Plastic items. Used computers. Animal skins. All discarded objects find use in the recycling shops of Bholakpur, Andhra Pradesh.

It is a Friday morning in August. The children, making their way to school, are careful not to get mud on their spotless white uniforms. Bholakpur’s Humera cafe is abuzz with activity — traders, drivers, head-loaders and workers hang around, grabbing a quick naashta or sipping on chai from tiny cups. They spring into action periodically as maal arrives or departs.

With the afternoon’s prayer only a few hours away, there is a sense of urgency in the air. Fresh stock must be taken to the godowns and processing units before the azaan. Standing amid this melee and watching the maal go in and out is a lesson in the cultural and economic geography of Hyderabad.

Water tanks from demolished buildings, batteries from condemned vehicles, plastic chairs trashed during frenzied political meetings, pet bottles crushed and thrown out of middle-class homes, skins of animals from slaughterhouses and used computers from BPOs… all these discarded objects have some value in the godowns and second-hand shops of Bholakpur.

“There are over 500 tempo trolleys going in and out of Bholakpur everyday,” estimates Mehbub Ali, a 25-year-old who goes to Kukatpally and back every day. The auto-trolleys are the lifeline of the trade, connecting thousands of kabadiwalas and industrial estates across a city that would drown in its own waste without their services. Once inside, the animal skins go to one of the 200 skin processing units and the plastic and iron scrap to one of the 500-odd plastic or 300-odd iron scrap dealers. There it is sorted and either cleaned up and resold, or ground, melted and transformed into raw material for industrial use. Thus giving new life to waste and also earning a living for the people involved in the process. This includes over 60 per cent of the ward’s 36,000 voter population.

Bholakpur broke into the news in 2009 after 14 people died from drinking contaminated water. “Although the raw hide and plastic traders were blamed, the contamination was actually caused by a sewage leak caused by the poor quality of pipes,” clarifies Mohd. Munavar Chand, a resident of Bholakpur and member of Basthi Vikas March, an organisation that focuses on drinking water and sanitation. As a result, Bholakpur’s image as a dirty and dangerous place was etched in the collective consciousness of the city. A closer look at the space demands a revision of this view.

Waste is universal. Every day, in every part of the world, people throw away things that have outlived their primary purpose. It is not surprising, then, that urban India generates 188,500 tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste a day (500 gm per capita). These discarded objects travel a long and winding path through spaces like Bholakpur before being imbued with value and injected back into the economy.

It is in a shop in Bholakpur that Mohammed Ali Sofi Sarmad, a skin and plastic trader, earns enough to put his children through school. It is here that Mehbub Ali and his brothers sustain their family of 12 by bringing scrap in and out of Bholakpur. It is in front of her rented home in Bholakpur that Naseem Bivi and her daughters make a living by untangling balls of knotted packaging wire… Objects that in their state of waste create possibilities for thousands more like them. Traders incur high levels of risk in the face of changing market prices; the physical labour involved is brutal and also carries many health hazards. But these invisible agents of sustainability operate on sheer grit and the ability to recognise value in what most people see as waste.

Bholakpur’s people have a history of utilising the by-products of consumption. Most people in Bholakpur were originally skin traders who moved there following the construction of the Jama Masjid mosque during the Qutub Shahi period. In the 1930s, as the leather trade in India grew, places like Ambur (Tamil Nadu) and Bholakpur became prominent tanning centres, a trend that continued till 2007 when the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board shut down tanneries on the grounds that they were an environmental hazard. “There were only five tanneries remaining then,” says Azad Abrar Ali. “Most tanneries went out of business in the 1990s, after the country’s export duty on semi-processed leather was increased. After this, many began to look for other, more lucrative, options.”

Meanwhile, the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad had started closing in, bringing with them new opportunities disguised as waste. And the people of Bholakpur continued doing what they had been doing with skin and hide for many years. Except now they were dealing with the detritus of a city in the rush of consumerism and urbanisation.

Azad now runs a small unit where he makes furniture from recycled material and scrap, which he supplies to offices and schools. “By recycling waste into raw material that can be reused by industries, such workshops ensure a high recovery rate from waste. They provide an environmental and economic subsidy to the city,” says Anant Maringanti of Hyderabad Urban Labs, a city-based urban research collective that is working closely with the people of Bholakpur.

While Bholakpur is situated in the heart of Greater Hyderabad, the material it deals with comes from and eventually goes to destinations far beyond the boundaries of the twin cities.

Iron and metal scrap from construction sites are sent to smaller towns across Andhra Pradesh.

E-waste is broken down to retrieve valuable parts or sent to larger centres like Delhi. Recylced plastic is made into products sold across the country.

Shoes discarded in Hyderabad are sent to Nizamuddin Market in Delhi to be spruced up and resold.

Rawhide from Hyderabad, Warangal and Mahboobnagar grace many a Parisian shop window as bags or shoes.

Profits are hence dependant on international rates of metal and plastic and the price of raw hide on leather exports.

Despite its interdependence on other markets and its role in managing the city’s solid waste, Bholakpur does not get any help from the government. Its economy —characterised by high levels of risk and poor occupational mobility — is held together by a strong sense of community.  Most children attend the school run by the Anjuman Skin Traders Association, which also runs an industrial training institute and a small hospital. After the 2009 incident, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation proposed to shift them to Rampally, a village 25 km away from Hyderabad — a move that will break channels of communication and leave many people unemployed and endanger a system that provides an essential service to the city. “Instead of helping the existing system become safer and more efficient, the government wants to displace them away from the infrastructure they have built for themselves,” says Mohd. Munavar Chand.

Even as GHMC fails to acknowledge Bholakpur’s contribution to the city, it has signed a deal with Covanta Technologies to set up a Waste-to-Energy plant, a technology that has been globally criticised for being environmentally damaging. Solid Waste Management, or the lack of it in most Indian cities, has always been a tricky subject. Dharmesh Shah of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) says, “If a complete privatisation of the solid waste management (SWM) takes place, it will certainly have a huge impact on not just Bholakpur but the entire chain of the waste trade right up to the large recyclers to the individual waste picker... Incinerators are known to compete for the same resources as the recycling industry... the same waste that is currently sustaining thousands of livelihoods across Hyderabad.”

The story of Bholakpur is the story of similar spaces in other parts of India like Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune — spaces that exist in the gap where waste gets converted to resource. Understanding what happens in this gap is the first step towards assigning economic value to the process, a challenge that organisations like Hyderabad Urban Labs have already accepted. A closer look at these spaces and the lively culture of its people challenges the very notion of waste as we know it today. It is by deconstructing this notion that we can begin fully understand the value of waste.