap metal networks traceable through operations of regulation and securitization. As a result, the widely dispersed channels through which scrap circulated, particularly the scrap market, were seen to embody the danger associated with nuclear materials. In this case, practices of reckoning by the state transferred the harm immanent in an illicitly circulating material to the market as a place of illicit and harmful circulation.

Photo by Ishani Saraf, December 2015.

In a case filed in the High Court of Delhi, residents living near the market sought to move it outside of the city, calling it a “place of harm.” In court, municipal representatives argued that the activities in the market conformed to land-use plans of the city. Citing its history of displacement, they argued that another displacement for those who pursued a livelihood in the market would be unfair. Soon after, the case was moved to the then newly established National Green Tribunal, which sought to adjudicate the case through the application of environment protection and pollution laws. In the green court, questions and claims based on the threat of nuclear disaster and land-use conformity were sidelined as a notion of “environmental and bodily harm” was introduced, constituted as a dispersed threat posed by chronic conditions of toxicity and pollution. As a result, traders found that the principles on the basis of which they had staked claims to legitimize their activities and livelihood under the constant threat of urban restructuring now failed to provide leverage as new conditions of recognition emerged under environmental juridical processes.

Tracing the intricacies of these contestations, I discuss the notion of environment as itself a mode of reckoning with disaster, harm, and justice, and the complex ethical questions arising from the displacements its mobilizations may (re)produce. In an era that marks the environment as a mode of existential reckoning, we must pay careful attention to questions of belonging and livelihood in the pursuit of just ends.

Ishani Saraf is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her dissertation research was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds Mellon Research Initiative at UC Davis. With thanks to the Rappaport Prize Committee, Anthropology at UCD, East Delhi Municipal Corporation for required permits, and interlocutors in and around the scrap market.

This post is part of our series, 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.