Nearly seven decades after ‘decolonization’, policymaking in India continues to be haunted by colonial categories. Focusing on the category ‘wastelands’, which has been central to recent debates on India's biofuel policies, we study how it was heterogeneously constituted during the Permanent Settlement of land revenue in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century colonial India. In particular, we trace how this category took on multiple meanings through its encounters with different human and nonhuman entities in disparate spatio-temporal settings. The entities encountered included not only ideas and moralities derived from theoretical notions such as Locke's ‘natural rights’, but also the soil and water on diverse lands, and the beings living or made to live on these lands. The multiple meanings of the category led to debates and controversies between colonial administrators regarding the ways in which the Permanent Settlement should be introduced and extended. By mapping these debates and controversies, we attempt to accomplish two things. First, we construct a narrative in which dominant colonial categories and associated rules do not possess unidirectional power to reformat colonized realities and practices. Second, we attempt to account for and recognize realities and practices that were marginalized or disregarded in the formulation of colonial administrative rules. Narratives such as ours, we hope, can help proliferate possibilities for enacting new decolonial and decolonizing practices of making, using and transforming meanings.