Knowledge systems characterised by classification, categorisation, and data collection underlie efforts to govern. This paper critically examines knowledge collected by central governing entities in India about waste in an urban local body – specifically through the National Cleanliness Survey or Swachh Survekshan. Relying extensively on field work in Rajpur (2018–2019), one of the highest ranked urban areas in the survey, we reflect on the process of knowledge creation. We find that, even as we come to know, understand, and treat waste, existing hierarchies of race, class, caste, and gender find ways of re-expressing themselves. Intimately tied to its preoccupation with the occupation of physical space, the state’s (and by consequence, the dominant) gaze at waste is primarily a visual one with the central project stripping the knowledge of sensory aspects in efforts to enhance claims of ‘scientific’ knowledge. Much like the mechanisms of the state, formal processes of research too have privileged ways of seeing and hearing (through photographs, writings, and presentations) as opposed to other sensory means of learning like smell and touch. Smell and touch that shape knowledge systems intimately and are the fundamental organising principle of several social norms, like caste, in South Asia are rather difficult to capture. Drawing on a bricolage of methods – including primary field work, document analysis, and visual data, this paper explores waste as entangled in gender, caste, and colonial histories. Further, it lays a pathway for a multi-sensorial understanding of (in)visibilisation.
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