A moral politics of blame (2022)

By Sneha Sharma

The Fire

On January 28, 2016, Asia’s largest dump,­ Deonar, caught fire, engulfing Mumbai’s (India) eastern suburbs in thick particulate smog. The air quality dropped to ‘severe’ (AQI 435) as the fire released harmful dioxins into the environment. Blazing over nine days, a satellite image of the fire captured by NASA’s satellite was politicised by local and national political parties to criticize the ignorance of the ruling government. Earlier, on January 16, 2016, across the globe in Chile, the Santa Marta landfill in Santiago broke into flames and burned for three days (Valle, 2016). Dump disasters in the Global South continued in 2016 as the Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi, India also caught fire (“Bhalswa Landfill on Fire,” 2016) while Guatemala City reported a perilous landfill slide on 28th April killing three waste-pickers (“Garbage Pile Collapse Kills Three in Guatemala” 2016).

A moral politics of blame (1)

NASA Earth Observatory image of the Deonar fire by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S.Geological Survey, dated January 28, 2016 – In the public domain

Even though dump and landfill disasters are common and have catastrophic ecological impacts, they are frequently under-reported in the international media. Not only there is a paucity of qualitative research on landfill and dump disasters in the Global South, but most of them do not make it to English platforms and remain restricted to local newspapers and media. A growing body of literature points out that human-made disasters like chemical spills, gas leaks, and urban fires are not isolated cases of infrastructural deficiencies or poor governance but are emblematic of deeper structural inequalities (Bullard, 2007, 2018; Erikson, 1995; Fortun, 2001; Furedi, 2007; Knowles, 2014; Superstorm Research Lab, 2013). Moreover, these disasters and their institutional responses maintain these inequities rather than being merely exacerbated by them (Parthasarathy, 2009, 2018; Schutt, 2015).

My own ethnographic engagement with post-fire contestations at Deonar landfill from 2016-17 reveals that modern municipal waste disposal is not limited to removal of garbage but often involves a strategic churning out of unwanted people, and extreme events such as dump fires reflect the social precariousness of marginalised communities like those of waste-pickers.

Putting waste in place

Deonar is a toxic legacy of Mumbai’s colonial city planning. It officially served as an open dump prior to being regulated as a landfill site through the city’s first development plan in 1966. Though its official references oscillate between a dump and landfill, its status remains ambiguous, as efforts by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) to convert it to a sanitary landfill failed. Moreover, Deonar continues to be ubiquitously referred as a dumping ground in public discourse (henceforth referred here as a “dump”).

Located in Mumbai’s infamous M-east ward (Varshney, 2019), the 94-year-old dump is situated alongside the city’s largest slaughterhouse. These structures are surrounded by dense squatter settlements of Shivaji Nagar, notoriously known as a ‘Muslim’ slum (Contractor, 2012). The fire that began in January 2016 spread over large tracts of the dump due to the direction of wind, and the smoke ascended beyond the roofs of the squatters near the landfill, confronting the high-rises of distant gated communities.

The fire mobilized affluent and elite elements of Mumbai’s population. Protests were primarily led by the middle-class neighborhood groups against the BMC (“Smoke Chokes: Citizens Protest” 2016). During an interview with me, a resident of Raheja Acropolis (a gated community) shared,

“We live in a gas chamber; the municipality should immediately shut the dump and shift it outside the city. The dump pollution is killing us. We as law-abiding, tax-paying citizens demand the right to clean air.”

The claim above supports the concept of substantive citizenship (Holston, 2008), through which inhabitants are recognized as part of a formal workforce that pays taxes and thereby can make legally recognized claims. This implicitly establishes those outside the formal economy as non-citizens. Scholars who focus on citizenship and politics of class such as Bhan (2016) and Fernandes (2004) note that civic claims around pollution and cleanliness in India are increasingly being made by middle-class social groups, but at the expense of the urban poor. Such ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ (Baviskar, 2002) overlooks the role of affluent areas as sources of pollution and successfully employs legal tools for asserting their own aesthetics on public spaces (Ghertner, 2011).

Mumbai’s civic activists filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and other petitions in court demanding the state government and BMC permanently close the dump, shift it outside the city, and follow scientific practices of waste disposal. In response, the Bombay High Court ordered immediate securing of the dump and encouraged1 a Waste to Energy (WTE) plant as a potential ‘scientific’ solution (Rajkumar Sharma vs Shri. Pandurang Patil, 2016). Increasingly, cities are resorting to technological upgrades of waste handling and disposal through Western imported solutions (Baldwin, 2019; Gray, 2018) like mechanical sweeping and WTE plants to prevent landfill disasters (Pappas, 2017).

