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The mane entrepreneurs

At 6 every morning the Narikuravars set out to collect human hair. The peripatetic gypsies, who liken themselves to Adivasis, live in Wagariyar Colony, near Kannamangalam gate outside Arcot town, about 120 km south-west of Chennai. The men and women leave on two-wheelers — mostly mopeds, and some motorcycles, many with loudspeakers fitted on the handlebars. Sometimes they head to a town as far as 50 km away. Once they reach their destination, they divide the streets among themselves, combing for hair, street by street. Some push their vehicles, switch on a taped message that blares out of the speaker: “Sikkumudi, sikkumudi, nooru gramme sikkumudi noor ruba, paththu gramme sikkumudi patthu ruba, sikku mudi… (Comb waste hair, comb waste hair, we buy comb waste hair, hundred grams for hundred rupees, fifty grams for fifty rupees. We will weigh it and take it. Don’t worry. Our weight is true. We buy even 10 grams of hair you don’t need. We buy grey hair too.”

 They collect hair from women in villages and towns who preserve strands that get tangled in the teeth of combs, or hair which falls in clumps, rolling it into small balls called ‘chutti’. These they periodically exchange for money, aluminium vessels or “fancy items” — which could be anything from a hairband, hairpins, brooches, comb, small mirrors. When the hair collectors come, the women bring the chutti out for exchange. Fallen human hair keeps these collectors alive. When the pickings are poor, the Narikuravars find a tree under which they can sleep and try their luck elsewhere in the afternoon when the sun is less torrid.There is money in hair. Each year India exports ₹3,500 crore worth of human hair. Most of the world’s hair business, 70% of it, is in synthetic hair. The Indian exports are 80% of the world’s supply of two types of human hair. Remy hair, the longer hair, which is temple offerings made in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, especially in Tirupati by women who are part of the 18 million devotees who throng there every year and offer their hair to Lord Venkateswara. Women in south India maintain their hair well, use less henna than their counterparts elsewhere, oil their hair every day. Good hair also depends on good water and good food. Hair in Tirupati is auctioned every Thursday at 1 p.m. fetching revenue of about $10 million every year. Tirupati alone accounts for 40% of the Remy hair that is exported. Remy hair is only a fraction of the hair trade. The bulk of it is in non-Remy hair, which is collected by people like Devagopi in Wagariyar Colony.On the hair trailIt is a little after four on a Friday afternoon when we reach Wagariyar Colony, which has two streets and 65 houses, many with red crosses marked on the white walls. Right in the middle of the street, milling with activity, is spread a large, blue burlap mat on which people are sitting in a circle. A man in white shirt, vibhuti streaking his forehead, makes entries in a notebook, doing his maths on a blue calculator held together by rubber band. In front of him is a pair of weighing scales. By his side is a bag of human hair that he is about to assess and weigh. The weights, 10 grams upwards all the way to a kilo, crowd round his knees and ankles. This man is Palani, a hair collector one rung removed from the bottom of the chain of collectors. On Fridays and Tuesdays superstition prevents women from giving their fallen hair away, and today Palani has to make do with only two kilos. These Narikuravars give their hair mostly to Palani, nowadays for ₹3,400 per kilo. He collects 50 kilos of hair per month to supply up the chain.

Residents of Wagariyar colony engage in hair trade. They are originally from the Narikuruva tribe.
| Photo Credit: Dinesh Krishnan

