‘Sorting’ in the Repertoire of Plastic Work in Bholakpur

By Vanshika Singh on January 30, 2020

Scrap work is the linchpin of livelihoods for many who think Hyderabad is ‘’the sone ki chidiya’’ (The Golden Bird) that will not let anyone sleep on an empty stomach. Many find in Bholakpur, their place in the city, as they segregate, process and recycle plastic waste in the city – the junk for which the city hardly has any yards. Akin to an economic and environmental subsidy that Bholakpur offers to the city, I got a chance to see the places through its repertoire of tasks, its godowns and workshops, on 25th September 2019 when I along with a visiting scholar went to meet the Secretary of the Plastic Traders Association.

 

Hitherto going to Bholakpur was equivalent of going to Mohammad Nagar – a basti I have come to know through multiple stories of its land histories, along with a dysfunctional community toilet that was constructed in 2017 that has even three years later not been connected to the city’s channels of water. Before the visit on the 25th, I went back to the data I had from the interviews conducted in Mohammed Nagar, and see what I had put together, now explicitly in relation to work. From interviews conducted with 52 households, I found that : 

 

  • 19 of these depended on domestic work in the adjacent housing complexes practiced by women breadwinners aged between 32 and 50, who also did the additional work of running their own households – from care work for the elderly, their children or any afflicted members in the family, to everyday chores that animated living ;  be it procuring water, cooking meals, or ensuring that six inch of drain holes were regularly cleaned for these were the primary mode of disposing off bodily waste. Most women spoke of their work as tied to the collapse of the male breadwinner – something my friend and I heard again from the women we briefly met in the plastic godowns. 
  • Further, only 3 households in MN relied on selling ‘sauda’ or running petty shops either in the basti, or as fruit vendors near the school run by Anjuman Tajir-e-Chirem (Leather Traders’ Association). 
  • The instance of ‘scrapping wires’ also was limited to women in 2 households, who did not go to scrap godowns but occasionally procured these wires and sent these back, through a mobile male figure – mostly their son or nephew. 
  • Most women (28) told me that their son(s) or spouse worked as ‘coolie majdoors’ in plastic godowns or in the work of electronic scrap near Mandi Galli especially after work allied with leather and raw hides declined in the last two decades. When these women said, ‘‘Plastic aur scrap mein bhi humari biradri ke log hain’’, the reference was to an occupation based stratification through which they called themselves ‘‘chamrewaale’’. Such women claimed to be housewives, partaking in seasonal home based work, mostly associated with tailoring but proactively distanced themselves from the godown as their site of work. I also recounted a key informant (KI) interview conducted in July last year with a furniture trader who had earlier worked in Bholakpur’s tanneries in a managerial capacity up till the late nineties : 

 

VS – What kind of work did the women undertake in the tanneries in Bholakpur ? 

KI – As such, women hardly worked in the tannery. Except in one task – plucking the hair out of      animal skin. That specifically used to be the task that the ladies did.  

VS – What about scrap work ?

KI – The labour wali ladies do scrap work. Those who need money.  Currently, scrap or plastic. Their primary work is to segregate different kinds of plastic. 

(28th July 2019) 

 

This vignette suggested that there was already a sense in which women who worked were susceptible to vulnerability – supposedly,  a financial one. As we visited the plastic godowns, ahead of Bilal Masjid near Mandi Galli, our visit coincided with the traders carefully watching the Prime Minister, and his speeches at the United Nations General Assembly. His dictum on single use plastic ban was especially a matter of concern for nearly 200 large godowns and small shops which enabled the livelihoods for more than 1000 individuals. For the first godown that we entered on 29th September 2019, the Secretary of the Plastic Traders’ Association, mediating our interaction asked the three women working on a Sunday afternoon to reiterate how their households ran on the work they did in the plastic godowns. He asked them to be emphatic that if the plastic ban came into effect, they were to lose their rozgaar. The women complied and narrated to us the majboori under which they had to do plastic work, with one of them asking, ‘‘Hum log sun rahe hain ki band ho raha. Yeh band ho raha kya?’’. The seth  immediately clarified that the ban will be of immediate consequence only to the work allied with carry bags and not to the material most important to the corpus of scrap work  in Bholakpur – the pet bottles which the women were sorting and segregating basis colour and material type, while carefully removing the metallic or plastic seals that came along with discarded bottles. According to their Seth, the work would go on, as it is. 

We managed to cover three godowns of different sizes, from 700 to 1000 yards; all with asbestos sheds that enabled work to continue even during  heavy rains. The average workforce, we were told was of 10 women and 4 men for a 1000 yard godown. Given it was a Sunday that we made this field visit, we saw about 3 to 5 women in each of these, with one in-charge – a man in late twenties or early thirties ; accompanied by 2-3 coolie-majdoors. The seth, soon-after enlisted the range of tasks that constituted plastic ka kaam across these godowns. Starting with loading and unloading, as plastic came in from all over the city, the women were relegated the work of ‘sorting’ after which segregated plastic would go through processing machines that would covert the plastic into fine chips. These chips would then be packed into large bags and sent off to places in the city’s edge  such as Patancheru, Katedan or Jeedimetla. Such places were characteristic of hosting the industrial machinery and infrastructure which could further wash these chips, and convert these chips into pellets that could circulate as second grade raw material in the form of polymer or fibre granules. What intrigued us the most in the series of a)Loading and Unloading, b) Sorting c)Pressing d) Packing plastic chips, was the characterisation of ‘sorting’ as distinctively ‘‘women’s work’’. For one Seth :

 

They only understand plastic work. It’s easy, its lightweight and it’s done with a gathering of one to four ladies. In all the boxes of plastic that comes from all over the city, you mostly have one single item, for instance – plastic pet bottles. We will have 8 ladies do 90 percent of the segregation work and then 2 of them will do the remaining 10 percent. The leftover will be cleaned by one more woman. For ages, since 40-50 years, these people have been doing this work. About 10 percent of the workers are from Bihar, but the ladies have mostly been from Bakaram. Some of the gents in the work are from Bihar.  

