Inside the world of Delhi’s unsung recyclers
The Waghri community, whose women known as ‘bartanwalis’ travel long distances to barter utensils for old clothes, faces new challenges in their centuries-old profession
Sitting on a footpath, Jayanti Bhai Devipujak and his neighbours are sorting through piles of garments, organising them into different categories—shirts, trousers, jeans, sweaters, miniskirts, crop tops. All clothes, except miniskirts and tops, are being bundled up and loaded into a truck parked on the verge of the road.
“These clothes will be delivered to traders and vendors in different districts of Gujarat, who will sell them to migrant labourers from UP and Bihar. Girls in their families do not wear skirts and tops. Utility, and not style, matters most in the second-hand clothes market,” Jayanti says.
A resident of JJ colony in west Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar, Jayanti belongs to the Waghri community, whose women travel long distances to barter news utensils for old clothes. Their centuries-old trade has survived many modern-day challenges.
Known in north India as ‘bartanwalis’, (women who sell utensils), they sell used clothes to roadside vendors and traders who come to the colony’s second-hand clothes market, known as Ghoda Mandi, organised every morning between 4 am and 8 am. Through these traders, the clothes reach millions of poor people in villages and small towns across the country, who cannot afford new garments.
Tonnes of clothes —shirts, sweaters, saris, jeans —collected from all over Delhi-NCR and other states, are sold in a few hours at the local mandi. Those in a good shape go for ₹5 to ₹20 per piece; otherwise, most clothes are sold at ₹3 to ₹5 per kg.
“Traders come from as far as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal, to Delhi because they get used clothes of the best quality here,” Jayanti says. And the reason, the community members say, is Delhiites’ love for new clothes. “People in Delhi spend a lot on clothes and discard them when they are still in a good condition. But no one gives us clothes for free; we have to bargain hard. Working women are easier to deal with than housewives,” says Asha Kumari, 45, who has been bartering utensils for old clothes in Delhi, UP and Haryana for almost 30 years. “These days, we do not have access to high-rise societies, so we buy a lot of clothes from maids who get them free from their employers.”
It is 8 am and Asha is sitting surrounded by heavy bundles of clothes that remained unsold as she was late in reaching the Ghoda mandi. “Everyone has to wake up at 2 am to reserve their place at the market, where business starts at 4 am.”
So, like every woman in the colony of 45,000 people, Asha’s day begins early at 2 am, when she generally arrives at the market; she returns by 8 am, having sold the clothes; and by 10 am after cooking for the family, she buys utensils at one of the dozens of utensil shops that have cropped up in the colony over the years. “I generally pay them after I have sold the clothes,” says Asha, who makes about Rs300 per day. She complains of a backache—a result of years of doing pheris (collection rounds), delicately balancing utensils on one shoulder and the bundles of clothes on the other.
“Women mostly travel alone, but in some families men accompany them. If we go long distances, we generally travel in groups and sleep at railway stations and bus stops with our bundles of clothes,” says Vemu Kumari, 60, who now spends time sorting and mending clothes in her house, while his son and daughter-in-law do the pheris.
The JJ colony in Raghubir Nagar – a warren of narrow streets — is also a place where old garments get a new lease of life. Inside many houses, one can see piles of clothes, heavy irons and big vessels, used for ironing, patching, darning and coloring the clothes. “I generally buy jeans from the local market for ₹10 a piece and after colouring, I sell them for ₹80,” says Baldev Kumar at his small shop in the colony. “We make more money if we sell directly to customers in flea markets instead of traders in Ghoda Mandi.”
But most men in the colony complain that hardly any big flea market is left in the city. Popat Lal, 63, another resident of the colony—where most people of the Waghri community shifted from different parts of the city and set up their shanties in 1964 and were allotted plots in 1977—says income has either stagnated or has dwindled over the past two decades.
The community, he says, is now facing new challenges to their centuries-old profession -- the growing crackdown by the authorities on flea markets and roadside vendors, ‘fraud’ charity clothing collectors; illegal dumping of old clothes from the West, and limited or no entry to high-rise housing societies.
“We now depend a lot on Diwali fairs in smaller towns and villages. Avenues for selling in Delhi have shrunk; there is no designated pace for us in the city to organise a market. Most of us take a risk and sell from a makeshift market at Subhash Park, near Red Fort, early in the morning,” says Lal.
The business, he says, was good till 2000 when the community sold clothes at the kabaddi bazaar behind Red Fort. “It was closed in 2001 and we were given an alternative space at Power House, near Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. But we were removed from there as well before the Commonwealth Games,” says Lal. His son, Sanjay, who now travels for barter, says, “The city does not know that if we were not doing what we are doing, the city would have had no way of disposing of its old clothes. We are the oldest recyclers of clothes, and it is thanks to us that the poor people have access to something decent to wear,” he says.
Lal takes us to one Naresh Bhai, who, he says, is fighting for the rights of the community. Naresh Bhai sits behind a large table in his office in the colony. A banner on the wall says he represents Akhil Bhartiya Gujrati Devi Pujak Samaj Seva Samiti, which he describes as a trust working for promoting education, unity, and cooperation among the community. “There are about 1.27 crore people belonging to our community in the country, and they have remained poor, which has to do with lack of education. Most people depend on the traditional barter system for livelihood. We should be given land at Yamuna Pushta in Delhi to sell old clothes,” says Naresh Bhai. “The government should also recognise our role in environmental protection.”
No suit please
A clothes market where a suit is the most unwanted item
A suit may be an aspirational outfit for a middle-class person but it is the most unwanted item in Ghoda Bazaar, a wholesale second-hand clothes market in Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar. “The poor who come here just wish to cover themselves , and not to make a style statement,” says Ashok Kumar, a clothes vendor who belongs to the Waghri community. “They are acutely aware of their poverty, and they have no desire to dress like the rich. These days, the bestsellers in our market are heavy woollens. One can buy a used sweater in good condition for ₹20, a shirt for ₹10, and a pair of jeans and trousers for ₹15”.
In fact, most Waghri women do not barter utensils for suits. “Once I made a mistake of bartering five steel glasses for a suit at a house in Paschim Vihar, thinking I would make a lot of money on it. But I could not sell it for many days. I tried to convince a young rickshaw-puller to buy it. He tried it on himself; it fitted him well, but he did not purchase,” says Rupa Devipujak, adding .“Eventually, I sold it to a second-hand clothes dealer for ₹30. Now I do not accept coats and suits at all.” Among the other unsalable items, she says, are shorts, skirts, crop tops.