 It is people like Devagopi who are at the bottom of the chain. He is philosophical about life. “So long as we have noses, there will be snot.” Nowadays, the pickings are poor. “If each of us manages to collect even 200 grams of hair, it is a lot,” he says. They have to cover as many as 10 villages, street by street, for a fistful of hair. Each village, by his count, has about a hundred houses. The bigger villages have more. The most Devagopi has collected in a single day is three kilos. But that is some years ago, in Red Hills outside Chennai.The collection chainThe bigger hair collectors sit in Gudiyatham, two hours away from Wagariyar Colony, at Puliar Koil Theru, Pandar Colony. There are 10 houses here, two stories tall, each building touching the other. Abutting the very first house is a 4 feet x 6 feet room with metal-slotted shelves along three walls on which sit vessels seven shelves high, all the way up almost to the ceiling. There are steel vessels, small bowls, airtight containers with lids, steel containers with long curving handles, plastic balls, mugs, cups. These Govindan Anandan, 54, exchanges for hair. His parents captured the poramboke land for which the late Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran gave away pattas. Here, living in thatched huts, Anandan kept pigs. He began dealing with hair much later. It gave enough money to him and his brother, Kumar, who had sold chicken, to build a dream house for each, fifty-one feet deep so the other end of the house opened to the street in the back. It is here he parks the red Toyota Innova he bought second-hand for ₹5 lakh five years ago and has a driver who takes him around Tamil Nadu, collecting hair.Anandan travels to Thiruvannamalai, Arani, Arcot, down to the tip of the peninsula, Kanyakumari and to Pollachi, from where he brings hair from Kerala, prized for its lustre and good health. Today is Friday and he won’t be using his weighing machine, which sits gleaming by the staircase, spotted reverentially with sandalwood and kunkumam (vermillion) marks. He is oblivious to the gurgling of his grandson, all of four months old, who watches wide-eyed over the shoulder of his mother Yogalakshmi. Up on the first floor, Anandan and his wife show us their collection, all packed in white burlap sacks, some 110 kilos of hair. At ₹3,400 per kilo they will get over ₹3,74,000 for it.

Ekambaram has been in the hair collecting business since hair was sold at Rs.7 a kilogram. Today, hair is sold by him at the rate of Rs. 3,400/- rupees a kilogram. He works and lives in this small cubicle in Vellore district.  
| Photo Credit: Dinesh Krishnan

 Kamal, from Perambur in Chennai, who they regularly supply to, has paid an advance of ₹10 lakh to ensure the hair keeps coming in. The most Anandan has collected in a day is one tonne of human hair. His brother Kumar’s operation is much more modest. Kumar’s youngest son, Hari, has dropped out of school to help his father. Every day they set out in Hari’s motorcycle. The son drops the father off in a faraway town to forage for hair and ranges further afield, meeting up back at home, the father finding a bus to head back.There are smaller collectors: By the main road, east of Vellore, in Wallajahpettai, Ekambaram is drying hair on the road, his lungi hitched up almost to his chest, his shirt wet with sweat. Kamal examines the hair being dried, and then goes into the room where Ekambaram, 67, has lived alone since his wife died eight years ago, paying a rent of ₹500 per month. Ekambaram has been buying hair since 1965 when it sold for ₹7 a kilo, going around on a bicycle exchanging chikku mudi (ball of comb waste hair) with sticky sweets he made, heating a kilo or two of sugar till it became liquid, pouring it into a plate coated with oil, mixing it with colour, waiting for it to cool and shaping it into stick sweets to hand out to children and women in exchange for hair.Kamal has given an advance of ₹50,000 to keep Ekambaram incentivised. In the room he sleeps, there are calendars with pictures of gods and a heap of hair which he has brought from conservancy workers in Vellore. Kamal sorts through the hair separating them into two heaps and weighs them separately — two kilos and two hundred grams in all. They haggle good-naturedly over the price of the smaller pile of hair. Later he takes out some of the hair and asks if there is anything noticeably unusual about it. To touch it is like any other black chutti hair but to Kamal’s expert eyes this is grey hair that has been coloured black, hair which sells for far less, about ₹1,200 per kilo. He keeps rubbing some strands of hair between his thumb and index finger and shows us the fingers. They have faint traces of black now. Half the trick in this trade is to identify chutti hair that has been dyed just by a quick glance.Kamal remembers the most he has collected in a week: six tonnes. A couple of years ago, his stock was tight, and there was demand. Kamal removed the seats from the back of his Tata Sumo, and along with a helper, took off on a giant sweeping circle driving through small villages and then towns and cities, Rajampettah, Kadapa, Ongole, Vellore, Ranipet, Hosur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, sleeping in cheap rooms where they were available or on concrete by the Sumo parked in petrol pumps.Two ends of the spectrumThe smallest collectors live out in the open. At Officers’ Colony, Ayanavaram, west Chennai, at the curve of Barton Wright Road by a nondescript temple sit Vadivel, his wife Baika and their children, leaning against the concrete picket fence, sorting hair. Children, home for vacation from school near Salem where they study, are playing in the early afternoon sun, waiting for the meal to be cooked, across the road in an open fire. Mathi (sardine) and rice today. Here many families sleep under the blanket of stars, menfolk mostly sloshed. At 1.40 in the afternoon, Vadivel has alcohol on his breath. A bunch of corporation conservancy workers pass by. They sell Vadivel and others like him hair regularly, hair some 18,000 of them sweep up along the roads of 465 sq. km. of Chennai corporation area. Into the more crowded streets with a heavy population density women methodically roam, setting out early in the morning, and returning to cook late in the afternoon while the men do gas repair work and clean wells.A fancier name for hair collectors, sort of like a kabadiwallah, is “hair aggregator”. This is the term George Cherian, the CEO of Raj Hair International, uses. He is on top of the chain, one of the biggest hair exporters, one of about 50 who form the core of the business. At his plush office on Maloney Road, Chennai, he estimates the number of such aggregators in the country at roughly 80,000. Chennai and Eluru account for the biggest concentration of Remy hair exporters as well, about 150. The number of product manufacturers is way more.

