People, animals, birds, machines, waste – the Boragaon landfill in Guwahati, February 2021. Photo: Shruti Ragavan
- Waste is often seen as a big nuisance – but it can also be a source of livelihood and sustenance in its own right.
- A big thorn in Guwahati’s side is its municipal waste, and public dialogue about its Boragaon landfill is currently caught between urban development and ecological and public health.
- Yet there is a third group with their own interests that civil society and policy makers need to recognize and plan for.
We first visited the Boragaon landfill site in Guwahati in February 2021. As our vehicle moved forward, there was a swarm of activity both on the ground and above our heads. Amid some trucks unloading and others piling mounds on the way, hundreds of cattle, large adjutant storks, people, dogs and kites watched.
A truck arrived to unload the waste, and everyone headed to the last pile to sort, collect and forage. Thus began the daily life and routines of people, animals and birds living with and around waste in Guwahati.
Litter here has been of particular concern over the past decade due to the location of the Boragaon landfill and its impact on the nearby wetland. Located along the southwestern outskirts of the city, Boragaon is next to Deepor beela wetland recognized by the Ramsar Convention and as an important habitat for migratory and aquatic birds.
As a result, the discourse on litter in the city, driven mostly by environmentalists, conservationists and activists, has largely focused on the site’s impact on the wetland and on the Brahmaputra River – or used managerial/functional arguments about waste in what aspires to be a “smart city”.
Some articles to have addressed the lives of people living and working with waste, but few have attempted to engage with the notion of waste as an entangled space – made up of multiple bodies, activities, livelihoods and life itself.
Living with waste, living around waste
The neighborhood surrounding the Paschim Boragaon landfill is populated mainly by the Miyah community. They migrated to Guwahati from their homes on temporary sandbanks on the Brahmaputra, fleeing recurrent flooding and erosion.
Most of the families are from Barpeta, Dhubri and Nagaon areas, and migrated to the city and to Boragaon in particular after hearing about it from relatives, friends and others. Haider Ali, who said this, is a dairy farmer with three cows in Boragaon.1 He moved to Guwahati from Howly town in Barpeta district 12 years ago when his farmland was washed away by a flood. .
Before moving, Ali traveled to Boragaon to check the land and built a pucca house on a grandha2 of land he had bought. He also said that the semi-pucca houses of Paschim Boragaon belonged mainly to waste workers.
The families who live there generally earn their living by day labor, working in the waste or raising animals.
On our first visit, we met Iqbal Hussain, who was picking up plant waste at the dump – something he does twice a day to feed his cattle. Originally from Barpeta, Hussain also migrated to Guwahati 10 to 15 years ago when the Beki River washed away his family’s land. He first worked as a handyman in construction before switching to cattle farming a few years ago. His family raises 19 animals in all.
His cows are fed undermine (wheat bran) and Dana (cereals) mixed with water twice a day, apart from the plant waste that it picks up. In contrast, male cattle are not fed and instead graze in nearby fields and on waste from the landfill. That’s why, we were told, we found a lot of cattle near Boragaon. Hussain did not explicitly say that his cattle consume garbage, but he said he could recognize his cattle in the commotion at the dump and would answer their call.
Searching for food is one of the main reasons cattle are found at the dump, but they rest, ruminate, sleep, and even groom themselves here. We also saw a pack of four to five dogs running, sniffing, playing with each other and with children, while kites flew overhead. A few large adjutant storks watched from the tops of the desert hills, while others scavenged with people and livestock.
Changing waste landscapes, ecologies and practices
Such were the daily routines in Boragaon at the start of 2021. At that time, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), under pressure from the order of the National Green Tribunal and the Government of Assam, attempted to relocate the dump. In June, the GMC began dumping the city’s waste at an old thermal power station in Chandrapur, about 26 km east of Guwahati.
Located next to the Kolong and Digaru rivers, which connect to the Brahmaputra, this site was also considered environmentally sensitive. Soon, a “Chandrapur Dump Site Protest Committee” was born and organized protests involving residents, student political organizations and activists, and clashed with the police. The unrest forced the dump to move in August 2021 to a new, still temporary site just one kilometer from Boragaon, at Raju Parking in Betkuchi.
The government, which made these decisions with the help of the court because Boaragon threatened the Deepor beel, did not specify what they meant for the human and non-human inhabitants of Boragaon, who were largely invisible in the process. The result of these changes has been an altered ecology of the waste landscape as well as lives and livelihoods people integrated into this space.
We visited Boragaon again in September 2021 and the site had obviously changed. The amount of litter and the activity of humans, animals and birds had decreased significantly. We could only see a few women and children walking around with their cattle.
We spoke to informal waste workers and cattle herders in the area, most of whom are Miyah. They revealed some concerns, first when the landfill was moved and protests during court hearings, then when the state government passed the Assam Cattle Preservation Act 2021 (replacing the 1950 instrument of the same name by stricter provisions).
This law changed the landscape of Boragaon. Many families sold their livestock because they feared religiously motivated violence (the Miyah are Muslims) and turned to waste. On the other hand, and for other reasons, those who continued to raise cattle were worried because their cattle were not allowed to graze on the new landfill. It has made life more difficult for herders, told us Asim Ali, a 14-year-old whose family raises seven cows.
And even though the new landfill was only a kilometer away, the garbage collectors’ misfortunes were also increasing. Usman Ali, who collects glass bottles for a living, told us he had to spend an extra 50 rupees to visit the new site. Saleema and Sania Begum, sisters from Pathsala, said their incomes have been significantly affected as less waste is dumped at the new site than they used to in Boragaon.
Earning a living in waste work has therefore become more difficult and demanding – in addition to being already dangerous.
We also learned that the GMC “illegally” dumped waste at the old site, despite court orders, on occasion. Residents attributed this to the fact that the new site was not easily accessible for garbage trucks, especially when it was raining. The new site also spanned just 70 grandha (23.14 acres), up from 108 grandha of Boragaon. You can tell some trash has been dumped when activity among trash workers, dogs, cattle, storks, and kites picks up.
However, some families living near the new site have already begun to feel the effects of living near the waste. Balendra Narayan and his wife have been raising buffaloes for 70 years. They said they were taken aback by the smell and worried about contracting diseases and polluting the land.
Waste is often considered a major nuisance. Yet, as we see from the stories above, it can also be a source of livelihood and sustenance in its own right.
The Indian government has included Guwahati in the first list of 20 cities selected for the “Smart City” mission. A big thorn in Guwahati’s side, in turn, is its municipal waste. Public dialogue is currently tense between the issues that drive these two forces: urban planning and ecological and public health.
Yet there is a third group with their own interests that civil society and policy makers need to recognize and plan for. We must move beyond common discourse and encourage the active participation of humans and non-humans who inhabit Guwahati and other abandoned urban landscapes.
Research for this article was made possible by the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 Starter Grant (no. 759239), titled ‘Urban Ecologies: Governing Non-Human Life in Global Cities’.
Aditya Ranjan Pathak and Shruti Ragavan are members of the Urban Ecology Project at the National Institute of Advanced Study, Bangalore. Pathak is a research assistant and Ragavan is a doctoral student exploring the natures, cultures and politics of cattle in the cities of Delhi and Guwahati.