At the cusp of Odaimanagar, where the street leading to the Velankanni church in Besant Nagar meets Elliot’s Promenade, 200 plastic water pots in all shades of the rainbow stand sentry.
It’s 7 am, and the women to whom these pots belong have gone about their daily business. Nearby, Saroja J is enticing church goers with the display of flowers at her stall. “All of us have been waiting since 5 am. We don’t know when the tanker will come, so we leave the pots here,” she informs us, referring to the Metrowater tanker that will soon be making its rounds in this area.
The pots have become an ironically colourful reminder of the acute water crisis gripping the city. Through these months of scarcity, they have been increasingly ubiquitous as residents try to save every litre they receive.
While most shops on every other street keep a stack of these pots, they are sold in bulk in areas such as Mannady, George Town, T Nagar and Sowcarpet. Today, however, we are interested in going further up the manufacturing chain — right to the top, the factories where these vessels are made. And so we head to Washermenpet.
The clouds outside Vasantha Plastic Industries at Munniapa Street near Mint hint at a rumble — a possibility of a temporary relief in sight, but inside the factory, the ground beneath us quakes in the real sense. The hum of the machinery resonates in the air as well as the earth.
Inside the workspace
Factory owner Rajkumar Bhowmick sits surrounded by a sea of blue, which he has created, pulling one pot after another from the machine and placing it next to his stool.
Each day here, over 350 to 400 pots are manufactured, in two sizes: 14 and 17 litres. They also have a smaller machine — currently at rest — which can spew mini pots with a 2 litre capacity.
“We use granules of high density polyethylene as raw material,” says Rajkumar, showing us the feeder end of the machine. The granules are mixed with a colour pigment; blue, green, fluorescent yellow, yellow, orange, pink and red are available, seven shades in all. At the flick of a switch, the feeder grinds and spits coloured pellets out a pipe.
His wife, Seema, catches the pellets in a sack and pours them into a conical trough. The mixture passes through the belly of the machine onto the other end, where Rajkumar waits, gloves on.
Now heated into a semi-liquid state, it flows thickly down into Rajkmaur’s waiting palms. Surrounding it are two halves of an iron mould, which when joined resemble the shape of a pot. He tugs, teases and cradles the plastic as air from the compressor line begins filling it up. Immediately, he casts the mould shut and lets the air expand the plastic to the shape of the pot. “We can adjust how heavy the pot is by adjusting the quantity of plastic that flows while making. For the same 17 litres capacity, the heavier ones weigh 500 grams, and cost about ₹95 to ₹100. Whereas the lighter ones weigh 350 grams, cost ₹65, but don’t last as long,” he says. At every step, from wholesale to retail, he says there is a 10% price markup.
Meanwhile, the pot is ready to be pulled out of its cocoon. Rajkumar tears it away from its mould and places it in a bucket of water to be cooled. Later, banging and cutting unfinished ends off, he says, “These days, demand is increasing supply, all the 350 or so pots we make get sold out daily.” As a result, Rajkumar and his team, comprising his wife and a factory operator, are here working everyday.
They could make more if they had more space, he believes. “Using this rented space as a factory is not easy. We are always at risk of harassment from the owners. If the Government could allot more space for industries like ours, it would really help.”
In the winter months, however, sales plummet. Pots are Rajkumar’s main source of income, although he does manufacture plastic dustbins as well — ones shaped like rabbits and used in public spaces. A lone colourless disfigured one looks down at us from a heap of pots.
Journey through the city
“We have space for five more,” he insists, holding up the massive jute sack hanging from the top of the shutter. Seema then goes to the storage room — mountains of pots strewn in a chaotic vista — and picks up five. She hands it to her husband who swings it inside the sack and ties it shut.
The final step in the process is dispatch. Outside, a cycle rickshaw awaits. The puller and Rajkumar heave the load onto the rickshaw seat and secure it with ropes. “He is headed to Kasi Chetty street, where streets are congested. That’s why the rickshaw. For other areas like T Nagar, or for bulk orders, we deliver by a Tata Ace,” he says.
He adds that he and his wife use about 10 to 15 of these pots in their house in T Nagar, depending on ground water from a well, and Metrowater for survival. Raising his eyes to the gathering clouds, he remarks, “It looks like it might rain. That’s good… Chennai comes first, our business is secondary.”