(Video) Professor Simon Blackburn on 'Moral luck and the peculiarity of blame'

Who started the fire?

Deonar is supported by a highly organized infra-economy (Gidwani, 2015) consisting of informal sector workers belonging to socially stigmatised caste minorities like Dalits (Thatra, 2020), Muslims, and Christians (Björkman, 2014). These waste-pickers not only face discrimination because of working with polluting substances, but are constructed as illegal and law-breaking elements in society (Mirza, 2019). These inequities are not only exacerbated by disasters like the fire, but the disaster response was part of maintaining these inequities.

Alerted by the complaints and legal interventions mentioned above, the BMC suspected the fire was an act of sabotage by unknown persons. Calling these actors out as ‘miscreants’, the BMC filed an FIR (First Information Report) against unknown persons (Bhalerao, 2016). By strengthening the narrative of blame and homogenising all waste-workers as part of a “mafia”, the BMC created a need for increased security at the site. Deonar witnessed a proliferation of surveillance by the BMC as CCTVs and watchtowers were installed, the existing damaged compound wall was repaired with barbed wire, and the Maharashtra State Security Forces were recruited to protect the site from unauthorised access. The police purportedly arrested 13 waste-workers including scrap dealers and waste-pickers (“Four More Arrested for Deonar Blaze,” 2016). The news of the arrest of waste-pickers served as an action-oriented response by the authorities and mollified the infuriated gated communities even though the charges were not proven in court (Modak, 2016).

Abdul, a waste-picker arrested in connection with the fire and later released after heavy fines told me,

“I was at my friend’s scrap shop to check out the extent of the fire because my only source of income was at risk. At that moment, a police inspector approached me and offered a free health check-up. He said they were conducting blood tests to evaluate health risks for people who were working at the dump at the time of the fire. Before I could say anything he had already put me in the police van and took me to the police station. It was only later that I came to know that I was arrested along with others on suspicion for starting the dump fire.” (Interview with waste-worker, 2016)

Abdul’s statement contradicts the officially constructed narrative of the authorities which argues that the fire was intentionally started by waste-pickers to recover metals. It raises questions about why waste‑pickers would start the fire if their livelihoods depended on unhindered access to the dumping site. Cancellation of working permits previously issued by the BMC made waste-workers ‘illegal trespassers’ and susceptible to police action. Apnalaya (a local NGO) estimates that around 1500 waste‑pickers and their families were pushed into unemployment post-fire, women being most adversely impacted because direct access to the dump allowed them to pursue multiple odd jobs and care work at home (Interview with Apnalaya representative, 2016). By making them ‘illegal,’ the waste-workers were discarded from the waste economy and forced to enter into short-term exploitative informal negotiations with security guards at the site or migrate to other precarious jobs.

Losing their reliable source of income, the waste-pickers pleaded to the BMC to resume their waste segregation activities. On September 9, 2016, around 200 waste-pickers and small scrap dealers organised a protest march to the local M-ward municipal office demanding the right to access the dump (Interviews with members of waste-picker’s association – Kachra Vechak Seva Sangh, 2016). Unlike the middle-class protests, their efforts failed to get any traction with the authorities and the media.

BMC officials failed to constructively address the waste-workers’ plight by withholding information on future plans for the dump. The waste-pickers kept navigating complex bureaucratic hierarchies for more than a year until their mobilisation dissipated. Meanwhile, the suspicion on waste-workers as ‘miscreants’ was repeatedly reproduced in BMC’s bureaucratic reports (based on documents collected during fieldwork, 2017) such as High Court Order Compliance Reports (dated 23.03 & 02.05.2016) and responses to regulatory agencies such as Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, legitimising and propagating the narrative through institutional responses. The High Court order instructed the BMC to act on the presence of anti-social elements. This blame was morally offloaded on the waste‑workers owing to their social and material ‘waste intimacies’ (Butt, 2020).

