At a time when braid choppers have triggered a sort of crisis, Saima Bhat moved out to cover a story never touched before. She met scores of men and women, heard their tales of struggle to tell an amazing story about how they make a living by collecting human hair from women across Kashmir. Remember, they have nothing to do with chopping as they do not require damaged hair
Almost eighteen years ago, Shafik-ul-Mian fell in love with Moomina Mian. They married against the wishes of their families. Fearing a backlash, they fled from their Jaipur home in Rajasthan.
For living a fulfilling life, their only destination was Kashmir. Once they drove in, they started dreaming about starting a new life. With meagre earnings, they could not do anything. They started working for a local scrap collector in Srinagar’s Magarmal Bagh. With every passing day, life was becoming difficult as Achay Din were nowhere around.
Witness to the hardships, Moomina, mother of four daughters now wanted to help her husband. A school dropout at the fifth primary, she was inclined towards business since her childhood. In Jaipur, she was the manager of her father’s business. “I was always good at business. In Jaipur, I used to manage accounts section of my father’s business of scrap collection,” Moomina said.
Exploring options, Moomina, one day, had a Eureka moment. She was combing her hair and, all of sudden, she started thinking of collection of human hair. As she went to implement the idea on the ground, it was a smash hit. The couple along with their children started to live a decent living.
To begin with, Moomina reached out to her husband’s contacts. She along with Shafik, known as Kaala in his scrap circle mobilized scrap collectors and asked them to collect human hair. They agreed. In a rented accommodation where her in-laws live, one room was identified for this business.
The first week’s labour fetched her five kilograms of hair that got her Rs 250 per kg – not a bad start.
The business started flourishing. Shafik started going to Punjab where he sold the hair to a contractor, who later transported it to Kolkatta. Later Shafik managed to deal with Kolkatta dealers directly and raw material was sent by air.
The quantum of hair increased as the number of collectors appreciated. With the help of around 10 labourers, mostly from Kolkata, she now manages to collect around 50 Kgs a week at a cost of around Rs 1600. With profit ranging from Rs 50-100, she sells it to a factory at around Rs 1700 per Kg.
Zareena, a Bengali woman, married to a Kashmiri in Budgam’s Abaadpur works for Moomina. Her operation is based on barter. She takes hair pins, rubber bands or balloons from Moomina. She distributes these pins and rubbers among the children of her area and in return, they keep on collecting human hair from homes or thrown out on roads.
“My husband is a labourer and getting work every day is not a routine,” Zareena said, who speaks both Bengali and Kashmiri. “We are struggling hard to feed ourselves, two kids and my brother-in-law, who was born handicapped.”
But what is interesting is that most of this ‘dollar’ driving business in Srinagar, Sopore and Budgam is managed by a local, Muhammad Yousuf Lone, 39, a computer diploma holder. He operates from his shopping complex in Barbarshah, Srinagar. For nine years, he is managing the human hair wastage from most parts of Kashmir.
“I am from a different business background but some labourers, who were living in my property on rent, got me into this business in 2006,” Yousf said. “They were into the collection of human hair but then they were doing it for a contractor from Kolkata. They needed the support of a local and requested me if I could work with them.”
Initially, Yousuf along with his doctor friend, Dr Ishfaq, started working with fifteen labourers from Assam, and the Kolkata based contractor, who used to give him money in advance, from Rs 50,000 to Rs one lakh. He felt it might be a good business and started it. He says then, one kg of hair would fetch him Rs 400, which he used to send his contractor with a profit margin of minimum Rs 20 to maximum Rs 100.
Most of the big hair processing companies are located in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, and Delhi, says Yousuf. For one year he was dealing with only one contractor ‘blindly’. But then he decided to visit these factories himself in Murshidabad and Midnapore, and started dealing directly. It was after this visit that Yousuf’s idea got clear on what happens with the hair he sends to these factories. Now, he has mastered the understanding of the process that starts with the combing at home.
Yousuf said he needs only women tangled hair left in a comb, usually with root, a good and full length of hair. Rest of the hair, cut with scissors at home or in salons, is ‘useless’. They untangle every single strand of ‘costly’ hair first and then do its combing. It goes under wash, then it goes for fancy processing where the different size of hair gets separated. Finally, it lands in China where it undergoes further processing of dying, wafting or stitching to create the bundle of extensions. The final destination for long hair is fashion industries and for smaller sized hair are the hair transplant clinics across the globe.
After the 2014 floods, most of Yousuf’s business vanished and his partner refused to work with him. But he found two more friends, Qasim Ali and Mudasir Ahmad, who were interested to join him. He says he always need manpower to deal with the labourers.
