On the afternoon of November 17, Ratiben, a vendor of old clothes from the Waghri community boarded a slow train at Dombivli, a central line station of the Mumbai local train network.
The morning rush of people in the train was thinning out. Ratiben sat on the floor of the compartment with a huge bundle of clothes. She was readying herself for the afternoon chindi bazaar in Thane, four stations away, which she has been visiting for the past 25 years. “The vyaparis [middlemen] are just refusing to buy our collection for the past few days,” she said.
Her colleague, Rukmini, also heading to the bazaar, joined her at the next station, “I came straight after my pheri [daily work round],” she said. “I hope I can earn at least some money to take home today.”
These vendors refer to themselves as chindhiwaalis – those who deal with rags. They belong to the nomadic Waghri community, which is historically found in parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Today, the community operates at the bottom-most layer of India’s old clothes recycling industry.
The women of this community are often seen on city streets balancing a stack of new utensils on their heads, and a bundle of clothes slung across their shoulders, yelling “Bhandiii” at the top of their voices. They exchange the utensils they carry for old clothes at various middle class households during their daily wandering (pheri). The clothes they pick up are then sorted and patched up at makeshift spaces under railway bridges, and in corridors of their slum settlements.
The Union government’s decision to withdraw high-value currency notes earlier this month has had an impact on their earnings because of the scarcity of legal tender of all denominations following the announcement.
The entire Waghri vendor community works in tandem with the help of inter-state family linkages and a network of middlemen, whom they refer to as vyaparis.
Once the clothes they have collected are patched up and made ready for sale, the Waghri vendors sell their little bundles for small amounts like Rs 50, Rs 100, Rs 150 to middlemen at chindhi bazaars in Delhi, Mumbai, Vadodara, Hyderabad, Chennai and Kolkata. The chindhi bazaar is an enclave open to the Waghri women vendors and their middlemen, who are Waghri as well non-Waghri men. A few of the other customers at the bazaar include the urban poor like rickshaw drivers and construction workers, who rely upon these markets to buy their clothing.
While the middlemen then go on to sell the clothes they purchase at weekly bazaars in rural areas to people who cannot afford new clothes, the Waghri women vendors invest the daily income from these bazaars to buy new vessels for the barter. They save the balance as their profit.
After November 8, when high-denomination Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes ceased to be legal tender, the scarcity of currency notes in general has hit Waghri vendors badly.
“Despite our clothes costing less than Rs 500, the middlemen are apprehensive to give away their Rs 100 notes to buy the collection,” said Ratiben.
Middlemen have also been reluctant to buy clothes in bulk due to the scarcity of new high-denomination currency.
This has had an impact on the dynamics of trade relations. Instead of paying for the clothes with cash upfront, middlemen are buying stacks of clothes on credit, putting to test the relations between them and the Waghri women vendors.
“It is easier for them to put pressure on us rather than their onward clients,” said Rukmini. “We cannot afford to spoil trade relations with them. Nor can we close down our own markets.”
Maintaining trade relations is not only important to Waghris, but to all of India’s self-employed workers who form 75% of the informal economy, which, in turn, accounts for 93% of the total economy according to a 2007 report. The Waghri vendors constitute part of India’s 10 million street vendors.
The word Waghri also happens to be a slur in Gujarati with members of the community often branded as thieves. The fact that the British originally classified this community as a criminal tribe through the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 during the Raj has a lot to do with this perception. These tribes were de-notified as criminal tribes following Independence but that has done little to end the social stigma they face.
Municipal authorities and law enforcement agencies across India still exhibit a bias in their attitude towards Waghris and other tribes formerly classified as “criminal”. The constant uncertainty of confiscation of their goods by law enforcement authorities, low earnings, and payment of regular bribes to municipal officials and local goons to be able to continue doing their business without harassment, have kept this community at the economic and social margins.
“Even in these hard times, we still have to grease the [hands of] municipal officials, local policemen and the society watchmen with a Rs 20 note each,” said Ratiben, while tightening the knot of her bundle of clothes. “It’s been a week and I haven’t taken any money back home, despite giving away four bundles of clothes and paying all pautis [market taxes]”.
Ratiben had unknowingly echoed the predicament of the majority of Mumbai’s daily wage earners.
Rukmini said that she had been saving Rs 500 notes in a container of rice at home for the past five months. Following demonetisation, her stash, amounting to Rs 4,500, is nothing but worthless pieces of paper unless she deposits them into a bank or post office account.
But that’s easier said than done.
Fieldwork by this writer in Vadodara and Mumbai conducted over 2014 and 2015 showed that the majority of Waghri women vendors do not have bank accounts. One of the reasons for this is the unavailability of documentation required to set these accounts up. Additionally, it is well documented that informal workers face several issues while attempting to open a bank account. A 2007 study by USAID highlighted multiple layers of difficulties – from the hostile attitude of bank staff to logistical problems – that Mumbai’s construction workers faced in opening basic bank accounts.
Promises of financial inclusion through government initiatives like the Jan Dhan Yojana are but a mirage mainly due to the lack of awareness about this initiative. This can be blamed on the lack of facilitative structures like awareness drives in the slum settlements where these vendors live. Additionally, unlike men who set up bank accounts with their sons or brothers, the majority of Waghri women set aside their savings in cash tucked away at home.
Squeezing the weakest
Within the larger ambit of India’s second-hand clothes trade, the cash squeeze has shown a direct impact on the levels of the Waghri trade – the base of the pyramid.
Higher up in the pyramid is the trade in second-hand clothes that requires higher capital. This trade is dependent on the import of discarded clothes from the West, which are resold in markets and sidewalks in several cities. For instance, in Sarojini Nagar in Delhi and Linking Road in Mumbai, where youngsters from the middle class, searching for a good deal, pick them up.
In 2008, the Indian government put restrictions on the entry of old clothes from abroad, allowing only a few investors to import old clothes at Kandla Special Economic Zone in Gujarat. However, politically-connected investors are involved in illegal imports of clothing amounting to Rs 550 crores annually. These illegal imports are a form of black money, which the demonetisation policy is unlikely to affect. Instead, with no access to high-investment foreign imports, or employment at the Kandla old clothes sorting plants, Waghris at the bottom of the second-hand clothes market pyramid suffer disproportionately from the effects of the demonetisation policy.
As the Thane station approached, Ratiben threw her bundle of clothes from the running train onto the platform. “We will continue to sit every single day in the market,” said Ratiben. “It’s the matter of our daily bread.”
She hopped off the slowing train and disappeared into the bustle of the platform.