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Waste-Picking, Data Activism, and the State in Chennai, India

Authors: Harsha Anantharaman*, University of Minnesota - Minneapolis
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: NGOs, Waste-picking, Neoliberalization, Chennai, Data activism
Session Type: Paper
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NGOs and civil society actors have mobilized in several Indian cities around issues facing informal waste-pickers. They underscore the economic and environmental value of waste-pickers’ labour, and its compatibility with cost-effective and sustainable waste management. Data (surveys, narratives, visualizations) is a key basis on which NGOs premise such negotiations with the state. In this paper, I discuss how an NGO-State collaboration premised on data had the unexpected outcome of giving the state new modalities of intervention and control over informal labour and its unaccounted value chains. I show how NGO attempts at collaboration on welfare measures for waste-pickers produced a fractured and idiosyncratic response from the state. I show also how this selective “hearing” by the state articulated with certain dynamics of data and NGO activism to facilitate the roll-out/roll-back processes of neoliberalization in Chennai.

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