The collection of human hair happens through networking. “If I have 10 labourers associated with me but each one of them is connected to 10 more.” In 2017, Yousuf says he had around 200 labourers in Srinagar who mostly go door to door for hair collection and a few contractors in Sopore and Magam areas, who have their groups of labourers and they manage to send him their supply of 20 kgs each per week. But the contractors in Islamabad district are dealing directly with the factories in mainland India.
Presently, he sends around 150 kgs of hair per week by air to factories in Bengal through a local courier company.
Over the years, he says, his net profit margin of Rs 20 to 100 has remained same but the overall value has gone up to Rs 2000 per Kg for the hair collected from roads and Rs 2400, when the hair is clean, or shampooed hair, usually collected from door to door. Interestingly, winters are the best season for them because they get clean hair, which fetches good money. It happens only when women use hot water to wash their hair which creates more hair fall.
Yousuf believes the texture of Kashmiri hair is good so they always find a good market but the overall demand is decided by China, a major player in the market.
Abdul Khaliq, an Assame, is in Kashmir along with his family for last the 11 years now. He shifted to Kashmir to earn a better livelihood and get his family out of debts. In Assam, he used to help his father in fields but that did not provide them with any relief.
In Kashmir, Khaliq started with the selling of low-cost cosmetics in rural areas but at times he was given human hair by womenfolk. He started collecting it without knowing what he can do with it. Almost after a month, he found some of his colleagues too were collecting it and selling for a good amount. After three years he changed his main profession to hair collection and selling cosmetics became his secondary. It used to earn him around Rs 500 a day.
Over the years, Khaliq is supervising 10 labourers guiding them how and where to collect hair. It gives him a margin of Rs 50 to 100 per kg. His labourers also follow his pattern, collection of hair in barter of hairpins in return and cosmetics. Initially hi,s wife also used to go for collection but she stays home now. He has admitted his kids to a local school.
Khaliq is quite familiar with the roads and villages like Kralpora, Chrar e Shrief, Bandipora, Gurez, Srinagar and even the other side of Jawahar tunnel where he or his men go for hair collection. He says he has always met ‘nice’ people who never stop him from taking their leftover hair. “They are very generous people,” Khaliq said. “They help poor people like me. Some of them give it to us free without taking any pins in return.”
Another labourer Anwar Hussain, 28, from Assam, is in Kashmir since 2009. He has six siblings. He was suggested by his maternal uncle to come to Kashmir to make a good earning. Initially, he used to accompany his uncle to learn the art, and then after a month he started going out of his own.
Every day he used to get 300 grams and then collect it for a week at his rented accommodation in Habba Kadal. On Fridays, he used to hand it over to Yousuf like many other labourers including men and women.
Over the years Hussain started getting more labourers from Assam, his friends, neighbours and a few relatives. He has rented six rooms presently and has given them to his labourers. “I have studied up to higher secondary level so they ask me to maintain their accounts. I earn a profit of Rs 100 from one kg from their collections. On an average, they collect 15 kgs a week.” He says most of the hair collection work is dominated by Muslims, almost 95 per cent and then at factories mostly Hindus, work. But in other states of India, labourers earn very less so Anwar says Kashmir is a good option for labourers like him.
Anwar says it is good for labourers to like him to work with a Kashmiri who can take their responsibility. “It is a conflict region so you never know when you are caught in any untoward situation,” Anwar said. “We need to have a local who can own us in such situations.”
Recently a hair collection labourer was beaten in Doda by some locals for the braid cutting incidents. But Yousuf says such kind of hair, short length, is not needed by them. “It is of no use. We have to throw out such length of hair. Moreover in, these braid cutting incidents the culprits leave the braid there then why do they beat up our labourers.”
Yousuf sees hair collection as a good business which is used by the cream of society in advanced societies but at the same time, he refuses to take his photograph for the fear of social stigma, who sees it as ‘wired’ kind of business.
Moomina has a contradictory view. She says she is face to face with decline as there is intense competition around. “It is my business’s downfall,” Moomina says most of her labourers are now working with other contractors.
A leader of the trade, Moomina had given her labourers money in advance for different things but they left her robbing her off Rs 2.50 lakhs, she alleges. The other hindrance she feels is that she cannot provide accommodation to labourers. “I don’t have facilities like free accommodation by which I can lure them to work for me.”
With the upsurge of many others including locals in this business, Moomina wants to wind up her business from Kashmir, as she is not able to take many labourers along.
The main player now, Yousuf, Moomina claims has lured her labourers. She has registered FIR against him in Shergari police station for a scuffle. As feds go on, the business is unstoppable. Almost two decades after the start of this business, the collectors alone earn more than one lakh rupees, a week. The demand is soaring because Kashmiri hair is decently different.