The story here resonates globally with landfill sites and dump fires where a moral politics of blame is used to justify cleansing of spaces from informal workers for creation of secured enclosures. Green‑washed projects (“Gorai Dump Yard Makeover,” 2012) like WTE (Tangri, 2021) displace existing labor-intensive informal waste systems (IJgosse, 2019) and compete with same waste-streams accessed by waste-pickers for material recovery (De Bercegol & Gowda, 2019; Demaria & Schindler, 2016). Deonar highlights that legal and administrative interventions should be inclusive of those whose voices are actively suppressed, and that a reimagining of waste management strategies (Cavé, 2020) must include waste-picker groups (Ribeiro-Broomhead & Tangri, 2021). The court and municipal authorities need to recognise the local social and economic dependencies and complexities of dumps before imposing homogenised technocratic quick-fixes.


Ethical clearance for interviews was received from the University of Bonn, ZEF Research Ethics Committee on 29/06/2016. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the respondents, but the religious identities of names have been retained for appropriate reflection of the social context.


Sneha Sharma is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Geography, University of Bonn. Her PhD work focused on the politics of waste where she looked at contestations and everyday practices of exclusion at the Deonar dumping site in Mumbai, India. She has embarked on the journey to publish a book based on her PhD research findings. She is also working on a two-year project, ‘Urban villages by the airport’ supported by the Fritz-Thyssen Foundation.


Baldwin, E. (2019, January 21). World’s Largest Waste-to-Energy Plant Set to Open Next Year in Shenzhen. ArchDaily. https://www.archdaily.com/909843/worlds-largest-waste-to-energy-plant-set-to-open-next-year-in-shenzhen

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Bhalerao, S. (2016, March 22). Second big Deonar fire doused, BMC says it was sparked off . Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/second-big-deonar-fire-doused-bmc-says-it-was-sparked-off/story-XdS6pNXcKAEG8xwzqjP2PN.html

(Video) Ethics of Blame by Thomas Scanlon

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(Video) Anger, Fear and the Politics of Blame

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(Video) Moral Luck: Who’s to Blame? - Moral and Ethical Philosophy Series | Academy 4 Social Change

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Smoke chokes: Citizens protest against Deonar dumping ground fire. (2016, March 22). Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/smoke-chokes-citizens-protest-against-deonar-dumping-ground-fire/story-Cz4RSoFtqInMw1LAWrd0lM.html

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Varshney, A. (2019, April 24). At the Deonar Dumping Ground in Mumbai, People Barely Make It to the Age of Forty . The Wire. https://science.thewire.in/politics/rights/deonar-mumbai-slum-waste-dumping-ground/

[1] Back in 2014, influenced by a national policy on SWM (revised MSW Rules 2014) the BMC was already deliberating on introducing WTE.

(Video) Moral Responsibility: WHO IS TO BLAME?


  1. Back in 2014, influenced by a national policy on SWM (revised MSW Rules 2014) the BMC was already deliberating on introducing WTE.



What's the point of blame? ›

The illocutionary point of Communicative Blame is, rather, to inspire that admixture of judgement and moral emotion that is remorse. 15 It aims to bring the wrongdoer to see or fully acknowledge the moral significance of what they have done or failed to do.

What is blame ethics? ›

Unlike dispraise, blame involves more than merely grading someone's actions or character (morally), since blame carries with it the implication that the person is responsible for their action or character. Blame, then, is a negative evaluative judgment that implies responsibility.

How do you know whether your action is morally responsible or not? ›

The judgment that a person is morally responsible for her behavior involves—at least to a first approximation—attributing certain powers and capacities to that person, and viewing her behavior as arising (in the right way) from the fact that the person has, and has exercised, these powers and capacities.

What is an example of moral responsibility? ›

For example, one may have a moral obligation to help a friend, to support a parent in old age, or to minimally respect another's autonomy as a moral agent. We can succeed in meeting, or fail to fulfil, our moral obligations.

What's wrong with blame? ›

Blame also kills healthy, accountable behaviors. Nobody will take accountability for problems if they think they'll be punished for doing so. Furthermore, learning and problem solving go out the window in workplaces that tolerate blame. Instead of learning from mistakes, blamed employees tend to hide their mistakes.

What happens when you blame others? ›

Each time we blame others for our actions, we diminish our power and enhance our sense of victimhood. And when we perceive ourselves as a victim we unwittingly foster feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and pessimism—all of which may increase our proneness for anger arousal.

Is blame a behavior? ›

Blame is defined as assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. We blame others for a number of events: so and so made us late, she made me feel guilty, they pressured me to make a decision, he made me explode with rage. Blaming others leads to several unhelpful emotions, such as resentment, anger, and hatred.

Why is moral responsibility important? ›

Moral responsibility is an important concept related to how people use their free will and must take personal responsibility for their actions. Consequences of any risks taken, must be assumed without passing the blame onto others, including the government.

