Electronics are rife with significance to the complex workings of the global economy: commodity circuits to produce devices like personal computers and smartphones include materials mined and manufactured from across the globe, and the recycling and disposal of these commodities has attracted significant attention due to globe-trotting electronic wastes (e-waste) as well. This dissertation begins and ends with contemplating Delhi’s diverse e-waste industries as part of the global economy, with ramifications for both the Delhi-based workers themselves and the circuits of capital in which they operate. Against the common discourse on informal electronic waste recycling labor in India as crude, polluting and hazardous work, my research argues that this local industry is rooted in the creative reinvention of electronics and their reentry into commodity circuits, rather than their disposal. I demonstrate how Delhi’s organized and uniquely efficient informal secondary use electronics industries provide environmental services for the city as well as the immaterially and materially interconnected world. This inventive repair work exists in what is otherwise conceived of as a world in the digital ‘cloud,’ the ephemeral and immaterial world of the human mind and the computer processor. Revaluing supposedly local, used and non-corporate secondary use electronics labor reveals the politics behind electronic waste management, in which access to e-waste as a valuable ‘urban’ mine is fought over through environmental governance and corporate campaigns. By understanding supposedly local electronics repair work as inseparable from global economic processes, these electronic circuits of capital reveal the global economy to be densely connected and fundamentally informal, based in a variety of illegal, legal-adjacent, unauthorized and unregulated business practices that form the backbone of India’s electronics industry. Rather than the informal sector and informal labor representing the forgotten underbelly of global consumption, I argue that not only is global trade and corporate capital dependent on informality but it is intimately entrenched in this informality as a basis for ensuring smooth capital flows. The circuits of capital are connected through the processes of moving materials both across categories (of waste/value, informal/formal, non-corporate/corporate, non-capital/capital) and across places in the world. All this positions the informal work of waste not as peripheral or ancillary to global capitalism but right in the middle of it all, enabling its flows of supply and demand through the wastage of materials along with their informal trade networks. In this way, the work of waste is not just a facilitator of global electronics production, consumption and trade but illustrative of the norms and functions of global capitalism as rooted in waste production, subterranean pathways and salvage accumulation.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2018. Major: Geography. Advisor: Vinay Gidwani. 1 computer file (PDF); xii, 279 pages.
Circuits of capital: India’s electronic waste in the informal global economy.
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