From barefoot ragpickers to rich kabariwallahs moving about in cars, the country's waste recycling industry caters to countless Indians.An attractive business proposition that most people choose …

-- AS THE sun rises over Delhi, 16-year-old Radha slings a gunny sack over her shoulder and ambles off to work. Her destination is the back-lanes of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where she and her friends rummage through roadside trash and rubbish dumps for tangled wire, cardboard, bottle caps, dry pens, toothless combs, fused bulbs and anything else that can feed the huge Indian recycling industry, the biggest in the world, and thus earn them a living. Radha and her friends are not workers of the Delhi municipality; they are, however, its unsung saviours.

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has 3-4 garbage bins - usually overflowing with waste - in each of the citys 500 authorised residential colonies. The corportion periodically activates its laggardly trucks to collect the waste over its vast jurisdiction, spending about Rs 70 crore a year (see box: Running out of options). Running parallel to the MCD'S waste (mis)management system is the teeming unorganised sector that comprises ragpickers, local kabaris, intermediaries, recycling factories and affluent businessmen. It is a multicrore business. This informal waste collection and disposal sector work starts from, literally, scratch. While domestic garbage is dumped into the municipal bins, the burgeoning uncivic litter on the roads remains unattended to by the municipality. Without Radha and her ragtag bunch, the city would be a foot under garbage every day.

Small workshops and shops take especial pleasure in dumping their waste in back-lanes rather than forwarding it to municipal bins. Adding to the mess are the unauthorised settlements that have mushroomed all over the capital, and which the MCD's network does not cover. These are the areas that the informal sector taps to make its money.

Ragpickers sell their collected waste to the kabariwallah who is often stationed close to the back-lanes. On an average, a ragpicker earns about Rs 40-50 a day. There are about 75,000 ragpickers in Delhi rounding up a monthly revenue of Rs 9 lakh.

The kabariwallah is the first of the several intermediaries in the trade, who usually own a few shacks that double as godowns for junk. Take Shankar: he operates from a back-lane near the Income Tax Office. He deals mainly in plastic and glass bottles. He buys plastic at the rate of Rs 2 per kg to Rs 16 per kg, depending on the quality. Plastics from homes - dibba-balti in trade parlance - are usually high-grade and, at Rs 16 per kg, fetch the most. This high-density plastic is recycled into buckets, grocery containers, jerrycans and oil canisters.

The cycle-borne kabariwallah, equipped with a weighing scale, scours residential colonies and buys old newspapers, magazines, plastic and glass bottles - anything, in fact, that can be classified as household junk. Old newspapers and magazines used to constitute an important part of the trade of the kabariwallahs. But with the gradual popularity of plastic bags, the bottom of the newspaper-and-envelope industry has been developing cracks for some time now, with frequently fluctuating prices of old newspapers. Even then, a persevering kabariwallah manages to earn around Rs 1,500 a month. The kabariwallah-on-wheels also sells his wares to the intermediary whom a bottomfhe-barrel ragpicker goes to.

The first level of intermediaries is also the quality control and classification unit. The broad categories of waste are: plastic, paper, textiles, glass, iron and aluminium. And each category supervises several subategories.

Plastic waste includes cable wires, broken buckets, shoe solm Polythene milk bags, oil cans, bottles, tiffin boxes and pieces of Pvc pipes. Tonnes of this waste tr;vel via the middlemen to Jawalapuri, a western suburb of Delhi. The market, which has 80 recycling units and is considered Asia's largest scrap market, houses 1,500 dealers. Each day, over 100 trucks wheeze into Jawalapuri. In a month's time, the trucks deposit 400-500 tormes of plastic that chokes Jawalapuri's lanes and by-lanes.

The market is also the dumping ground for large amounts of imported scrap. Says Ashok Jasmehra, head of the Jawalapuri Plastic Dealers' Association, "Recently, we started getting waste from Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Germany, Singapore and the US. A few months ago, one of our dealers had gone to Singapore to strike a deal for importing plastic waste."

The waste in Jawalapuri is sorted into high-density and low-density plastics. Labourers, predominantly women, comb these truckloads and are paid Rs 50-60 per day for their efforts, Recyclers prod and pick through Jawalapuri, putting the junk through their factory grinders and shredders and reducing it to manageable basics. One such businessman is Manall Chawla.

