Scrapscape: Waste, Trade, and Urban Ecologies in Contemporary Delhi
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Scrapscape: Waste, Trade, and Urban Ecologies in Contemporary Delhi

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Scrapscape: Waste, Trade, and Urban Ecologies in Contemporary Delhi develops the concept of the scrapscape, a dynamic, discontinuous, and translocal urban form-in-the-making that emerges from the embodied labor, lifeworlds, knowledge and material practices, and experiences of people who work with and structure value into metallic discards. It is based on multi-sited research over eighteen months including ethnographic fieldwork conducted in one of India’s largest metal scrap and parts markets, a case-study focusing on transnational scrap trade circuits developed through the site of the dry-port, and continued archival, newspaper, and policy research regarding the governance of and public engagement with waste and scrap materials in India. These sites and materials offer insights into the material cultures and relational ecologies that emerge around the global trade in discards, postcolonial capitalism, urban lifeworlds, inequality and belonging, and governance in the differentially distributed Anthropocene.“Leela Market”, popularly known as one of Asia’s largest metal scrap and parts markets, is a space in which used or discarded vehicles and industrial machinery are gathered, transformed, and further circulated as commodities, raw materials, replacement and repair parts, and novelty and custom crafted items. Taking Leela Market as a central node in a discontinuous and multiple scrapscape, I examine how the transformation of metallic discards is entangled in histories and biographies of displacement and migration, sedimented work cultures and material experimentation, and more recently, controversies regarding radioactivity and environmental pollution and toxicity. The dry port, based on infrastructure built around the multi-modal transportation of the shipping container, emerges as a node through which imported scrap metal enters the city’s surrounds as secondary raw materials to produce metal goods. The dry port brings together a variety of infrastructural entities that make possible the transoceanic and transcontinental trade of scrap metal including an expansion of multi-modal transport infrastructures, the creation of standards and specifications to trade scrap materials, institutes to oversee the arbitration of disputes, and even new divine entities. The primary focus of the ethnography is the scrap market, which makes up the subject matter of Chapters 1, 2, and 3. The dry port and its associated scrapscape is explored in Chapter 4, setting up lines for further research at a moment of increasing state and industry investments in it. In Chapter 1, I focus on the space of Leela Market and the problem of its location in the city. I outline some of the methodological tactics I employ to study the complexity of Leela Market and to follow its composition through dynamics of dislocation and sedimentation and periodic re-constitution. In Chapter 2, I render the activities of the market, composed by the refrain (both aural/oral and gestural) of “blackening one’s hands” as it marks the body and establishes memory and a sense of place. I offer an account of the scrap market as an experimental space and phenomenal site to engage with alternative histories of technological inquiry and experimentation, and forms of knowledge that emerge there. In Chapter 3, I study an incident in which radioactive Cobalt-60 caused death and radiation sickness in the market and public responses to it in the parliament, media, and state and green courts. I explore the contingency and unpredictability of regulatory action, and its intensifying effects through multiple domains of jurisdiction. Chapter 4 is a study of the partially connected yet contrastive domain of trading practices established around the transnational trade of scrap metal through the site of the dry port. I study how scrap portals create, maintain, and provide pathways of proximity as scrap traverses transoceanic, transcontinental, and transnational circuits of trade. The conclusion charts out new lines of inquiry in the ever-expanding scrapscape. Each chapter in this dissertation ends with a ~residue~ a trace and fragment that informs us about presence and process in the city and the world at large. Chapter 1 explores what it means to claim to be the “first” ones on resettled industrial land as various cumulative states and moments of dispossession sediment in the postcolonial city. Chapter 2, concerned with work and experimentation asks what kind of ‘metallurgist’ inhabits Leela Market. Chapter 3 argues for the simultaneous presence of partial and contested ‘waste regimes’ that challenge the very definitions of waste and the economic. Chapter 4 navigates divine interfaces and powers over newly emergent territories.

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