In an average Indian household, an old shirt gets converted into a pillowcase. It then morphs into a floor cover or a foot towel or even into a kitchen towel. My grandmother used to speak of tearing the old shirt into pieces to be used as fuel for the chulha.
She would often tell us a story of a king and a Buddhist disciple. The king gifts 500 new garments to the disciple who goes on to describe how he would make use of the garments even when they got old.
This story, I later realised, was nothing but a sustainable recycling model for old clothes. Today, the old worn out shirt finds its way across states and nations to create a billion-dollar industry of second-hand clothes. What is old and disposable for one, becomes brand new for another.
Arpita Joshi, an upper middle class resident of Dadar, a Hindu colony in the heart of Mumbai, gives away old worn out saris, trousers and skirts each year to her house maid or exchanges them for new steel utensils from the woman visiting her doorsteps once every few months.
She is deeply satisfied with this frequent act of charity and believes to have helped the poor in her own small capacity. Little does she know that her maid never wears the sari that she had donated, nor does she care to ask the ‘utensil woman’ about how her “waste” is being managed all these years.
Susan Thomas, a homemaker in Kensington, London, who is in charge of her home’s spring cleaning, donates the worn clothes to the charity clothing banks located down the street. She believes that these would be used to help the poor in Asian and African nations. So do thousands of other families discarding more than a million ton of clothes each year in the UK and the US. It hardly occurs to Thomas that a poor, rural Indian woman she thinks she helped with her worn-out skirt, wears nothing other than a sari.
An evident missing link
The privileged across the globe – those who can afford first-hand clothes and discard them after minimal usage or once they are no longer in fashion – believe that they have been helping the poor by these donations.
Meanwhile, Goonj, an Indian non-profit working extensively to provide clothing for Indian poor, reveals some alarming statistics of people suffering in the winter solely because they do not have enough to cover themselves and of women who still use old newspapers during menstruation. A deeper exploration reveals the massive but undocumented cloth recycling trade of India, the players behind it and its international linkages.
Anthropologist Lucy Norris’s Recycling Indian Clothing and Andrew Brook’s Clothing Poverty delve into the journey of tons of old clothes that are packed and sorted from households in the UK and the US and sent to the African informal old clothes market, the Indian ‘shoddy’ industries in Panipat or the import-based textile industries at the Kandla port in Gujarat.
According to a 2005 Oxfam study, the annual global turnover of the old clothes industry is estimated to be more than $1 billion (approximately Rs 4,740 crore). A recent BBC article estimates it to have increased to $4.3 billion in 2015.
In African countries, the discarded worn clothing (referred to as saulala) is sold in informal flea markets and cater to about 85% of the African consumer demands. The ethical dimension of charity being converted into commercial profit-making goods, where the middlemen and the recycling industries eke out their cut, is widely questioned by both Brook and Norris.
According to certain critiques, this massive industry sabotages the domestic textile production, hence these imports are increasingly being banned in a few African nations. On the other hand, some writers also argue that the charities not only sort, process and ship the clothes efficiently through their warehouses, but also create massive informal work opportunities for African wholesale dealers, retailers, vendors, cleaners, repairers etc.
In comparison, the story of India’s old cloth recycling is a unique one. India has a dual old cloth recycling system, one of which operates in sheer invisibility.
Recycling old clothes: a second life
In 2008, the Indian parliament imposed a ban on the import of international old clothes seeing it as a potential threat to the country’s export-driven clothes manufacturing sector. However, this ban is only on non-mutilated clothes. Mutilated clothes have a conditional entry into India’s ports. The importers should ensure processing of the mutilated clothes and the subsequent export as blankets, rugs, pillow stuffing and the like. These waste clothes thus get a second life in Asia’s biggest recycling shoddy industries of Panipat. Interestingly, these blankets and drapes find themselves in the markets of Maasai population of Tanzania.
The real catch in importing these international clothes lies in proving that they are mutilated. Few investors at Kandla special economic zone of textile recycling association have obtained licenses to import these old clothes and set up sorting plants. They claim to provide the sorted worn garment directly to the Indian poor.
Often the containers departing from the Kandla port of Gujarat display mutilated clothes outside and hide stacks of non-mutilated second-hand clothes inside. As a result, the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India claims that goods worth Rs 550 crore illegally enter India every year through its ports and through international airports.
These old clothes further reach the markets of Sarojini Nagar in Delhi, Colaba Causeway and Linking Road in Mumbai and other bustling, urban flea markets, where the middle and the upper-middle class college students bargain for the best buy.
The alarming questions that remain unanswered are not just about the commercialisation of charity, but also about whether these illegal imports or ‘shoddy’ industries are reaching out to India’s poor. Needless to say that the shoppers at Sarojini or Colaba are certainly not the India’s poor that the Kandla investors claim to reach out to, nor are the private industrialists involved in importing the worn clothing. A deeper look into which clothes reach India’s poor leads one to the often invisible, but the oldest clothes recycling system.
Chindi bazaars: the story within
In the wee hours of the night, the colourful labyrinth of lanes at the secluded periphery of any city in India is home to a chindi bazaar. This is the nerve centre of the second-hand intra-recycling system that is unique to India and is known as the Waghri Chindi (rag) trade.