Hair collectors: Baika and her husband Vadivel, seen with their children, Bhumika and Manikandan, have lived by the roadside in Ayanavaram in Chennai for years now.

 Benjamin Cherian, George’s father, who has been sending hair to 56 countries for 35 years now, has a couple of dreams that he wishes could be quickly fulfilled. He says only 20% of the villages of the country are covered by hair collection of the type that has been described here. Under the Swachh Bharat dream of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Benjamin feels if each village could set up a system to collect hair, not only would the villages be cleaner, it would effortlessly provide employment as well as export revenue to the country.If southern gods like hair, the West loves it. Once processed, the hair sells at an average of $400 a kilo, depending on the length of the hair; hair lengths of 8-11 inches cost $100 a kilo while 30 inches sells at $700 a kilo. Benjamin says former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s extensions are courtesy Remy hair sourced through his company. The same is the story of extensions worn by people such as singers Shakira and Queen Latifah and actress Sofia Vergara. Hair extensions that were made from hair he exports have also featured in, among other films, Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, X-Men, 50 First Dates, The Ring, and Planet of the Apes.Raj Hair International exports about 12 tonnes of finished hair products per year; to send this much they have to process twice the amount of hair, 24,000 kilos; 20,000 kilos of non-Remy hair is exported by him, for which 36,000 kilos have to be processed.Competition from ChinaChinese hair is thicker, twice that of Indian hair, better for wigs, bleaching. Their hair is not fine, lustrous. To make it that way they have to mix it with Indian hair. The problem is China does business worth $4 billion, over ten times the turnover of India, mostly because of their range of finished hair products such as wigs, extensions, wefts, weaves, root tips.Benjamin Cherian’s other cherished dream is to prevent the smuggling of chutti hair to Bangladesh and Myanmar and thence to China through Moreh border in Manipur, for which he has even made several representations to the government. “The Chinese come and live here and they buy the chutti and ship it. They are in Gudiyatham, for instance,” he says. They have been coming for seven years. Palani and his son supply to them. The Chinese pay ₹4,000 per kilo of chutti. “Now, the Chinese live on the outskirts of Bengaluru where they have a godown,” says Yogalakshmi.Whether Benjamin Cherian’s dreams come true or not, the future of dead hair looks secure. As he puts it, “So long as men and women want to look beautiful, we are in business.”
Source: Bing News

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