How can I be morally responsible? ›

Generally speaking a person or a group of people is morally responsible when their voluntary actions have morally significant outcomes that would make it appropriate to blame or praise them.

Can someone be considered morally responsible to his moral actions and decisions without freedom? ›

A long-standing position in philosophy, law, and theology is that a person can be held morally responsible for an action only if they had the freedom to choose and to act otherwise. Thus, many philosophers consider freedom to be a necessary condition for moral responsibility.

What would you do if you were faced with a difficult moral decision? ›

Have a conversation: With the exception of extreme ethics violations, confronting the individual directly first is often the best way to manage a situation. Provide an opportunity for the person to explain his actions or to correct the behavior first.

What makes an action moral immoral or right wrong or good bad and evil in our action and decision? ›

There are actions, their consequences, and the society's perception. If our actions are for the benefit of others, then they are good. However, if they are harmful to any, they're bad.

Does moral responsibility require free will? ›

without free will there is no moral responsibility: if moral responsibility exists, then someone is morally responsible for something he has done or for something he has left undone; to be morally responsible for some act or failure to act is at least to be able to have acted otherwise, whatever else it may involve; to ...

What does it mean to be morally responsible in modern society? ›

Moral responsibility implies a knowledge and understanding of 'right' and 'wrong' and the ability and willingness to behave morally. As such, citizenship education in this area focuses on developing individuals' ability to act as moral agents in their choices, intentions and actions.

What is the full meaning of moral? ›

1 : concerned with or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior moral problems a moral judgment. 2 : able to teach a lesson of how people should behave a moral story. 3 : good entry 1 sense 13, virtuous They lead a moral life. 4 : able to tell right from wrong Humans are moral beings.

Why is blame so toxic? ›

Blaming also reduces kindness and intimacy. Blaming others forces us to give up our autonomy and gives away our power. By blaming someone else, we are actually giving up our self-determination and making ourselves a victim of their alleged mistakes. Blaming is harmful in organizational settings.

Is it okay to blame others? ›

The act of blaming, more often than not, is counterproductive to conflict resolution. Assigning blame allows the blamer to avoid taking any responsibility for their own actions and say the conflict is entirely the responsibility of the other person.

What type of person blames others? ›

#1 Narcissistic Tendencies

Narcissists are notorious for blaming everyone and everything around them. This projection happens because they believe they know how to do things the right way. Moreover, they cannot accept accountability when making a mistake, even if everyone else recognizes it.

What causes someone to blame others? ›

Projection. Another reason for blame is that we feel bad about something and want to get rid of the bad feeling, so we project that feeling at others. Blaming others sets them up as bad so we can then project our bad feelings into them.

What's the word when you blame someone? ›

criticism, accountability, burden, culpability, fault, guilt, liability, onus, attribute, charge, chide, condemn, criticize, denounce, indict, accusation, animadversion, arraignment, attack, attribution.

Is blame always negative? ›

Due to its meaning, blame is almost always used in negative contexts. It can be used in serious situations, such as those involving a crime, or in less serious ones. It gets to a point where you gotta stop blaming other people for your problems and get yourself together.

Is it human nature to blame others? ›

Psychologists have long concluded that people tend to judge others more harshly for their negative actions—assigning fault and blame more often than praise or accolades. Now we know why. New research shows the human brain is wired to react more emotionally to the bad things people do.

What is moral responsibility theory? ›

The Speaker-Meaning Theory of Moral Responsibility focuses the moral assessment of action squarely upon the agent who acts, and not upon the members of the moral community who are interpreting the agent and her action.

What are the 2 types of responsibility? ›

Two Forms of Responsibility – Organizational and Societal.

Do we have a moral obligation to help others? ›

Helping others is generally seen as morally right and morally responsible action. Yet, this responsibility has moral limits.

Who was the first to discuss moral responsibility? ›

Aristotle (384–323 BCE) seems to have been the first to construct explicitly a theory of moral responsibility. In the course of discussing human virtues and their corresponding vices, Aristotle pauses in Nicomachean Ethics III.

Why do you think it is important to be responsible for the freedom that we have? ›

With the freedom of a country comes responsibility.

Hence the people need the state mainly in order to have the courage to exist, to be brave, to be free from fear. Being able to feel secure is the foundation for everything else—building a home, raising children, doing business.

