This was a visit of many firsts – my first visit to the ‘Glass Capital’ of India - Firozabad; my introduction to the process of bangle-making and the first time I have actually seen the results of a energy research project that benefits thousands of people.
Until a few years ago, Firozabad used to be enveloped in a cloud of smoke coming from thousands of coal-fired furnaces. The fact that the city was a mere 40km from the yellowing marbles of the Taj Mahal in Agra, earned it a lot of attention from environmental activists.
In 1994, the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on four major sources of pollution within the Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) – automobiles in Agra city, the Mathura Oil Refinery, the Foundries in Agra, and the Glass industry in Firozabad. They were given a deadline and told to either shut down, switch to cleaner fuels or to move out of the 10,400 sq.km TTZ.
Among the hundreds of glass factories in Firozabad agonizing over the SC order, Islam Khan was the first to open the doors of his factory, Express Glass Works (EGW), to researchers seeking to help the industry switch from coal to gas fired furnaces. It was a tough decision – on one hand was the cost of displacing people associated with EGW for over three generations, and other the other, was the economic imperatives -- a coal furnace costs less than Rs. 200,000; for a 30% reduction in energy consumption, he had to install a facility that cost Rs. 3000,000! Clearly, this defied business logic, so Khan had to be persuaded with generous subsidies from SDC and promises of international technical support through TERI.
When the gas furnace was finally ready, one huge problem still remained – EGW was famous for its blood-red “Lal Anju” bangles. Somehow the clean-fuel technology had robbed the factory of its USP. TERI tried to solve the problem by bringing in Indian and international experts but nothing worked. Ultimately, Islam Khan had to use his own ingenuity and skills to bring about a consistent, deep red into his bangles.
Today the factory is veritable beehive of activity. More than a hundred workers go about their work – feeding the ovens with sand, caustic soda and other chemicals; scooping out ladles of glowing, molten glass; adding strips of color and softening them again for the ustads who transfer fine threads of glass on to a rotating shaft, resulting in long glass springs which are then split using diamond tipped cutters.
Ultimately what exits the factory gates are the “spilt” bangles. These are then sent to smaller shops where they are fused, glazed and polished in smaller ovens (paka-bhattis) before going out to the retail outlets.
Thanks to the Supreme Court directive, more than 40 units in Firozabad have now switched to the cleaner, gas-fired furnaces. The workers continue to work in difficult conditions but at least they are able to retain their jobs in a city where the air is lot cleaner than it used to be.
The main furnace
Steady hands that turn molten glass into bangle spirals
Splitting the spirals
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