World’s cast-off capital goes from riches to rags

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The famous textile recycling industry of Panipat is heading for shutdown. Where will that leave the West’s sartorial spillover?

Losing ground: Shoddy blankets are being edged out by polyester ones, which are cheaper, warmer and last longer. The number of shoddy textile units in Panipat has come down to 150 from around 700 in 2012.
Losing ground: Shoddy blankets are being edged out by polyester ones, which are cheaper, warmer and last longer. The number of shoddy textile units in Panipat has come down to 150 from around 700 in 2012.

It’s hard to imagine that the coarse grey woollen blankets issued to the rural poor could conceal a shred of Chanel or a fibre from Fendi. Unknown to villagers, high fashion – removed by several industrial processes, down an inverted value chain – sits heavily on their shoulders.

Of all the ironies inherent in recycling, this is most piquant: discarded wool and acrylic clothing from the West is converted into yarn in India and woven into blankets, blazers and shawls that find their way to the poor, to people affected by disaster, to the army, to school children, and even to passengers on the railway.

It’s the working of what’s called the ‘shoddy’ industry in Panipat. This historic city in Haryana is in fact the global capital of textile fibre recycling. Every year, about 1,44,000 tonnes of mutilated worn clothes and textiles that are trashed by America, Europe and parts of Asia – and dock, via containers, at ports in Mumbai and Kandla, in Gujarat – are purchased by Panipat’s shoddy manufacturers for recycling.

Signs of the trade are everywhere – trucks piled high with clothes lumber down gritty gullies towards recycling units, beyond whose gates are passageways lined with textile scraps and loose buttons. Further in are cavernous warehouses, where women sort the clothes into colour families of reds, browns, greens, etc. Labels, zippers and buttons (resold at 25 paise a kg) are separated from the fabric, which is then shredded on mounted scythes to collect strips of solid colour. Three tonnes of fabric produce around 1.5 tonnes of yarn, which is woven back into shoddy fabric. The labour is divided: women sort and strip, men work the shredding and carding machines. Impressively, textile recycling put Panipat on the global map.

But the city’s historic battlefields are now witnessing another turf war – between ‘shoddy’ yarn and polyester. Polyster, which makes a cheaper, lighter, more supple blanket, is starting to edge ‘shoddy’ out of the textile stakes, leaving shoddy yarn manufacturers with dormant carding machines, mountains of untouched clothes and a depleting workforce.

“There were around 600 to 700 shoddy yarn and textile manufacturers in Panipat up until 2012; now there are barely 150 units,” says Rajneesh Baweja, whose company Mehak Handloom Industries is hanging by a thread. “I may have to shut down next year.” Baweja’s company was set up by his father, a migrant from Pakistan’s Punjab, in the early ’80s, around the time entrepreneurs started cashing in on the West’s sartorial spillover.

“Around 30,000 to 40,000 kg of old clothes came into my factory every day; now it’s 80,000 kg a month,” complains Baweja, who says he doesn’t have the heart to sack his 25 workers (down from 100), even as unsold blankets pile up. A few years ago, organizations like the UN, non-profits, governments, the army, hospitals and even prisons bought shoddy blankets, but it was disasters that made the industry a killing. “At the time of the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, around 10 lakh blankets were picked up from Panipat. During the Nepal earthquake this year, four to five lakh sold,” Baweja says. “But you can’t run a business on the back of a crisis alone.”

Businessmen like Surinder Gupta are planning to sell their machines in scrap. “Some have shut shoddy units and started manufacturing polyester blankets,” he says. The odds are in favour of synthetic. A 1.5 X 2m polyester blanket weighs 300 gms and costs Rs 70; its shoddy counterpart weighs 1.5 to 2 kg and costs Rs 100. Polyester lasts about 3-4 seasons; shoddy probably two.

Not surprising, during the 2013 Uttarakhand floods Venkat Velagala, a disaster risk management consultant in Delhi, dispatched polyester blankets to the hills. “They’re warmer, lighter and easier to transport, which matters when you’re covering inhospitable terrain,” says Velagala.

Anil Spinners’ new polyester mill has a daily production capacity of 7,000 kg. “We design the blankets ourselves,” says Manav Goel, the 27-year-old son of Ashok, the proprietor who believes the future, with polyester, is bright. At his old, ailing shoddy factory, as women sit around scythes, mechanically slicing coats and trousers, jackets and shirts, Goel says casually, “Gap, Armani-sharmani – they’re all here.”

But not for long. Observers fear the recycling business will grind to a halt in less than a decade. “In 2010, the production value of our shoddy industry was Rs 90 crore a month. Now it’s Rs 35 crore,” says Pawan Garg, president of the All India Woollen & Shoddy Mills Association. “The industry imported around 800 containers of mutilated clothes a month; now it’s down to 300 (each weighing about 25 tons).”

Even the Bureau of International Recycling, headquartered in Belgium, is concerned. “The decline of Panipat as an industry will impact the recycling of worn clothing to a huge extent. Export will be diverted to other countries like Pakistan, China, Morocco, Kenya and Tanzania. But they have very small recycling industries,” says Mehdi Zerroug, president of the BIR Textiles Division, on email.

More than 30% of the world’s manufactured clothing is recycled. Some of it is converted into yarn, while the balance is utilized by the cleaning industry. “If this industry were to close it would be a very big problem globally as there would be more of this material going into landfills, adding to the problem of pollution,” Zerroug warns.

Now, Panipat’s labour force – which used to number around 90,000 in its heyday – is also retreating home to Bihar and UP or seeking jobs elsewhere in Panipat. “We’re worried about the future,” admits Manju Rahman, a shredder at Shankar Lal & Company. While there will be work in the new polyester factories, being far less labour-intensive, they’ll absorb less than a quarter of the shoddy workforce.

Even as an estimated 5,000 tonnes of clothes sit idle in this city, people like Baweja believe the shoddy industry can never entirely be snuffed out. “Governments will still want to distribute our blankets during polls,” he reckons, “They’re heavier and carry the weight of a politician’s promise.”

*This story first appeared on Times of India.

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