 
(25th September 2019)
   

If women of Mohammad Nagar who practiced domestic work embodied feminisation of entire occupations, sorting implied the segmentation of specific labour market, constituted by women. While this specific segment in the line of leather processing work was the intricate task of taking animal hair out of animal skin, sorting came to be its  undervalued counterpart in repertoire of processing plastic waste. The wage gap was clear. Women were paid a daily sum ranging from INR 150 to INR 260, for an eight hour shift from 10 in the morning to 6 in the evening, with a one hour lunch break at 2 pm. The range implicated the new workers on the lower side and the older ones to the maximum. On Sundays, they were paid a full day’s wage for half a day’s work. Only in the second godown, did the seth tell us that loading and unloading by the ‘coolie majdoor’ was paid between INR 500 to INR 600, with the operator on the processing machine paid somewhat similar between INR 400 and INR 500. The actor we missed inquiring about was the ‘incharge’ – which to us in the three godowns appeared to be a relative of the seth – in one godown, his own son. While loading and unloading or processing happened once or at maximum, twice in a day, sorting lasted over a number of hours every day. Indeed, all the seths in all the godowns concurred that the maximum wages they gave were for the task of sorting. The math ought to make sense – for nearly 10 women employed in a godown even for the minimum INR 150 wage; the daily pay would surmount to about INR 1500. Yet, was there something more to what qualified sorting as ‘’aasaan’’ or ‘’halka’’, and consequently the domain of ‘women’s work’

 

Emerging threads of tacit knowledge : 

 

Our first visit only provided a few hints, which I think are useful to put together here. On asking the Secretary of the Plastic Trader Association, about how they went about hiring labour, his response – ‘’Zaroorat rehti hain toh woh khud hi maangne aati hain’’, gave us an inkling of some conditions that constituted the imperatives for some women to work and relegated them something as intangible as a  particular social standing within Bholakpur, but also something as material as their daily wages. This is not to say that the need to labour is a unique circumstance for  women seeking work in the neighbourhood. What I am suggesting is a need to unpack the make-up of an implied, shared sense of ‘zaroorat’ which  circulates as common knowledge as much in the circles of plastic trade, but also circulates in the nook and corner of the neighbourhood, including the cabin of a furniture entrepreneur. From the little we could prod in our very first interaction with women in plastic godowns, the onset of their work trajectories was explained with the absence of a male breadwinner. Either their spouse had passed away, or he abandoned them, entering into a new conjugal unit with another woman. In some, the man of the house was either failing to produce himself at work due to alcoholism or was incapable of work due to physical debilitations. Either women were introduced to plastic work by other women already working in these godowns, or as in the case of Mehboob Bi in the last godown, was brought to the godown through her nephew – her sister’s son – when she sought work after her husband’s demise. I had heard similar comments while prodding through the 19 households in Mohammad Nagar running on women’s work as maids or cooks in nearby gentrifying localities.  Mehboob Bi, too concurred that women of Bholakpur either did plastic work, or domestic work, with greater concentration in plastic. If both forms of work, ‘sorting’ and domestic ‘work’ are practiced by women scripted through the social make-up of ‘zaroorat’; on what basis do different women across different locations, sign up for either of domestic work or plastic work ? How do we make sense of women in Mohammad Nagar proactively distancing themselves from the godowns ? Would the women we met in the godowns not speak of their work or speak of it differently if we met them elsewhere in Bholakpur ? 

 

The second set of clues, emerge from the utterances around ‘wazan’ as sorting relegated  as women’s work emerged from qualifying it as ‘halka’ or lightweight. Some of the observations were contradictory and puzzling. Sorting, albeit done in teams, is supposed to go on for an entire 8 hour duration in comparison to loading and unloading, or processing which happens intermittently, once or thrice a day. In addition to work done while bending or squatting, women’s bodies do get implicated in lifting work while sorted pet bottles are either carried over to the processing machinery or when women are required to transfer the plastic chips in bags sent elsewhere in the city. Sorting, unlike coolie majdoori or processing is not a single task, but constitutes weighty work in sending sorted plastic or broken chips to the next stop in the line of work. What kind of mutual acknowledgments then run behind sustaining sorting as ‘halka kaam’

 

The final set of clues to find their way by undermining the false binaries of work and household, production and social reproduction, the public and the private. I am particularly referring to the figure of the seth, who unlike a distanced employer partakes in familial transactions, especially those concerning marriages. For women, concerned about their daughter’s marriage, he is one of the many people or connections from whom women put together loans. For an amount of over INR 50,000; lendee women agree for a daily wage cut of about INR 100 lasting over 1 to 1.5 years. Is this merely transactional – a monetary sum which ensures that the labour produces herself in the godown ? Was there some kind of an ethic in which the seth was situated as someone who churned cycles of everyday earnings ? This third set of clue culminates with Mehboob Bi speaking of a fire that broke out in the godown last month : 

 

It’s been a month since there was a fire in the godown and everything was burnt (Pura maal jala tha)  Who put the fire, nobody knows. It happened during the night. We had finished the work and the godown was locked. But, our work did not stop. We were made to clean, and we were paid for that. Our seth did not keep us bereft of work, or useless. Even if the godown burnt, he gave us work (Bekaar nai rakhe seth – jala toh bhi kaam pe liye)

 

(29th September 2019) 

 

 

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