Infrastructural Labor

Guest Post

Vinay Gidwani

Professor Geography & Global Studies

University of Minnesota

Madanpur Khadar is a large resettlement colony in Delhi’s southeast fringe, wedged between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, partially abutting the Yamuna River. Its residents work as cleaners, sweepers, office helpers and laborers; large numbers of the colony’s women are employed as domestic workers in adjacent upper middle-class neighborhoods. Madanpur Khadar is also a multiform waste hub, which, like tens of other waste hubs scattered across and around Delhi– some specializing in a single waste product, others more flexible in character – daily process thousands of tons of detritus and discards whose accumulation would render urban existence as we know it impossible.

Worker in Madanpur Khadar operating a pressing machine that bundles scrap paper
Photo: Courtesy Sunil Kumar, with permission

These waste hubs and the pathways of people, objects, information, and money that connect them are the city’s lymphatic system, sequestering its waste and inoculating it from lasting damage. The intricate yet under-valued operations, until a moment of breakdown, of this sprawling waste infrastructure – from waste hubs to municipal landfills to sewage pipelines – hinges on the toil, ingenuity, practical knowledge and risk-taking of several hundred thousand workers, small entrepreneurs, and petty government functionaries. I call this labor “infrastructural”, mobilizing the double meaning of that adjective, ‘below’ and ‘beyond’, to simultaneously underscore its indispensability as well as invisibility in the policy imagination. The infrastructural labor of waste work recuperates and returns to circuits of value commodity detritus which, left untreated, would erode the frail certitudes of city life.

Waste pickers in a squatter settlement and waste hub in northwest Delhi
Photo: Courtesy Lokesh, with permission

The unpaid work of care and repair within the household, which subtends reproduction of labor – the creative life energies that are the material conditions of human survival and capital accumulation – is another instance of infrastructural labor whose invisibility feminist scholars have long underscored. Waste work and human reproduction come together in the life of Nusrat Begum, who earns a living from sorting bio-medical waste illicitly acquired by local contractors. The bio-medical waste contains discarded medicines, injections, needles, bottles, rubber items, and so on, some of it unsafe (such as infected needles, soiled rubber gloves, used urine bags, prescription-only painkillers).

Hospital waste in Madanpur Khadar
Photo: Courtesy Sunil Kumar, with permission

Nusrat Begum’s children don’t attend school: they also pick waste, partly to compensate for their father’s illness. But Nusrat Begum’s unrequited aspirations for her children are apparent when she bitterly remarks: “If the parents live amidst garbage [kooda] can the children stay away from it?” Her comment mobilizes the double sense of the word ‘kooda’. She implies that her children’s trajectories can’t be otherwise given that kooda is both, a source of the parents’ livelihood and the squalor or filth that marks their lives. Nusrat’s existence is a blunt reminder that women carry the double burden of production and reproduction. Their labor time is never done. After she has finished sorting the day’s waste, Nusrat turns her attention to household chores such as cooking the evening meal. Nusrat Begum says that her bones ache and her back constantly hurts; she is unable to sleep at night. It is the constitutive injustice of the city that Nusrat’s austere life and those of myriad others underwrites the city’s very possibility.


Professor Vinay Gidwani will be giving a guest lecture in the Department of Geography on February 28, 2020. Please join us to explore this topic in more depth.

The Infrastructure of Value. Vinay Gidwani

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