Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Why Is It So Hard to Engage with Practices of the Informal Sector?: Experimental Insights from the Indian E-Waste-Collective

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Why Is It So Hard to Engage with Practices of the Informal Sector?: Experimental Insights from the Indian E-Waste-Collective

Article excerpt

In 2011, a sea change occurred in India. The government, while aiming for sustainable politics, issued a new (apparently exemplary) law: the 'e-waste (Management and Handling) Rules'.1 This so-called e-waste law tried to grapple with something that has become a major threat since its spread began about thirty-to- fifty years ago.

Electronic waste is one of the biggest and dirtiest waste streams worldwide. Tens of millions (crores, as South Asians term it) of tons of waste travel the world annually.2 Why is that? Let us dive into some narrative macro-structures. The much- used smartphone, for example, has a worth, even after its disposal. Most likely, however, it has to be shipped globally before being recognised as something precious. For a long time, only the urban poor in the global south appreciated the value of our old appliances, so e-waste recycling hubs have found an economic home in the global south. There, the so-called informal sector collected, refurbished or even dismantled used electronic parts creatively. They made a living from such waste. It also sufficed for the self-esteem of some, even if recycling was mostly practiced in the backyards of slums.3 Much of the work, though, especially the process of dismantling, though, was done without proper tools, endangering labourers and the surrounding environment. Recently, Euro-American concepts were embraced to 'help out'-to make the recycling process safer and cleaner by employing modern recycling technologies. These aspects are also asserted as major goals of the Indian law. The waste's value, it can be declared, has been recognised again.

Yet there is critique. It turns out that when one talks about the 'ground realities', because of these concepts, there is no help provided for the poor but an urge to replace them instead. It has been uttered explicitly as well as implicitly that waste was thus captured by 'the' neoliberal regime, and that only one, vicious kind of value has become relevant: that of capital.4 In this article, however, I argue that it is worth decelerating such critiques. They are too destructive and do not adapt to complex realities on the ground. And this is exactly what the issue of e-waste calls for.5 A spikey 'thing' called e-waste needs reorganisation of a democratic kind instead of negative claims, which, in the end, lead to resignation. To bring democracy into this process, though, proves to be a difficult project because democracy itself has to adapt.

Nonetheless, the Indian scenario provides a fertile ground to embrace such an endeavour. Local political parties, international scientists, transnational companies and the civil society-that is, national and international NGOs-collectively brought the Indian e-waste law to light over a period of around eight years.6 Reports, workshops and round-table discussions bear witness to a vibrant public debate. What is most striking is that against a backdrop of intense negotiations the resulting document came as a surprise. Because of the law, informal yet important actors got ejected from the (newly) composed value chain; that is, the 'refurbishers', specialised resellers of repaired items, were ignored in the law. For the local recycling reality, however, these actors are indispensable. Moreover, refurbishers were included as crucial stakeholders in initial drafts of the law. The 'rules' sought for a sustainable solution-and these actors, everyone agreed, were acting in a sustainable fashion. Yet they were marginalised.

How may one explain and counter this situation without whipping out a reductionist argument? How may one engage with these informal sector practices in a just fashion?

I propose to understand the sequence of events by following Bruno Latour's a- modern, cautious ideal of critique. I strive towards taking part in the economy and its composition.7 This is how democracy comes in anew. I will be looking for ways to articulate (that is, bring together) the 'legitimate' interests of involved actors. …

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