Smart city technologies pose serious threats to women waste workers in India

Technology for modernising waste management favours male workers. Urban development should focus on the needs of everyday people, instead of chasing aesthetic ideals and profit-making imperatives.

India smart city
Street traffic in Kolkata, India. India aims to develop 100 smart cities as new satellite towns or by modernising existing mid-sized cities. Radiokafka /

Smart city technologies are an increasingly popular approach to urban governance and sustainable development worldwide, but their implementation, use and impact on society are only just being fully understood.

Smart city projects aim to modernise urban spaces and improve citizens’ lives through sustainability-oriented, technological, expert-led and capital-intensive initiatives.

In India, projects undertaken under the banner of the national Smart Cities Mission, a “business model for urbanisation” launched in 2015, have prioritised the construction of elevated light rail networks, introduced surveillance technologies in public spaces, upgraded municipal service delivery and started building new cities from scratch.

Although these initiatives are often promoted as politically neutral and beneficial for all, they’re being increasingly criticised for catering to the priorities of affluent citizens and private developers while displacing low-income people from living spaces and livelihoods to make way for the smart “world-class” city.

Cities around the world are now looking toward smart solutions to prevent the spread of disease in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. India has received international praise for its smart city model for pandemic recovery and many cities have continued to push technological development projects forward throughout the pandemic.

But smart technologies are not socially and politically neutral. Rather, expert-led technological best practices can intensify gendered, casted, racialised and classed inequalities, and threaten the livelihoods of women who are informal workers in cities across India and the Global South.

This is particularly true for women working as recyclers in India’s informal economy, because the spaces they need to generate daily subsistence incomes are increasingly sanitised, surveilled and revitalised by the arrival of smart technology.

Dirty work in the ‘clean city’

The city of Ahmedabad, considered one of India’s cleanest cities, was one of the first 20 communities to receive funding through the country’s Smart Cities Mission.

Thousands of women informal recyclers, or waste pickers, as they’re called colloquially, collect and sell recyclable materials like paper, cardboard, plastics and metals from urban public spaces to earn around 50 to 150 rupees (US$0.66-1.98) a day.

Informal recyclers perform essential tasks of waste segregation and recycling where formal waste management systems have long been absent or lacking. Due to the informality and precarity of their work, workers experience significant health threats and exploitation daily.

They also experience stigmatisation due to their gender, poverty and because, as members of the Dalit caste, they’re perceived as impure and untouchable – the hierarchical caste system separates “pure” from “polluted” castes and divides labour and labourers in society.

India’s waste situation was already shifting before the pandemic. Urban cleanliness became a major social and political imperative in envisioning and creating supposedly world-class cities through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), the 2014 flagship program of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling neoliberal Hindu Nationalist BJP Party.

In this initiative, solid waste management was prioritised as requiring modernisation via technologies and public-private partnerships. But emerging approaches to waste management favoured entrepreneurial and capital-intensive technical fixes like mechanised waste collection by vehicles and GPS technologies.

Replaced by men

My research into women informal recyclers working on city streets in Ahmedabad also reveals how emerging smart technologies aimed at modernising solid waste management practices favour male waste workers.

I’ve found that the manual work of recycling by women is being overtaken by machinery and a new male labour force, since operating equipment and driving vehicles, cycle rickshaws or trucks, are tasks predominantly performed by men in India.

The challenges for women recyclers were mounting even prior to the pandemic. The emerging male workforce could collect materials overnight and access materials in the dark before women felt they could safely leave their homes early in the morning. Equipped with waste collection trucks, these workers could also travel longer distances to cover larger areas and transport heavier, more valuable recyclable items to the scrap market.

My research shows that women recyclers were coping with these challenges by working longer days and walking longer distances to find materials. As a result, they were experiencing intensifying physical, mental and financial burdens in generating daily incomes.

When the pandemic hit and India imposed a strict lockdown in March 2020, new private contractors and waste workers were designated as essential workers and continued collecting garbage and recyclables, while women informal recyclers had to stay home and fend for themselves without an income.

Building back better?

Smart technologies have been prioritised in Ahmedabad’s pandemic response with the aim of slowing disease spread.

Pandemic-era projects like the accelerating shift to mechanised, privatised solid waste collection, the introduction of smart waste bins in the city’s public spaces and the planned redevelopment of its largest slum area are among the initiatives that are particularly salient for women recyclers. The spaces where they live and work are targeted for sanitisation, surveillance and redevelopment.

The era of smart pandemic urban governance is likely to compound the threats to their lives and livelihoods. Hygiene concerns stemming from COVID-19 further entrench the stigma of untouchability for low-income Dalit women waste workers who are at risk due to smart city intentions to revitalise and transform cities into places of consumption.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many systemic inequalities built into our societies and institutions. Recovery efforts aim to “build back better” and deliver a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable urban future.

I suggest rethinking the transformation and development of new infrastructure, public spaces and services according to modern aesthetic ideals and profit-making imperatives. Instead, a truly smart, equitable and sustainable pandemic recovery needs to be based on a reparative approach and focus on the needs, priorities and everyday practices of people living and working in cities.

Josie Wittmer is a postdoctoral fellow in geography and planning at Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

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