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Old clothes for new utensils!

vikas.kumar's picture

As a child, I was always intrigued by women who moved in the gullies with a bundle on their head, exchanging new utensils (usually of steel or aluminium) and plastic buckets, for old clothes. This sight is very common in small towns in India & is also seen in the suburbs of big cities like Mumbai.

The trader (usually a woman) would go from door to door, and try to take as many old clothes as possible in exchange for minimum utensils. The trading is usually done with the women of the households, and both parties require a lot of patience and a skill for bargaining, to have a satisfying deal. I’ve seen an old pair of faded denims or mom’s ‘once shimmering -now dull’ sari or dad’s shrunk sweater, make way for a shiny new ‘stainless steel’ katori or (if we managed a good deal), a kadhai! This was in Bihar, where poverty would compel people to take up this ‘barter’ trade.

In metros like Mumbai, there’s a certain community, the Vaghris or Waghris that practice this profession. They are originally from Kathiawad in Gujarat and have been in this trade for decades. The kids attend primary school, and once they know how to read and write they give it all up so that they can learn the tricks of the trade and start earning very early in life.Saris fetch the maximum- Rs 30 to Rs 40, and other clothes range from Rs 10 to Rs 20. Torn clothes don’t sell. After collecting around 20-30 kg of clothes, the traders sell them to wholesale dealers on weight and exchange them for utensils that are in demand. The dealer sells these old clothes to hawkers, who wash and iron them and sell them at local weekly bazaars. Thus the cycle goes on.

Dealers in old clothes say that the used clothes market is not doing too well these days. The reasons being :

1. The price of old and used clothes has dropped so much that they no longer offer any attraction as a barter item for new utensils.

2. At times, there is an over-supply of goods. The dealers hold natural calamities responsible. A large part of clothes collected for victims enters the used clothes market. This came to notice especially after the tsunami. We would call this cheating but some of the NGOs involved in relief work say this practice was valid because there was a continuous overflow of donations and after a certain time large consignments of relief supplies had already reached the affected people. There was no other option.

I just hope the money earned by this practice is used precisely for what it was donated!

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vandana's picture
I too remember mom ocassionally trading off used clothes for the brand new shining steel utensils. However, nowadays the women are not seen any more(maybe the market conditions not being very good is the reason), However, didn't know that this is where the old clothes find themselves (although have always wondered but never really bothered to find out). Informative blog.
vikas.kumar's picture
Another barter trade that I personally loved was what we kids did with the guy who came around everyday, selling 'moongphali'. He'd readily gave us 'moongphali' and 'chana jor garam' in exchange for any metal piece. We'd actually be on the look out, even on roads, for the tiniest of scraps lying around, and put it to good use when the guy would make his rounds in the evening.
dipti.bapat's picture
hi vikas, i am a phd scholar at the university of hyderabad and i am working with this particular community practicing the trade of second hand clothing. i remember reading your blog in 2009 and getting interested in the topic. my research is unfolding very interestingly to look into the labor conditions of these women, the novelty of their trade and their amazing community networks. i loved your precise write up and it would be interesting to share a talk with you regarding my work. glad to contribute to their visibility! regards
shantihhh's picture
Very interesting blog! I was watching a show (Oprah) about so many middle class Americans are becoming homeless as they have lost their jobs and as a result loose their homes. It is so sad to see the bank hired crews come in and clean out the homes. They literally toss the clothes, TV, children's toys and bikes, as well as kitchen items in dumpsters. This is taken to land fills as garbage! So sad andf so wrong that thousans of dollars of items are tossed into the garbage/land fills. Tent "cities" are appearing all over America much like the slums of third world countries. In fact Lisa Ling the reporter on this story stated that the tent city in Sacramento, the state capital of California and her home town reminded her of the refugee camps in Afghanistan. It breaks your heart to see so many children homeless. They are growing up fast leaving their childhood at such tender ages. People walking 3 miles to fill up a plastic soda bottle with drinking water here in the wealthiest state in the US. In fact if California was a separate country it would be the 5th richest country in the world! Shanti/Mary-Anne
Anonymous's picture
I myself had bargained with those traders. After the best deal mom I would be happy. you know onething. some utensils will last even for two decades. whiles some dont even last for few months. If we are smart we win
Old Clothes For New Utensils!