Chawla buys the dibba-batti variety of plastic and trans, ports it to his suburban Shahadara factory. He has 8 labourers who sort the plastic according to the colour, wipe off the grime and slough off labels. The material is then cut into chips with the help of a manual grinder; the chips are melted and moulded into thin plastic wires that are put through crushers. The finally product is colloquially called dana (granules), which is I to plastic goods manufacturers.

Recycled plastic is used for making, among other things, ythene bags, thick plastic waterproofs used as covering and dating material, slippers and soapcases. Recycled plastic a shorter lifespan than the original and is, therefore, aper by at least 20 per cent. In the process of conversion n plastic scrap to dana, about 6 per cent low-grade residue Mic is produced. The residue, priced at Rs 2 per kg, is grade lastic, which is then used to make black polythene. The Aity deteriorates with every cycle, but the tenacity of the ian recycling trade is evident from the fact that very little in mics is considered a total waste.

Broken gates, window sills, iron rods, wrought iron tables and mim tin containers - if it's iron and is considered scrap, it wdly finds its way to Loha Mandi (iron bazaar). The mandi dis with both household scrap and commercial junk. Vying r pcide of place could be an antique iron cupboard and parts an aircraft that pranged. When the ragpicker deposits his w scrap with the first level of intermediaries, he is paid 1 per kg after a preliminary sorting is conducted.

Says Om Prakash, general secretary of the Scrap Dealers' nociation, "There are about 4,000-5,000 shops in this mandi. id we are kabaris only in name. Our business is a very large & You should not compare us with your household is.. There is a cluster of 600-800 shops which belong to those who sort iron from the plentiful metal junk that they have collected. These are the shops of the menials, with a narrow drain setting them apart from the rest of the market.

Loha Mandi is without a processing unit. Iron that arrives here is purchased by middlemen who transport it to Haryana and Punjab, where it is melted in heavy duty furnaces. The melted iron is forged into automobile parts.

All waste paper - cardboard boxes, file and notebook covers, magazines, newspapers and computer stationery - ends up at the paper scrap wholesale market on G B Road. Truckloads of paper and cardboard - none of it recycled - are then sold to dealers in Jammu, Srinagar and parts of Himachal Pradesh Says Ishwardas Kohli, a wholesale waste paper trader, "Most cv the paper is bought by fruit vendors and is used for packing fruit in cartons, which hs why the demand is seasonal."

Some paper bag makers also pick up bulk quantities paper from here; in a virtual cottage industry, the paper is dis tributed among women and children trained to fashion 1i 'fa ia (paper bags). Yet another portion of waste goes to paper re cling factories, most of them in Rajasthan and north India.

There are nearly 20 shops of wholesale dealers on G B Road. The profit margin is about 5-7 per cent, with eac dealing with 50-60 sacks of waste paper per day. Sometimc they get large orders. As Hiranand, a deale- revealed, "Just 2 days ago I sold 32 tonnes of paper a vendor in Srinagar, which meant a transaction close to Rs 33,000 with a single customer." Trade such as Hiranand employ only I or 2 persons as assistants. His infrastructural costs are, therefore almost ntgligible. He maintains only a godon cum-shop and a telephone. And yet, he falls into t of upper crust category of kabariwallahs. He files his income tax returns every year.

Interestingly, though the kabariwallahs are igrx rant of the environmental aspect of recycling, tix not have become the providers of raw material for pa use chemicals for bleaching paper. recycling which has caught on among small entrepreneurs and a few non-governmental organisations (NGOS ) in Delhi. These NGOS such as Tara (a division of Development Alternatives) and Jan Sewa Ashram are running commercially viable handmade recycled paper units (see box: Recycled paper is the in-thing).

Unlike waste paper, plastic and iron kabariwallahs who deal only in a single material, those dealing in brass, copper and aluminium generally handle all 3. These metals are expensive and the profit margin iq low. The dealers, therefore, are stretched far and few in between.

Says Shakir Khan, who has a shop near Lahori Gate, "My profit margin is very low. It's about 1.5 per cent." Shakir deals in copper and brass items, His daily turnover touches the region of Rs 500-600.

