A Politics of Possibility

By: Liz Ivkovich, Sustainability Office.

Via Manisha Anantharaman.

Via Manisha Anantharaman.

When a piece of trash falls on a Bangalore street, it becomes the property of the Indian state. Because of this transition of ownership, the low-caste citizens who collect, sort, and recycle the city’s trash are undertaking a criminal act. These waste-pickers are subject to frequent police harassment, even though Bangalore relies on their labor to manage the 5000+ tons of garbage produced each day by its residents.

But times are changing. As middle class environmental activists in Bangalore lobby to reduce and to recycle waste, they are also working with waste-pickers to bring about better living conditions. Dr. Manisha Anantharaman has spent years studying how these different social groups leverage sustainability challenges to advance a more just society for all. On Nov. 29, 4:00 pm, ASB 210, Anantharaman will share this hopeful story for the Global Change and Sustainability Seminar Series.

Dr. Manisha Anantharaman with Indian colleagues. Via Manisha Anantharaman.

Dr. Manisha Anantharaman with Indian colleagues. Via Manisha Anantharaman.

“There is so much research in urban India that talks about conflict between middle class groups and poor groups, and there is good reasons for that,” Anantharaman stated. “But one thing that was made clear to me very early on by my community partners is that they were trying to work together. They said “Don’t come in here just to stir everything up. Because you are not going to deal with that mess after you leave. Work with us to help us best understand how we can collaborate.’”

The community partner she references is Hasirudala (‘Green Force’ in English), an organization of waste-pickers and informal waste workers in Bangalore. When middle class environmental activists brought a piece of legislation to the Indian high court to institute recycling and composting infrastructure, they also included municipal orders that would legalize the occupation of Hasirudala waste-pickers. Thanks to this alliance, Hasirudala members now carry identity cards, which allow them access to health insurance, public education, and safety from police harassment.

Via Manisha Anantharaman.

Researching these alliances is deeply personal for Anantharaman. She grew up in India at a time when the country was changing very rapidly; a newly liberalized economy had sparked massive expansion and environmental change in India’s urban centers. Her graduate studies at UC Berkeley using genomics to understand how soil microbial communities in the Colorado Rockies respond to climate change were shortly disrupted by a startling realization.

“I went back to India one winter, and I became aware of some citizens’ movements trying to address environmental issues, particularly around waste,” Anantharaman explained. “I began to kind of hang out with these folks, and through that I realized that within me, I had these really deep burning questions about urban India and its environmental consequences.”

Anantharaman switched research tacks, reinventing herself in a community-engaged ethnographic study with Hasirudala. She became an active participant in Hasirudala’s work, writing grants and materials for their campaigns. She also worked with middle class environmental groups, going back and forth between various organizations. As an academic and activist, supporting these communities and writing with them enhanced her research. Anantharaman believes that this kind of research driven by a politics of possibility, rather than just centered on deficit and dispossession, is essential for the future of the sustainability movement.

“We need to tell more complex stories about sustainability, and what is required for sustainability,” Anantharaman stated, “stories that are informed by case studies and sustainability movements in non-US, non-Western contexts.”

Learn more on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 4:00 pm, ASB 210.

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