Women's work in the 'clean city': Perspectives on wellbeing, waste governance, and inclusion from the urban margins in Ahmedabad, India

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Wittmer, Josie
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University of Guelph

This dissertation uses a feminist mixed-methods approach to investigate solid waste management and informal recycling practices in the city of Ahmedabad, India. The aim of this research is to understand the ways that power unevenly manifests in the urban everyday by exploring marginalized women waste pickers’ experiences of wellbeing, work, and organizing through a moment of change in the governance of waste in urban India. This dissertation argues that contemporary solid waste management planning and discourses of urban cleanliness and inclusion in urban India are implicated in the continual reproduction of spatial, symbolic, political-economic, and social-cultural marginalization of women waste pickers. Key findings of the dissertation highlight women waste pickers’ relational perceptions of wellbeing and work, the gendered impacts of contemporary waste governance for marginalized women workers, and women’s experiences in organizing and navigating mechanisms of inclusion and municipal privatization. These findings point to the spatial, symbolic, material, and intersectional implications that contemporary waste governance and discourses of cleanliness and urban inclusion have in women waste pickers’ everyday lives. The study draws on a survey (n=401), semi-structured interviews (n=45), follow-up interviews (n=36) and group workshop discussions (n=12) with women waste pickers in Ahmedabad between 2016-2018. It also relies on insights from local advocacy workers, NGO employees, and union representatives (n=11) and a discourse analysis of local media and policy documents. The dissertation is grounded in women waste pickers’ perspectives, experiences, and knowledges as important yet under-valued observers and co-producers of urban space. From this perspective, this research makes important contributions toward theorizing marginalized informal work by emphasizing women’s intersectional perspectives on the benefits and challenges of this work in a moment of change in the city. The research highlights the dynamics of power and oppression which tend to be obscured and the marginalized people who tend to be invisibilized in the production of clean-and-modern revitalized urban spaces. The research advances scholarship on vulnerable people in urban spaces and the exclusionary impacts of contemporary urban governance. The insights garnered from women waste pickers livelihoods and wellbeing may also contribute to advocacy and organizing work by scholars and activists and policy through this moment of change in India’s urban governance.

Waste governance, Informality, Gender, Feminist methodologies, Urban development, Waste labour, India, Inclusive urbanism
Wittmer, J. (2020). "We live and we do this work": Women waste pickers' experiences of wellbeing in Ahmedabad, India. World Development. DOI: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105253