Copper and brass are sold to small factories in the vicinity, which melt the metal and then remould them into utensils or motor parts. Another trader, M A Khan, who deals in all 3 items, says that his profit margin is 2 per cent and he saves about Rs 20,000 - Rs 30,000 a year.

Basti Harphool Singh, a place in the interiors of the capital city, is home to some glass and rubber traders. Glass and rubber are generally reused. Most of the glass bottles such as beer, juice and alcohol bottles are collected by the kabari and sold to small vendors who use these bottles for various purposes.

There are some bottles which have a high resale value because they belong to a popular brand. For instance, oil bottles belonging to Dabur Oil have a high price because these are then used by local manufactures to sell their spurious products. Another category of glass constitutes of broken bulbs, mirror strips and glass shards. Says Kulbhushan 13hatia, a rubber and glass trader, "These are generally sold back to glass factories, where broken strips of coloured glass are melted and then remoulded into marbles." A common factor among all these traders is that most have inherited this business. And though they Scrapped. waste disposal are called kabariwallahs, there are many who have amassed a fortune from this trade and have now diversified into other businesses such as hotels and real estate.

The wholesale kabariwallah is a rich man. He lives in a posh colony and commutes by car. The money in this trade attracts some people to it. For instance, Rajender Jaswal, 26, a graduate of Jawalapuri, got involved in this trade initially as a lark but when profits started pouring in, he stuck on.

Says RaJender, "My family is always trying to persuade me to take a white-collar job, but I will continue in this trade because I earn much more than what I would get as somebody's employee." Rajender is also one of the few who, maybe because of his education, feel that they are doing a great service to the environment by contributing to the recycling business.

But there is another side to this business which is perhaps of greater concern. And this is the appalling work environ- ment of those who are employed by these businessmen.

Occupational hazards
Those who collect, sort and carry the waste expose themselves to many diseases and hazards for which they get no compensation. For instance, the whole area of Jawalapuri is like a big slum which turns into a slippery slush during the monsoons. There are hardly any pucca roads through the huge square. Even the fire department refuses to bring in their trucks in case of fire, which is a major occupational hazard in Jawalapuri's 80 plastic recycling units, where plastics are heated.

According to Jasmehra, "A fraction of a highly inflammable material (camphor) in some plastic waste, is generally the cause of fire. Moreover, even though majority of the shops are pucca, most of the sorting is done in the open."

Places where plastic is crushed have chips and plastic dust flying all over. The same is the case with Lcoha Mandi. The shops-cum-godowns have poor ventilation. Labourers loading ane factory, Timarpur unloading trucks often suffer frorr. wounds. But the fear of tetanus do not bother them. Says Lovesh Sharma, who is a broker, the workers take tetanus shots when they come to work here Though many of the dealers pay wiekly or daily wages tc their labourers, most of the labour is treated like bonded sla in absence of rules and regulations regaTding employment in these mandis. Ironically, lack of governmental interference possibly a major reason behind this tl@riving recycling trade. works against the labourers. There are no welfare schemes for these people. A few NGos have tried to organise some kind o support for the ragpickers, but these labourers have yet to be noticed by authorities or welfare agencies.

High profits in this trade and the iack of regulation is nou encouraging the brokers to import junk from other countrie who are only too keen to oblige. The Directorate of Foreign Trade does not restrict import of any scrap except plastic. To import plastic a license is required. But many people such as Rajender have imported plastic waste at dirt cheap prices and made huge profits.

In 1993, India imported 7.8 million kg of plastic from the us and andher 7.4 million kg from Australia.. "Scrap impon has become a very lucrative business especially after the import regulations have been relaxed," says Sanjeev Kohli, a leather exporter who is exploring the business potential of being a wholesale waste dealer.

What businessmen like Sanjeev fail to realise is that ever. though plastic can be recycled, the process is limited. B% importing plastic waste, we are heading towards a situation where we will simply end up with more waste on our hands. Nevertheless, the recycling business in Delhi has been in existence for years. And for years it has been ignored by all except those directly involved. This is one waste management system that already has a strong economic incentive to itWhat is required is that this unorganised sector, be effectively utilised in handling the city's waste.

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