When the Pits Fill up: (in)visible Flows of Waste in Urban India

C. S. Sharada Prasad, Isha Ray | 2019


India’s flagship program on sanitation and hygiene – the Swachh Bharat Mission – aims to eliminate open defecation and to manage urban waste for a ‘Clean India’. The emptying of toilet pits and the transport of waste are as critical as more toilets are for sustainable sanitation. In unsewered cities of the global South, these services are mainly provided by privately run cleaning trucks. We find that the physical and social mechanisms through which these services are organized are virtually invisible in national fecal sludge and waste management policies. Based on a rich ethnography of cleaning trucks in Bangalore, India, we show that trucking operations dispose of sludge in ways that harm both public health and the environment, and that the caste composition of sanitation work helps to keep it invisible from officials and the public. We draw on the concept of the social role of disgust to explain the seen-and-unseen nature of these trucks. ‘Seeing’ sludge management as it is practiced is essential for understanding how the sanitary city is being produced and for the success of future sanitation reforms.