Posted by: Dinesh Kapur | October 24, 2011

Glass – of colorful shades and shattered dreams

Glass – of colorful shades and shattered dreams

The gentleman sitting next to me had his head tilted towards the right in the most unnatural position. His mouth was slightly ajar. Sprawled all over his seat, some of him was also spilling on to mine. Train journeys in India tend to bring out the best in uncomfortable sleepers.

It was 8:00 a.m. in the morning and I found myself hurtling towards a city that was once established many centuries ago by Sikandar Lodi. My second day in the job and I was moving at a little less than 150 km/hour, in India’s fastest train, towards my first energy audit. This time, my journey would extend beyond Agra, approximately 50 kilometers by road, to the SME (Small and medium enterprises) cluster in the small town of Firozabad.

They told me that one can get all the glass they may ever need in that place.
The only flirtations I had with an SME cluster were brief and superficial. This one, however, had the makings of something intense. While I reflected over a shaky cup of tea, the driver from a small village near Almora, the SME glass cluster with its myriad glass manufacturing units and the rest of the TERI team went about their work.

**********

The signs were there from the start. The driver’s assessment of the place was littered with words like ‘bekaar’ and phrases like ‘sahi nahi hai’. We had something in common, this was the first time we were both in the city. Even though he was a few days old, the optimist in me brushed aside his grim musings.

The only excuse for a ‘royal’ hotel in the small town was the inaccurately spelt ‘Monark’. It was either an example of lazy spelling or something I did not pick up. I acquainted myself with the 4 other people from the TERI team. I knew that I was in the midst of well-traveled and experienced professionals, seasoned in the harsh and tough environs of industrial settings. Immediately it was plain to me that I was a novice in the midst of veterans.

As quickly as I entered the only available ‘big’ hotel in that small town, we were out in our vehicle bouncing along what vaguely resembled a motor able road. I assume the effect on the factory workers was magical. Let me remind you, Firozabad is no tourist town where the locals are accustomed to a seasonal influx of SUVs and people dressed in somber office attire. Case in point; total number of SUVs spotted during the entire week long trip was only 2, including the one hired by us. So an Innova loaded with jet black KGB style suitcases (holding all the precious instrumentation that even an elemental energy audit merits) trembling through a cloud of dust, must have been a source of amazement for the factory folk. Little did I know that a few startling revelations were up around the bend for me too.

The team of distinguished audit experts had spelt out the precautions – be cautious, be conscious of movements and be attentive.

Standard instructions, I thought.

Crucial life-saving reminders, I realized later.

There is, indeed, an awful lot of glass there. But It is only all the glass in the world, a woman, from a small town like Firozabad, would need. No, I am not being chauvinistic. Apart from drinking glasses, the only other thing the people seem to make there is ‘glass bangles’! Bangles of all colors, sizes and shades with enough variety to make an Asian Paints catalogue look insufficient! Plain, with designs, without designs, all you have to do is ask!

**********

The factories were as factories are supposed to be; shades of black, brown, grey, metal, steel, piping, loud machines, dirt, grime, angry and orange furnace tanks, electrical wiring that seemed to grow like vines, water – hot, cold, clean and dirty, emaciated workers and their porky, blubbery and rotund factory owners.

I knew what a manufacturing unit looked like. I knew that the machines would be loud and make the air around them oppressive. I knew this from a two-month stint in a power plant during my engineering days. A unit, operated with passable safety standards and protocols.

This was a completely different ball game. The wiring snaked in and out of the way. The water – hot and cold, dripped unannounced. The dust and fumes rose and settled like a symphony of dangerous music. The machines screamed, as if they were on the edge. The factory roof looked ramshackle, the whole place, like an accident waiting to happen! I had braced myself for visiting the bowels of these manufacturing units, but the realization, that these units in their entirety were the bowels of manufacturing in India, was indeed a revelation.

But this is India, this sort of thing happens, doesn’t it?

All of this, however, was not alarming. It was alarming to see a young man, probably my age, or younger, lifting hot molten glass bottles with a gloved hand, in a place where we couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes. He stood there for the entire day, lifting the bottles that were on their side, to stand them on their base while we went about visiting less oppressive parts of the setup. We left the place after a week; he is probably still standing there, braving the mad heat, taking in the fumes, condemning his health. And he was just one, among so many others who were lifting inhuman loads, trudging along with drudgery or baking in close proximity to kilns.

But this is India, this sort of thing happens, doesn’t it?

We have over a billion people, if it wasn’t him, it would be someone else. Time to cling on to the patronizing justifications – “The human body is resilient / this is his fate / it’s his choice / somebody has to do this job / should not bother you…”

Credit goes to him for trying to eke out an honest living. Though it seems, his plight did not bother me enough, because I went about my work. Not alarming enough for me. This was followed by the sight of an eight year old boy walking briskly from a pot furnace to a spinning unit. Barefoot and with an iron rod 8 feet long held tightly in his hand. The tip of the rod was glowing with an incredibly hot globule of molten glass. ‘Sonu’ was eight and he had just joined the job. It was his second week and he was still coming to terms with how hot the rod became after a few minutes in the furnace. He was again, one, among many little children with their dreams melting and shattering with that glass.

But this is India, this sort of thing does happen…

What will become of this? The benefactors of this trade will grow more obese and daring. Children will come and go. A young lad with big-city education and a penchant for writing, will probably blog about it somewhere. Some people might read it. The Wikipedia entry for Firozabad, will still casually say – “Child labour is practiced widely in the city…”

Indeed, this sort of thing happens…

So there I was, at Firozabad, a city on the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau, looking down or up at an ignominy for our country – a culture of colors, magnificent shades and shattered dreams. I couldn’t wait to go back to the 150 km/hour train and the uncomfortable sleepers leaning on my shoulder. At least when they sleep, their dreams don’t melt away or even worse, shatter!

**********

The highlight of the trip! I got one dozen bananas for 20 Rupees at Firozabad! A ‘burkha’ and a thick local accent will get you a dozen for 15!

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