Plastic Millionaires

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The ever-increasing consumption is massively throwing heaps of plastic, iron and paper packaging almost everywhere in urban and peripheral Kashmir. It is a huge business that involves hundreds of people in the entire scrap management chain. Saima Bhat offers the first detailed narrative of this most-neglected activity that is so crucial to Kashmir’s life and ecology

Littered plastic at his father’s crockery shop in Batmaloo were the tools of joy for Mohammad Saleem Sheikh. Roaming in the shop as a kid, the discarded plastic items kept him busy. As he grew older, he felt an urge to make something useful of his stock, the trash.

The fate followed his dreams. At 17, he landed in mainland India to learn the process of recycling plastic.

Once back, Sheikh who had just completed his twelfth standard in 1992, started a scrap unit at Krishibal, around seven kilometres from Noorbagh. With one single machine on his ancestral land, Sheikh started with breaking plastic.

After 25 years the same unit, established on 3.5 kannals of land, employs around 45 people as seven machines are in operation. Each machine cost Sheikh around Rs 5 lakhs. The grinder machines have different sets of blades, each weighing around 10 kgs, used to grind the plastic for different purposes.

The entire space has heaps of bundled scrap leaving not an inch of land vacant. It is difficult to move around on the premises.

A leisure activity of childhood is a full-fledged process now.

Based on colour, separate tin sheds store the scrap. At least five groups of workers are busy sorting out the discarded plastics in different sections of black, green, blue, red and white colours.

Mohammad Saleem Sheikh

For what he calls as grade wise sorting, two sheds are dedicated to different colours only. There is third shed where same coloured items are ground. The process is sensitive, if there is a colour mismatch, it would result in breakage in the end product.

There is a large shed where green coloured cans of cooking oil are stored and the other side has discarded plastic items of vehicles. In the middle of this shed are compressor machines where leftover bottles of water and cold drinks are crushed. These crushed bottles are packed in bundles and sent outside J&K. There, he says, these are converted into threads used for making jeans and other clothing.

Bottles apart, the rest of the ground plastic is first changed to granules and after washing, it gets again used in making different plastic materials like buckets, pipes, and other things.

Sheikh, now 45, got the formal District Industries Centre (DIC) registration in 1997. Since then he never looked back. He kept on switching between Kashmir and Delhi to learn new techniques of the trade.

A worker sits among used Cola bottles.

Sheikh’s license came after he followed the ‘coding’ procedure himself. He travelled to Jammu, met an expert, convinced him and got his job done. “I went to Jammu and got the code from a Pandit Ji. But to make him understand what actually I wished to do was difficult. I had to get the granules first and then he got what my mode of action would be. But he was too generous to award it to me in just two days.”

Down the line after more than two decades, Sheikh registered two more units: one in Lassipora, Crystal Plastics and another in Khonmoh industrial area, Snow Polymers, both on leased land. The diversity in operation has increased his staff straight to 70, with a few non-locals as well.

The 2016 unrest, he says delayed his ‘dream project’. “I had a wish to start a unit where ground plastic could be changed to granules, which would have been the first unit in the valley, but it got delayed.

Plastic is now part of routine life and every household uses it. Some sell it after use and some throw it away on roads and in rivers. This is the scrap, Sheikh’s main raw material and it is being collected privately. “Government doesn’t seem to be bothered about those who clear the mess,” said Saleem, insisting they had to face severe problems of taxing and then less electric supply worsens the mess. “We hugely contribute to keeping Kashmir clean but in return, the government just complicate things for us.”

Sofi Mohammad Mushtaq

“Government taxes Kashmir twice. When plastic items are imported, people pay 18 percent tax on fresh plastic,” Sheikh said. “When we send the ground plastic back, we pay five percent tax again. There is relief only when a unit has a C-form.” He estimates that around one lakh people are directly related to the business of plastic, both scrap and finished.

Every week Sheikh’s unit produces at least three to four truckloads, each containing six to nine tonnes of scrap. The output increases in good weather conditions and with uninterrupted power supply.

Though he has a DG set, he avoids its use because it adds to the cost. “We have tough competition in Delhi. When they buy plastic at Rs 20 per kg from other states, they won’t buy from us at higher rates.”

The cost of raw material fluctuates like the gold rates in stock exchange. Sheikh says the cost goes from Rs 5 to Rs 25 per KG, with the maximum cost to the yellow colour, which is rarely used in Kashmir. Kashmir produces more of black plastic scrap, which earns them the minimum amount and mostly it gets trashed as wastage. “On an average one truck gives them Rs 22500. We earn 7 to 8 percent of it as net profit per month, which means plus 30, 000,” he says.

But Sheikh is not alone in this area of activity. There are many others and the competition is creating new milestones.

At another unit in HMT industrial estates, Shakti Plastics, was started by two friends. The premises of this unit are not less crowded.

Workers load shredded plastic in bags.

From foil containers, mostly used in marriages, to medicine strips and bottles, with other bottles and plastics, everything was in heaps and labourers trying to sort them out and get every item at their designated place.

Labourers then get them crushed or grind under machines and pack them in bundles. “They crush them and then get a pack in bundles so that every truck gets its maximum load,” says Sofi Muhammad Mushtaq, a baker turned businessman.

