Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India wins the prestigious Reid Prize.

Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India wins the prestigious Reid Prize.

President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, Professor Kate McGregor is thrilled to announce the winner of the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s inaugural Reid Prize, the most prestigious prize in Australia and New Zealand for work in the field of Asian studies that has made an exemplary contribution to the understanding of Asia. The 2022 winner is the co-authors Professor Assa Doron (ANU) and Emeritus Professor Robin Jeffrey (La Trobe University/ANU) for the book Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (Harvard University Press, 2018). The authors of this outstanding book will present the Reid lecture at the upcoming ASAA 2022 conference, to be held at Monash University from 5-8 July, 2022.


In 2022 the jurors for the Reid prize were Professor Krishna Sen, Emeritus Professor Purnendra Jain, and Professor Anne Mclaren. They have prepared the following citation in recognition of the author’s achievements in this publication.

In Waste of a Nation, anthropologist Assa Doron and historian Robin Jeffrey offer unparalleled insight into waste management in India. Readers who view rubbish, trash, and sewerage as simply a prosaic feature of everyday life will be amazed at the complexity of the Indian waste system. Doron and Jeffrey invite us to ponder the successes of Indian waste practices (particularly recycling) and its failures (air pollution, childhood stunting, endemic disease). The authors argue that India’s waste problems are exceptionally difficult to solve.  India has a higher population density even than China; there is very little land free to process waste, and Indians hold tight to ideas of purity and hygiene that exclude all but the lowest classes from handling waste. Waste collection is universally prevalent but is also unorganised, unsafe, unhygienic, and a leading cause of environmental degradation.

The use of the word “nation” in the title points to the significance of waste for the people and its governance. Waste can provide the nation with wealth but it can also lay waste to the environment and the nation’s health. At a deeper level, the continuation of historic prejudices that confine waste and sewage removal to the marginalized classes, especially the Dalits, points to the laying waste of the nation’s spirit.

Waste of a Nation is based on previous scholarship as well as a four-year long investigation by the authors. It presents a comprehensive and panoramic account of waste of all kinds (sewerage, chemical and electrical waste, domestic waste, plastic, human hair) in fascinating detail. The outstanding feature of the work is the way that waste of all kinds and the humans who dispose of it provide a lens through which to view the whole of Indian society, from the high-waste consumers of the middle-class, to the humble gatherers of human hair in temples, the entrepreneurs who seek to create wealth from recycled waste, and the well-meaning bureaucrats and sanitation engineers who seek to carry out the government’s Swach Bharat policy to eliminate outside defecation.

This book offers an exemplary contribution to international understanding of Asia but transcends Asia. As one reviewer noted: “the book is as much about waste in the twenty-first century as it is about India” (Dagna Rams). Since publication in 2018, the work has been acclaimed internationally in leading academic and public journals and newspapers and is now included in courses at leading universities in the US, UK, Israel, India and Australia. The authors have been interviewed in leading public affairs programs and presented seminars in India, the US the UK, Europe, Singapore and Australia. In addition, the authors have engaged with leading Indian corporate bodies involved in waste management and inspired at least one start-up company. The impact of this book has already been far-reaching and promises to remain the compulsory work on this subject for many years to come.

The ASAA Council thanks Emeritus Professor Tony Reid and Helen Reid for their generous endowment and The Australian National University as mutual partner in administering the ASAA Reid Prize.

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