The invisible textile recyclers of India

Updated: Apr 8

Chindiwalas helping in textile waste recycling
The chindimarket at Thane (East) is about to commence. The chindiwalas in the meanwhile relax for a few minutes on the roadside under a shade. Each chindiwala’s spot on the street is reserved by placing the ‘potlis’. All potlis are placed in an organized manner to ensure that their business doesn’t interfere with the regular hustle bustle and pedestrians walking on the street.

By the term "invisible recyclers", we mean an estimated 1% of the population in urban areas who are involved in collection of waste such as paper, plastic, textiles and so on, on a day-to-day basis. They are truly ‘invisible’ since they play a silent and unacknowledged role in keeping our streets cleaner. For now, we’ll title them ‘Invisible Heroes’ of the environment. On the other hand, there exists the other 99% of the urban population, out of which say, more than 90% are those typical urban citizens who may not think twice before throwing an empty packet of wafers in the corner of a street, with a confidence that there is an Invisible Hero in the ‘overall system‘ whose primary job description is to pick it up.

For decades and maybe centuries, these Invisible Heroes have been complimenting and sharing the work load of the local municipalities in a perfectly synchronous manner. Their model is totally decentralized, cheap and extremely efficient. This is the perfect model, which no single organization has been able to achieve on a large scale basis. Most of the people from this community are so poor that they live out of the earnings made from each day – if there’s no earning on a particular day, there’s no food. While more discussion on this community and the problems they face is an entire area of research and is widely published too, we’ll focus the topic of our discussion on the Invisible Heroes of the textile sector – Waghri community, who are also the less researched and publicized among the Invisible Heroes’ community.

This group engages in trading of second hand textiles, and finds its roots from Gujarat. Right from the 1700’s this community has been mired with stigma and economic poverty. Owing to the nature of their profession and history, this community did not easily fit into any caste and tribe categories that were formalized during the colonial period. This resulted in Whaghri being a denotified group. Among a series of regressive and disruptive laws that the British introduced during their rule in India, they also introduced Criminal Tribes Act (1871), through which these communities were also criminalized thereby extending their image as thieves. Although India revoked this Act in 1952, the damage that British laws did to stigmatize these tribes, still prevails. Thus, their history has forced them to remain Invisible.

In today’s time, this community is also called ‘chindi-walas’ and can be found in the streets like Chor Bazaar or Govandi in Mumbai, and in many other chindi markets in Delhi, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Hyderabad and other cities. In a broader sense, the Waghri community form a part of the overall chindiwala community. These chindi-walas typically collect their raw materials by doing hard bargains during collection rounds in narrow streets of each city, often extending to 6-8 hours. In addition, whenever a typical upper or middle class family donates their clothes to their maids with a satisfied sense, most often these clothes end up with a chindi-wala. The collections are mostly carried in a typical ‘potli’ (a common term used by chindi-walas, where approx. 40-50 pieces of garments are tied together using a long piece of cloth like a saree or a dupatta. Each potli is large enough to be carried on a shoulder and small enough to be fit into a standard mode of transport).

In older times, the chindi-walas used to exchange the collections with steel utensils. However, in recent times, with the increasing formation of Housing societies, these chindi-walas are mostly barred from entering housing societies. Thus, their interactions with the actual donor has reduced significantly. In addition, wherever barter is possible, the tradition of steel utensil exchange has been replaced by plastic items. Their business model has however evolved over the times, with the professional chindi-walas today dealing with collected clothes from the retail chains also. Today, most of the textile collections take place against cash directly.

The clothes are further sorted, and repaired or ironed as per requirements. This processing often happens in the narrow lanes of their slums, below bridges or in non-noticeable workshops.

A ‘chindi-bazaar’ is a term that relates not just to a geographical place of existence of a bazaar, but also to a particular time when the market exists. For example, in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar, the morning of every Friday from 4-7 am is a called a typical chindi-bazaar, where trade happens on the narrow streets. The 3 hours slot is the timeframe that a chindi-wala has to get the best price for his chindis. The first round of buyers are typically middlemen who pick up the best quality of the lot and re-sell the garments in nearby towns, small shops or on footpath. The next set of customers are typically the workers, laborers, truck drivers, and nearby slum dwellers, who get the garments for a slightly cheaper price since the best ones are already taken away. These chindi-walas also travel to various nearby towns and cities where the weekly chindi-markets are held. Upon dawn, the chindi-walas would pack up their potlis with leftover garments and disappear in a matter of a few minutes. The streets and pavements are transformed into its original form, and normal business of the chor bazaar shops would resume.

Such chindi-bazaars are the nerve centres of the informal textile recycling systems that India possesses, which bring affordable second hand clothing to India’s rural and urban poor in a cost effective manner. For perspective, an estimated 15-20 Tons of trading of second hand garments takes place per day during the Friday Chor Bazaar market in Mumbai alone. If one may consider each chindi-market across India, the total traded figure could be mind boggling. You may also imagine the extent of textile dumping or other means of hazardous disposal that may take place in the absence of such an informal cost effective recycling system.

In return for the thankless job carried out towards the environment, these chindi-walas still face desolation, poverty, and receive no recognition as the recyclers of India. They are never a part of any town planning, due to which most of the chindi-markets are carried out only in the early hours of a day when the city sleeps. The people carrying potlis sleeping in stations and the pavement are still seen as thieves and treated with disrespect by municipalities and police. Their invisible contribution towards saving the environment is still unaccounted and unacknowledged. We thus, chose to call them “Invisible Heroes” of the environment, a community that deserves respect and acknowledgement.

textile recycling heros


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