A Ragged Life

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Ever thought how many hands do a piece of scrap changes before it reaches its final destination. Zafar Aafaq follows the journey to understand the process  

A piece of scrap thrown into dustbin or on the roadside passes through many hands before it gets processed.

One such hand is of Abdul Rehman’s. Born in Kolkata, Rahman, 21, picks rag from Srinagar streets, on alternative days only. “I start my day at 2 pm,” said Rehman, who roams around Barzulla area on his make-shift cycle driven cart. His first stop is municipality installed dust bins. Then roadsides, shops, public places, and finally he scans common dumping areas. “I earn between Rs 300 and 500 a day,” said Rehman.

But Rehman is not alone. There are around a thousand boys, girls, men, women, children, scavenging though streets of Srinagar every day. “We keep this city clean. Yet we are invisible to everybody,” said Rehman, who puts up in a shanty on the backside of posh Mehjoor Nagar locality.

A walk through these shanties and a different world emerges in front of you. Rented for Rs 5000, each shanty has a colour TV and a dish antenna.

After collecting the scrap Rehman empties his cart at a local contractor’s warehouse in Mahjoor Nagar.  The contractor then sells the scrap to a dealer. As part of tradition, a dealer has to pay in advance to the contractors’ to keep him hooked.

“We pay around Rs 50,000 in advance to our contractors,” says Umar Jan, a dealer from Rainawari. “Otherwise they would do business with other dealer who might pay them more.”

Till last year, Umar was a contractor, who would sell scrap to dealers bought from individual rag pickers. In March 2016, Umar invested Rs 10 lakh in scrap dealer Bilal Ahmad’s business. “We are now partners,” said Umar, while sitting inside Bilal’s Mehjoor Nagar godwon. Umar sees his shift from a contractor to dealer as progress.

A little distance away, Firdous Sofi, 32, is reclined against a big sack of newspapers, puffing a cigarette, in his godown made of tin sheets. “I am in this business for last fifteen years,” said Firdous. Before entering into scrap business Firdous was a cloth merchant. “It didn’t earn me much. That is why I switched to scrap business,” said Firdous. Two years back he entered into partnership with Farooq Ahmad.

In September 2014, Farooq lost his bakery shop to floods.

“After the floods, the owner of the shop refused to renew my contract unless I pay fresh money (mithai),” said Farooq.

Disturbed, Farooq approached Firdous and offered to invest in his business. “After Allah, I am thankful to Firdous for helping me in need.”

The partners start their day at 8 am. “Ours is a twelve hour job,” said Farooq. Throughout the day they receive heaps of waste from both individual scrap collectors and scrap dealers.

Farooq’s entry as partner has eased Firdous’ workload.

“We make a collective profit of Rs 50,000 a month on average,” said Firdous. The partners are now planning to expand their business. Presently they operate from a two kanal rented plot located at Mehjoor Nagar bund. There are four other godowns in the areas. Walled by semi corroded tin sheets, these godowns store heaps of iron, tin, copper, aluminium, plastic scrap and newspapers, books, notebooks and many other things.

Another famous destination viz-a-viz scrap business is Babademb area of old city. There are a number of shops who deal with scrap. But the area is famous because of its five big godowns. “This place manages entire downtowns scrap,” claims Gulzar Ahmad, who owns one of the five facilities.

Gulzar feels that the business was more profitable when he started some 35 years back. “There was hardly any competition then,” said Gulzar. “Now there are dealers in every part of Kashmir who directly deal with businessmen outside state.”

However, still, every month Gulzar sells three to four trucks of scrap to factories in Jammu.

Babdemb saw boom in scrap business after September 2014 floods. “Everyday thousands of people would come to sell damaged and unusable goods,” said Gulzar.

Till recently, because of floods, each collector used to bring two to three carts of scrap every day at Gulzar’s Babdemb godwon. “Not it has gone down to normal,” said Gulzar.

After floods, there was a surge in customers too. “People would come looking for cheap replacements,” said Gulzar.

Bilal Ahmad, whose house was submerged in flood waters for weeks, bought hose-pipes from a scrap dealer in Bamdemb. “They were cheaper than the market,” said Bilal.

But there is a flip side to Babdemb’s post-flood revival story too. “With so much of flood infected scrap dumped in these godowns, the area stinks,” said Bashir Ahmad Kawa, another scrap dealer. “No doubt I make living out of scrap but the smell is unbearable.”

Kawa blames government for not having any clear-cut guidelines for people like him. “Our godowns are like eyesores in otherwise beautiful Shehr-e-Khaas,” said Kawa. He is willing to relocate if government provides him with alternative space. “They can shift us to city outskirts.” Over last few years a number of godwons have come up in city outskirts like Bemina and HMT. They cater mostly to Budgam district.

Each month, a dealer of Firdous and Farooq’s scale buys around eight tons of metal scrap, five tons of plastic scrap, and one ton of paper. Though buying rates vary from dealer to dealer, Firdous and Farooq buy iron at Rs 16.5, tin at Rs 9 and plastic at Rs 7 per kg.  “Our profit margin is ten per cent only,” said Firdous.

After the payment is made, Firdous and his partner sort the scrap. “We keep metal aside it needs a bit more processing,” said Firdous.

At the end of month the scrap is loaded into trucks and sent to factories for processing and recycling. “A truckload of iron scrap is worth Rs 1.5 lakh, while plastic gets only Rs 30 thousand,” said Firdous.

At the factory, iron is melted and drawn in rods and angles, while aluminium is recycled into products like utensils etc.

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