Behind the Garbage
As the first rays of sunlight strike the city, the otherwise busy and bustling streets of Dhaka remain eerily quiet. But even in this earliest hour, there are some people, even children who are hard at work. One of them is Sohel, a 'Tokai' who claims he is nine years old but looks more like he is six or seven. Whatever his age, Sohel must scrap a living from the garbage dumps of Dhaka.
“My father is a rickshaw puller, and my mother works as a part time domestic help. I have a brother and a sister at home aged four and two. The income from my parents is not enough to support my family and my mother also has to care for the younger children. So I must earn whatever I can to support my family,” says Sohel with a maturity past his age.
Sohel is not the only one whose livelihood depends on selling discarded items. In fact, hundreds of thousands of poor people living on the fringes of society are dependent on the collection and sale of recyclable waste materials. For selling the items, they go to the bhangari stores, which literally means, “ shops dealing in recyclable goods”, to sell these items.
Sohel's next destination shall also be the bhangari store. Almost in every neighbourhood in Dhaka, and every town all over Bangladesh, one can find stores that sell discarded items. Sohel normally frequents the store located near his neighbourhood in one of Shantinagar's narrow alleys to sell his items, at least once but more likely twice a day. He does not have much to sell, only a few plastic bottles.
Although the primary vendors of the bhangari business, the street urchins or' tokais' are not the only ones who frequent these stores. Newspaper hawkers and domestic workers often visit the stores to sell items and earn whatever little extra income they might manage from the storeowners. “ Domestic workers also frequently visit our store because in many houses, they shall be given old newspapers or other old items as a gift,” says a store employee in Shantinagar where Sohel sells his things, pointing to a broken red toy car hanging from the ceiling. Another frequent visitor to the bhangari stores are the street vendors. A bhangari storeowner Shumon says that the street vendors are the mainstay of his business. “I purchase almost exclusively from these vendors. In the morning I advance cash to the vendors. The vendors go from house to house purchasing old items that they sell back to us. They can earn up to two or three taka per kilogram, although the profit margins differ and there are no fixed rates.”
Many bhangari stores have also acquired the ill reputation of being in nexus with thieves and heroin addicts who sell stolen items.“ My father is a businessman dealing in steel rods,” says a former addict preferring anonymity. “Every day, my partner and I used to take a huge rod and we used to transport it to a local bhangari store. We were in good terms with the storeowner and of course he knew that we were stealing. We earned almost 1,000 taka per day and we spent almost our entire income to purchase drugs. I have since gotten out of this habit but my partner is still in this trade and he has connections with some of the local bhangari store owners.”
Another young landowner residing in a small provincial town spoke of his dissatisfaction concerning the bhangari business. “Two years ago, thieves stole a wheel from my tractor. Since I have been in this town ever since my birth I guessed the most likely place where it could end up,” said Rakibul. Surely he did, as that very day, he along with his friends discovered the wheel in one of the town's many bhangari stores. “I estimate the price of the wheel to be near about TK60, 000. But the thieves sold it for TK6100 only. I had to pay the sum to the storeowner who claimed that he had no idea that he was purchasing stolen stuff.”
Shumon however, refuted such allegations, “It is true that there are many bhangari stores that deal in stolen goods. But other stores like ours are already quite large in our operations, we have no need to deal in stolen stuff and we have never been involved in transaction with thieves. Like I said before, I purchase almost exclusively from the street vendors.”
Normally there are wholesale companies, which specialise in transporting the waste products from the bhangari stores to the recycling factories. Products have to be sorted out accordingly -- discarded plastic bottles need to be shipped for recycling to plastic factories, whereas old newspapers need to be delivered to paper mills. “The companies have trucks that transport the goods from here to Kachpur in Old Dhaka,” says a bhangari storeowner Shapan from Bhairab. “They break down the stuff into scrap as by breaking it up, they can accommodate a larger quantity in the trucks and this saves transportation costs.” The wholesalers arrange for the transportation and collect materials from multiple bhangari stores, arrange for the facilities required for sorting the different types of products and accordingly sell them to the recycling plants. Bhangari businesspeople are generally respected in their line of business and are referred to as mahajan, which translates roughly into 'the great one'. This title has its roots in ancient history and could only be claimed by individuals belonging to a higher caste, a landowner or a very wealthy entrepreneur. Nowadays, the title does not carry the reverence it once did, but they are still respected by the poorest who have to depend on them for their livelihood. In the bhangari trade, anyone who purchases the products is referred to as mahajan.
In almost all cases, the final destination for the waste products to be recycled is the old part of the capital. An entrepreneur who controls all the chains of this industry i.e. one who can muster all the facilities for accumulating the waste products in the bhangari store, sort them out accordingly and transporting them to respective factories can reap off handsome profits. In an economy where job prospects are limited, and profit margins for most businesses are shrinking, the recycling business remains overall, a lucrative trade for many entrepreneurs. “The bhangari trade is controlled exclusively by those who are influential, or those who are backed by influential people, as there are huge profits to be made,” says a bhangari storeowner from Mymensingh preferring anonymity. “But, although a profitable business, there is little respect and most storeowners or entrepreneurs involved in this line of trade are unwilling to be identified. Nowadays, owing to lack of career opportunities many educated people are turning to this trade in the hope of making quick profits, and if you have the right connections, there is much to be made from this business. Many people I know who were poor before have become rich in a very short time.”
However, for the children of the bhangari-- the little kids who are often seen scouring the streets and the rubbish dumps with a sack on their back, looking for discarded items to sell to the stores-- it is altogether a very different story. While the storeowners earn enormous profits by selling vast quantities of the garbage, they are only prepared to pay only a pathetic sum of money to the tokais. For all tokais, especially children like Sohel every day is a battle for survival. These children are forced to the streets at a very early age, as the income their parents earn is not enough for the family to survive. They live in deplorable conditions, normally in one of the congested urban slums, in a world ridden with hunger, disease and filth, where their companions are rats and cockroaches who inhabit the very garbage dumps surrounding their homes from where they have to earn a living.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010