Plastic documents: Finding the state in material flows

The area surrounding the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai is dotted with municipal trucks and small scrap shops. The number of these informal waste segregation units steadily rise as one moves closer to the dumping ground. At one end of the road lies the “600 tenement” dry waste segregation station. This is the formal segregation unit, (being operated under a partnership between an NGO and the municipality) and I find myself sitting in it.

It has been raining continuously for a few days now, and the walls of the station, although made of aluminum sheeting is leaking rainwater. Banners that detail how to segregate waste, qualities of dry waste and a blackboard etched with the daily work duties of segregators cover the walls. How does one make sense of plastic flows? I keep wondering, as I find myself amidst stacks of gunny sacks neatly filled with plastic. The station takes the shape of living breathing fluidic organism, that has a rhythm.

As my eyes wander through the segregated plastic, I notice a pile of documents that lie over the table in front of me. They are handwritten forms that detail the quantity and quality of dry waste that has been processed on that day. It is not the first time that I have seen such documents. Log sheets that detail the municipal worker’s duties, and daily waste accounting are non-digital that are thought to organize the flows of plastic. They are maintained for municipal accountability, although an officer would later tell me that it is very difficult to ascertain the total quantity of plastic waste that the city produces. Why maintain documentation then? I am reminded of Gupta’s (2012) assertion of writing and documentary practices as performances that produce the state. He writes that “bureaucracies are machines of the production of inscription. Of all the activities that go into the daily routines of state officials, writing is probably the most important” (ibid, pp. 141).

In an attempt to understand how documents, work in managing plastic within the city, I ask the station supervisor if I can photograph some of the documents that lie in front of me. She refuses, asking me to get written permission from the ward officials first. I, thus understand documentary practices as intrinsic to the flow of plastic in the city. Hull (2012) has similarly understood “kaghazi raj” (trans: the rule of paper/paper rule) as one that makes infrastructural processes produce the complex networked being of the state that controls knowledge circulations. In the lack of clarity of the total quantum of plastic waste produced, circulated and recycled, the municipality, thus, creates a class of experts through bureaucratic and lived means. The question then arises: how does one become an expert of material flows within the city? What role does the gendered and racialized body play in this performance?

On days that I accompany waste collectors on their morning run, I realize that plastic flows work neither as a completely rational-bureaucratic organization nor as an organic natural performance. While dry waste is collected separately, I could see the collectors using a gunny sack to carefully take out the better qualities of plastic such as PET and LDPE. A leaky dimension emerges, where community and labor influences and in turn gets influenced by bureaucratic structures. In this performance through which plastic gets circulated, there is a hierarchy of bodies that is dictated by gender and caste but operationalized by violence (both state and otherwise). Muslim migrants and lower caste women are relegated to the bottom of the pyramid, where they work the longest hours and circulate the lowest qualities of multi-layered plastics. Paying close attention to documentation, thus helps us in understanding plastic flows as “forms of governance and modes of surveillance being put in operation in the offices of petty bureaucrats or on street corners” (Das 2004, pp. 174). McKay (2012) has similarly looked at the ways in which documentary practices play a role in standardizing bureaucratic practice that enact and complicate questions that relate to the maintenance and regulation of bodies and materials.

Plastic flows has thus been a useful rubric by which one can further the inquiry into bureaucratic systems. Here, the question of both body and the organization of labor become central. Most of the negotiations that follow the plastic once it becomes discard, throws light on the double nature of the state as both rational and magical, giving space for people to experience, perceive and resist everyday violence. Documentary practices, it would seem produces partial and mobile forms of sovereignty, constituting subjects in the process.


Das, V., & Poole, D. (2004). The Signature of the State: The Paradox of Illegibility. Anthropology in the Margins of the State. Ed. Veena Das, 3-35.

Gupta, A. (2012). Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in India. Duke University Press.

Hull, M. S. (2012). Government of paper. In Government of Paper. University of California Press.

McKay, R. (2012). Documentary disorders: managing medical multiplicity in Maputo, Mozambique. American Ethnologist, 39(3), 545-561.

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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.