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Scrap for the US, gold for India

In 2002, about 70,000 tonnes of scrap found its way to India, amid fear of toxicity, reports Amit Sharma.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2006 04:33 IST

The 9/11 attacks may have occasioned anxiety around the planet, but for this small town on the Delhi-Amritsar highway in the Fatehgarh Sahib district, it has meant a boom for the scrap and metal remoulding business. Overcoming health concerns and superstitions, the dealers here have made it a habit to track international terrorist strikes, simply to pick up the scrap from such incidents.

In 2002, about 70,000 tonnes of scrap found its way to India, amid fear of toxicity, and of that, 10,000 tonnes reached this town. Parveen Kumar, a former manager at Patiala Castings, which imported the scrap, says that the WTC scrap metal was purchased at US $90 to $110 per metric tonne. “Though Mandi Gobindgarh received scrap from around the world for several years, our handling of the WTC scrap made sure our skills in converting waste metal became known globally,” Kumar says.

There were initial hurdles. Local remoulders were reluctant to buy the scrap as they considered it “unlucky” due to the tragic loss of nearly 3,000 lives in the 9/11 attacks. “Even my family told me not to buy scrap which took numerous lives but we meant business and did it, maybe waiting a year to do so,” says Chander Mittal of Punjab Steel.

Once Mittal processed the metal, its quality emboldened him to travel frequently to “trouble-ridden” nations in search of similar scrap. His company has now opened office in several countries, though he is reluctant to name them.

“Previously, we were dependent on business within India, but now global terrorism, mass-scale devastation and India’s diplomatic ties with other countries are the most important factors as we scout for scrap, 24x7,” says Gurwinder Singh, a leading scrap dealer. Sitting in his small office on the dusty and congested Amloh road he keeps track of all global happenings on his old black and white television set.

Gurwinder even reacts to India-Pakistan relations. “If we were on good terms with Pakistan, much of the scrap of the US attacks on the Taliban would have reached here too,” he says, wistfully.

Obviously, the dealers say, there is good profit to be had from the “superior quality” scrap from terrorism, but these men are the sort of businessmen who are loathe to divulge the details of their profits. “You can easily imagine when I say the quality of the metal was not just good, but very, very, very good,” is all that Mittal is willing to say.

Nowadays, it is the scrap from the war in Iraq that is melted down every week in foundries in this noisy city, where the “sanctity” of the iron or steel is just an irritant in the business. There is also the concerns of the environmentalists: Greenpeace India, in a 2002 report, claimed that the WTC scrap was contaminated by asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, plastics and the lead, mercury and other contaminants in the computers and fittings inside the twin towers.