How does freedom simply affect moral responsibility? ›

In regards to the relationship between free will and moral responsibility, if an agent does not have free will then the agent is not morally responsible for his/her actions. If a person was forced to steal a car, that person is not morally responsible because it was not an action of free will.

Can freedom and responsibility go against each other? ›

Responsibility and freedom go together. If you don't want to take responsibility, you can't have freedom either. The two come together or they go together. If you shun responsibility, you have to accept slavery in some way or other.

How do you answer Tell me about a time you faced an ethical dilemma? ›

Your response to an ethical dilemma question doesn't have to involve a heroic act or a serious and life-changing event. Your answer really just needs to highlight your ethics and values as an employee. Always give an example from your professional experience.

Why making moral choices are difficult? ›

Moral dilemmas are challenging because there are often good reasons for and against both choices. For instance, one could argue that it is okay to kill one person if it would save five, because more people would be saved, but killing itself is immoral.

What are the moral dilemmas that college students face? ›

Often, freshmen face the following questions and conflicts that test their conscience and push new boundaries.
  • Do I have to conform? ...
  • Do I pick a major based on passion or post-graduate salary? ...
  • Do I have to adhere to “hookup culture”? ...
  • How do I live with someone else? ...
  • Do I party?
Oct 7, 2014

What happens when someone doesn't follow morals? ›

A person is immoral if that person breaks the moral rules. A person is amoral if that person does not know about or care about the moral rules. A person is ethical if that person is aware of the basic principles governing moral conduct and acts in a manner consistent with those principles.

Why it is better to be moral than immoral? ›

Being moral benefits us in many ways. Socially, it allows us to fit into groups better and to be in concord with others. Psychologically, acting moral keeps our reputation solid and maintains a clear conscience.

What is the most important element of morality? ›

Social morality concerns a human being in relation to other human beings. It is probably the most important aspect of morality, in that it cuts across all of the other aspects and is found in more ethical systems than any of the others.

Are we morally responsible for all our actions? ›

Most people would agree that a person cannot be morally responsible for actions that he could not help but perform. Moreover, moral praise and blame, or reward and punishment, seem to make sense only on the assumption that the agent in question is morally responsible.

What is moral responsibility example? ›

For example, one may have a moral obligation to help a friend, to support a parent in old age, or to minimally respect another's autonomy as a moral agent. We can succeed in meeting, or fail to fulfil, our moral obligations.

What are the three elements of moral responsibility? ›

  • Freedom, Responsibility, and Determinism. How is the responsible agent related to her actions; what power does she exercise over them? ...
  • Some Approaches to Moral Responsibility. This section discusses three important approaches to responsibility. ...
  • Contemporary Debates. 3.1 The “Faces” of Responsibility.
Oct 16, 2019

Why is social and moral responsibility important? ›

Social responsibility is an ethical theory in which individuals are accountable for fulfilling their civic duty, and the actions of an individual must benefit the whole of society. In this way, there must be a balance between economic growth and the welfare of society and the environment.

What is the difference between social responsibility and moral responsibility? ›

Ethics can be defined as individual, occupational, organizational, or societal morals and values, while social responsibility is the practical application of ethical concerns for the benefit of society as a whole.

Should you take the blame for someone else? ›

Shifting the blame onto someone else is a subtle way to attack them. We might do so unconsciously, but if we hold a grudge against someone for some reason – perhaps we feel they've wronged us or blamed us in the past – then if an opportunity to blame them presents itself, it can be very tempting to take it.

Should I take the blame for something I didn't do? ›

“It's best to accept responsibility when you've made a mistake at work,” Hosking said. “However, sometimes professionals feel compelled to take the blame for something they didn't do. Depending on the infraction, being the scapegoat only hurts your own reputation.”

What is the psychological term for blaming others? ›

Psychological projection is the process of misinterpreting what is "inside" as coming from "outside". It forms the basis of empathy by the projection of personal experiences to understand someone else's subjective world.

What is it called when you blame everyone else? ›

scapegoat (noun) A person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency. From this word, we have the word scapegoater, which means: scapegoater one that makes a scapegoat of something or somebody.


1. Martha Nussbaum: The Election of 2016, Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame
(DU Center for Middle East Studies)
2. Top Psychiatrist SOUNDS ALARM on Trump’s Deteriorating Mental Fitness | The Weekend Show
3. German politician: We have no moral right to blame Russia
4. Brené Brown on Blame
5. Elley Duhé - Middle of the Night (Lyrics)
6. Blame as Escapism – Marshall McLuhan

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