The Waghris, a nomadic community of India, identifies itself with the word ‘chindi’ and has been operating the informal old clothes recycling trade for a century-and-a-half now. They traditionally barter old clothes for new utensils from various households of almost all cities across India. Globally, textile waste management is emerging as a serious concern.
A woman draped in a Gujarati-styled sari walking across the urban residential lanes, typically on a late afternoon, balancing a bundle of clothes on her head and a stack of utensils on her shoulders, is a usual sight.
Who are these Waghris and where do the old clothes collected door-to-door go?
Searching for these answers may lead one on a journey from the narrow alleyways of Mumbai’s Sunday chor bazaar (flea market) at the midnight hour, to Vadodara’s Monday morning informal footpath bazaars. From the cluttered Waghri slum settlements of Pune to Nagpur’s chaotic Tuesday chindi bazaar.
The stories of the Waghri trade echo from the early morning Hyderabad chor bazzar to Madhya Pradesh and Kolkata’s Subhash Nagar chindi market. The clothes discarded from majority of the Indian middle-class households also travel from Ahmedabad’s Kathiyawadi settlements to Delhi’s massive Raghubir Nagar ghoda mandi old clothes market. They prefer to stay invisible to sustain their very existence.
The chindiwalis (as they call themselves) meticulously bargain at your doorstep and continue a five-to-six hour pheri or collection rounds on hot afternoons across city spaces. These clothes are further sorted, stitched, darned, patched up and ironed. The sorting spaces are either the narrow alleyways of their slums or are under railway bridges, flyovers or footpaths.
They further sell their collection in the chindi markets often held at odd hours in the city. A glance through the markets unveils traders (Waghri women and men) squatting in long lines with their clothing collection and calling out to buyers who they refer to as vyapari or middleman. The women haggle at the top of their voices to strike the best buy. These vyaparis further travel to nearby towns and cities to sell the clothes in small vending shops or pavement carts.
The next set of customers spotted in these Waghri markets are the construction workers, rickshaw pullers, and women and their children from a nearby slum.
The Waghri women further travel to nearby villages and in their weekly markets sell the clothes to the rural population that cannot afford first-hand clothes. A sari for Rs 30, a shirt for Rs 40 and clothing for children for Rs 35 are some basic rates at which the clothes are sold to the customers.
The Waghri trade, created out of a thick mesh of inter-state, intra-community linkages, gets replicated in each of India’s cities. This informal trade industry, based on the traditional barter system, brings affordable second-hand clothing to India’s rural and urban poor.
The international second-hand clothing market that often requires huge capital investment is out of reach for the Waghris. The community has created its livelihood with meager average monthly returns of Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 for a household of four.
In return for ensuring that India’s old clothes do not pile up in its landfills and for providing affordable clothing for the poor, the community faces absolute dejection, constant struggle to hold a fixed market in the city, meagre economic returns and no recognition as the recyclers of urban India.
Their markets are never a part of the urban planning programs and hence are often uprooted in the city beautification processes.
Kamilaben, a fourth-generation 55-year-old Waghri worker, who travels from Vadodara to Mumbai and back for three continuous nights to sell her collection, says, “We travel in groups and sleep at the railway stations, or bus stops or nearby pavements with our clothes bundles. The police wake us up every time in the midnight and throw away our clothes bundles. Our men then negotiate with them for some money and then we go back to sleep”.
“We trade with the rags; we are not thieves.”
The Waghris are recognised as not just a nomadic community but a denotified group. A few communities were criminalised by the British in the colonial times through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. In spite of the Indian constitution revoking this Act in 1952, the nomads are still stigmatised and referred to as thieves.
The very word, Waghri, is an abuse in the Gujarati language. This community has come a long way in their innovative trade from the days of wandering across villages on a donkey with one bundle of clothes on a side and a bundle of utensils on the other. The Waghris are traditionally a Kathiyawadi community from Gujarat with 15 sub-types. Their historical narratives traverse from the borders of Punjab and Rajasthan to the Sindh provinces of Pakistan.
However, despite the discrimination faced from urban residents, municipal planners, police officials and residential authorities, the traders have constantly evolved their profession. They now provide old saris to the grape vineyard farmers, manage the old clothes of retail chains like Big Bazaar, provide cloth wipes to industry workers, create contacts with orphanages and household maids that sell them their cloth donations and so on. Moving away from exchanging utensils for old clothes, few of the Waghris have now set up shop to directly collect old clothes from the customers in lieu of cash.
Reduced to rags
In their struggle to sustain themselves in India’s urban informal economy, these Waghri street vendors of every city are completely invisible at the international trade platform. The Waghris lack the capacity to invest capital in the imported old clothes at Kandla, and also fall short in creating trade linkages to own any avenues at the shoddy industries of Panipat.
Furthermore, they do not get employed even as skilled labourers at the factories in Kandla, their very own hometown in Gujarat. Instead, migrant labourers from Andhra Pradesh are employed in cloth sorting companies at a cheap wage.
It is also debatable whether the recent political and academic discussions on lifting the ban on imported old clothes in India would have any positive impact on the livelihood status of the Waghri community.
Their absence in the higher levels of second-hand clothing trade, absolute stigmatisation on part of the residential authorities and the non-inclusive urban planning policies have led them to identify their own profession as ‘chindi’ – an old and rejected rag. Eventually, these innovative urban entrepreneurs providing affordable second-hand clothes to India’s poor for decades, remain invisible and unaccounted for in India.