The city plasticks: towards an introduction

Hi readers! My name is Adwaita, and I am a PhD. Student in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. I am excited to start my fieldwork in Mumbai this summer aided by CASI’s summer research funds.

As part of my larger dissertation work, I focus on the challenge of understanding plastics in the urban. The question for me, has always gone beyond the simplistic question of how does one handle the mountains of discard that keeps growing every day. Instead, I am interested in the material’s flows and the ways in which it creates contestation in the urban. Lying at the core of this in Mumbai is the Deonar dumping ground, which is one of the oldest and largest landfills of Mumbai.

The decision to focus on plastics, stems from my work around the dumping ground since 2015, where I have looked at the use of mobile phones at the intersection of caste, labor and gender. I documented my experiences as part of a film, Culture Download. While producing the film, I came face to face with illegality as it is framed in the city, marking marginalized communities and their networks in the process. Later, as part of a non-governmental agency which primarily works on housing and labor rights, I came to see waste, and more specifically plastic, politically. The material became alive, moving through the veins of the city.

One instance of this liveliness is the correlation between the value of plastic waste in the city and the number of informal recycling operations can be found around Mumbai. In areas like Bhiwandi and Govandi, these informal operations not only become ways through which communities can access a living wage but also spaces where class and caste solidarity is built. Furthermore, in cities like Mumbai, where the land and sea are often connected in complex multilayered ways, plastic becomes an inhabited reality, producing new habitats for humans and more than humans. Understanding these multi-scalar realities was the idea behind ‘PlastiCity’, housed under the larger Inhabited Seas project. The increased attention that plastic/synthetics have been receiving, for example, the UN’s global agreement on plastic pollution or Mumbai’s Climate Action Plan (MCAP), have only made research around informal recycling more necessary.

For my research this summer, I will be looking at populations that work with plastics in Mumbai, from production to recycling. This work is relegated to the most marginalized communities, Dalits and Muslims. They live in informal settlements, around landfills and refineries, facing a critical lack of basic municipal services as well as high rates of unemployment. These factors have led to unique combinations of alternative social, cultural and chronotopic organization in relation to plastic as a material. During this period, I hope to draw from these narratives that connect plastic with the human, creating a picture of life, work, and discrimination within the informal settlements of Mumbai.

It is both equal parts challenging and invigorating to start the summer’s work in Mumbai. I am looking forward to sharing what this story shapes to be.

More soon 😊

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About Adwaita

I am a PhD student at Penn Anthropology and am interested in urban political ecologies. I work at the intersection of the human and material in Mumbai, studying the ways in which ecological flows affect time, labour, social hierarchy, health and notional value.