My research examines the cultural politics of environmental institutions—specifically waste and water—in urban India and the United States. I am interested in understanding the processes through which racial & caste differences are institutionalized at multiple scales, tracing the effects of these inequalities and locating sites of active and potential resistance. How might these systems be transformed? What existing possibilities might contribute to a wider revolution in how they are organized and governed?
My most recent work has theorized “practical legitimacy” in the case of informal recycling systems in India, demonstrating how relations based on status can provide durable forms of regulation for informal economic institutions to challenge state jurisdiction (Social Forces 2020). My other research has examined the cultivation of and response to territorial stigma in the case of Detroit’s racialized system of water governance (International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2016, best paper award) and in postcolonial Delhi’s solid waste programs (Local Environment 2019). I have also considered the challenges of resistance during the Flint water crisis (Critical Sociology 2018) and detailed how processes of what I call “casteification” affects Muslims in Delhi’s recycling economy (Economic & Political Weekly 2019).
I am currently working on a book manuscript based on over 20 months of ethnographic research in Delhi, provisionally titled The Garbage Economy. The project addresses why the informal garbage collection and recycling workforce—Delhi’s only system for recycling—managed to persist in the face of public-private partnership (PPP) programs that brought collection trucks and incinerators. Beginning with the introduction of a newly professionalized, upper-caste-dominated domain of “solid waste management,” the book unravels the particular processes and relations through which informal recyclers have managed to persist, attending especially to those derived from relations of caste, or jati. Through an examination of garbage, scrap, and money—and the stigma they entail—the book offers a theory of “transactional life,” demonstrating how renewed relations of caste and community create a durable social infrastructure and a particular form of what might be called “caste capitalism.”