Elections usually bring with it communal tensions in this city famous for its power looms and small-budget movies. The bridge over the Girna river on Mumbai-Agra highway divides the city’s Hindu and Muslim habitations, while symbiotic business ties of the two communities unite them to keep violence at bay.
As Malegaon’s residents queue up to vote for the Assembly polls on Monday, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 of them, mostly Muslims and some Hindus, who earn their livelihoods from recycling ‘single-use plastic’, are unified in their concern for survival of the fledgling industry.
In Malegaon, only a handful are associated with the film industry. The textile industry is the biggest employer. An estimated 150,000 power looms operate in the city. Lesser known is Malegaon’s plastic recycling industry.
As traders associated with the business like to put it, men, women, and children, the most abjectly poor of the city, help recycle plastic that is considered ‘unrecyclable’ anywhere else in the country.
Safety norms, whether to do with the health of workers, or toxicity of the material, are least concerning among people busy making ends meet. A recent National Green Tribunal order has asked the administration to disconnect electricity supply to units to prevent further polluting activities.
Those running the trade argue they are doing social service, and should get government support instead of being forced to shut down. "Our industry is unique in the sense that we recycle single-use plastic that in most other parts of the country finds its way into dump yards as it is considered unrecyclable,” Nitesh Ostwal, owner of Prakash Agro Plast, says.
Heaps of bundled plastic bags are seen on either side of the highway as one reaches Malegaon, as are small and big trucks filled to the brim with gunny bags containing single-use plastic that trundle their way into the city. Poverty and availability of cheap labour, as well as the city being around 300-km from bigger cities like Mumbai, Pune, Surat, and Indore, has made the business possible in Malegaon.
Ostwal is in the business for 25 years. He recycles the gitti, or lumps, made from plastic waste into water pipes used for agriculture. One of his business partners is Mohd Furqan. While Ostwal takes care of the top end of the business by running a small factory that converts the plastic lumps into pipes, Furqan sources the plastic waste, gets it segregated, cleaned, and turns it into plastic lumps.
“Neatly 200 trucks laden with single-use plastic, unusable elsewhere, reach the city daily,” Furqan says.
Each truck carries 8-10 tonnes of plastic waste. Once the waste reaches Furqan, he contracts families who sift through the waste, sorting different quality into separate bundles. Families, mostly women and children, earn Rs 2,000-3,000 to segregate plastic waste of one truck. The plastic is then cleaned, grinded and converted into plastic lumps. Given the low returns in the business, all the machines used in the process are manufactured locally by mostly semi-literate craftsmen from oil drills and gear boxes of trucks.
Ostwal and Furqan have been friends for over two decades, including during times of communal tensions. Ostwal remembers how his Muslim friends saved his father's factory from being looted in the riots in 2004.
Both blame outsiders for the troubles the city has faced in the past 20 years, including the infamous Malegaon bomb blast. Furqan’s father hailed from Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh, and was a ragpicker in Mumbai. Furqan and his brother climbed the business ladder to become agents who hire ragpickers, and have now turned into small entrepreneurs. Furqan’s brother dispatches plastic waste from Mumbai for his brother's factory, but it also comes from Bengaluru, Mumbai, Surat and Pune.
Each tonne of plastic waste can generate up to 400 kg of plastic granules. The pipes made of these cost 50 per cent less than the PVC pipes, and are popular in Haryana and Punjab.
Ostwal say his business is also recession proof since economic slowdown makes more people turn to cheaper priced pipes. Malegaon has around 20-25 units that make pipes from single use plastic, and 150 units that segregate such plastic and convert it into lumps. Ostwal says the PM's call for abjuring use of single use plastic is welcome. "I believe plastic is not dangerous, but needs to be used and recycled properly. There are millions of livelihoods involved," he says.