Sofi after leaving his ancestral profession met his friend Abdul Qayoom Bhat before September 2014, floods and decided to start a joint unit of making water tanks, which meant an investment of Rs 4 crores. But after giving Rs 15 lakhs for machinery in advance they changed their mind because of competition. Instead, they decided to go for plastics.

The unit started with just one grinding machine and then they got compressors. The ground plastic and compressed bottles are sent in the trucks to Delhi through consignment agents. And the scrap gets collected by labourers who are connected to local contractors.

Established on 2.5 kanals of leased land with 25 workers, Shakti Plastics earlier used to give a good profit to its owners but Sofi claims after 2016 unrest and demonetisation, their earnings have gone down. “Earlier we used to earn Rs 30,000 per truck but now we hardly make any good savings,” Sofi said. As a result, their staff strength has gone down to just 10 employees.

The plastic crushing has emerged a highly competitive area. Over the years, many recycling units came up. Many players think the competition is unhealthy because the newcomers reduce their margins and this attracts the scrap collectors who work for them.

The scrap collection has two types. People who collect it from litter, mostly outsiders who start their operations at 3 am. The other type of collection involves people who go from door to door and purchase it. It includes both locals as well as outside labourers. Scrap plastic is bought at the rate of Rs 18 per KG but same is sold to recycling units at the rate of Rs 30 by the contractors.

But most of the scrap collectors do not operate directly and individually. They work for some contractors. Bilal Ahmad is one of the contractors, who started his business in 2007 from Mehjoor Nagar area when he was a class twelfth student. He says non-local sub-contractors get labourers for him.

Workers sort out plastic items according to colour.

At his dumping yard on the rented land of 1.5 kanals of Gass Charai, Bilal gets scrap from different labourers. Few scraps collecting families operate from the same dumping site and live in tents. Here every non-local labourer is not same. They have their roles clearly assigned. If he is from Bihar, Bilal says, he would purchase scrap. Around 15 members work under one head, a sub-contractor, who is directly connected to Bilal. This sub-contractor takes money in advance from him and buys rickshaws that usually cost him Rs 10,000, for his workers.

The group that collects scrap from roads, litter, are mostly from Bengal.

Bilal, who is known as Katchra Seth among his friends, earlier had a provisional store near his house in Padshahi Bagh. Being the eldest son of his family, he always desired to have a decent earning. But one Facebook post related to ‘work of networking’ changed his life forever. This desire to work thousand hours a day got him close to his new business of Katchra. Before 2016 unrest, he had 85 Biharis’ but now the number has dwindled to 50. The unrest, he says incurred him a loss of Rs 25 lakhs.

Bilal Ahmad

Bilal mainly deals with cardboard boxes and iron. Cardboard, he busy at Rs 10, a kg. Since Kashmir lacks recycling unit, he sends it back in trucks (a truck carries three tonnes of cardboard) to a Jammu factory where it is converted back to paper and then sold out again for making cardboard boxes. Srinagar on a single day sends off 70 truckloads of cardboard, says Bilal.

Bilal, son of an auto-rickshaw driver has kept four of his employees exclusively for sorting out of plastics, copies and cardboards.

Bilal’s other main item is iron. Fresh iron he gets at Rs 4000 and discarded iron at Rs 1600, a KG.

While having a bird’s view on scrap units, he says Srinagar has nine scrap recycling units which produce maximum 70 trucks of iron each day, each truck containing 7 to 8 tonnes.

Most of Bilal’s work is handled by Farhat. A resident of Delhi, Farhat was inspired by his neighbour to come to Kashmir in 2007, for better living. He came along with his wife and two sons and got associated with a contractor who gave him land to live in Rajbagh with other scrap collectors.

After September 2014 floods, Farhat had to shift to other place and in the process, he came in contact with Bilal and then he shifted to Padshahibagh.

A man working on a compressor to crush plastic bottles.

Farhat fondly remembers the first bicycle he bought which he later got modified at a cost of Rs 10,000 according to his need. “My area of work is not specific but I prefer to roam around Rajbagh area, where residents usually take my help in doing their daily chore for free and in return they let me take scrap for free,” Farhat said.

Farhat

He usually earns Rs 700 per day but if he gets a chance to work in any partying house, he can get scrap worth up to Rs 2000. Farhat has no plans to return to Delhi. “This place is best to work. Me, my wife and both of my sons work here and our expenses are minimal which was not possible in Delhi where we had to pay minimum Rs 10000 in rent.” In Kashmir, all scrap collecting families share spaces and then contribute their rent from Rs 50 to Rs 700.

Farhat says he shares his space with five more families. Mostly their females work as domestic helpers in the same locality.

Back home, Farhat has not revealed the nature of his job. His parents know he works in world famous Kashmiri orchards. “I feel I am doing good work.”

Farhat has invited many of his friends and a few relatives to work in Kashmir. He says it is the best working place. “I even give them money in advance to clear debt back home and also to buy cycles for them. I got them for Bilal Bhai.”

The conflict has its impact on Farhat as well. Well versed with Kashmir situation, he is familiar with the local parlance of curfews and strikes. “We don’t go out on hartal days. It is quite risky.”

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