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Uttam Nagar

Kumhar Gram, 2019

Aamir Khan2, Dying fire: Wheels of life grind to a halt, January 21, 2019: The Times of India


A thin plume of smoke rises from the glowing embers surrounded by a group of children at Kumhar Gram, Delhi's biggest potter colony in Uttam Nagar. The nip in the air after sunset adds to the gloom to the 400-odd households in west Delhi. They have been asked by the authorities to stop using wood-fired kilns. South Delhi Municipal Corporation officials said such wood-fired kilns were prohibited in a residential colony and will be sealed if the ban order is flouted.

Citing the directive of the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal related to industrial units in residential areas, the December 18, 2018 notice instructed the potters to “stop running trade or industrial activities and remove machinery and material” from their dwelling units. Things have come to an abrupt halt and Nem Chand, 60, is particularly apprehensive about the future because he cannot see. The elderly potter lost his vision 18 years ago, but continued working on the wheel, relying on his sense of touch.

“Now that we can no longer earn a living, the least government can do is to give our children jobs,” shrugged Chand. “Pottery allowed us to make enough to feed the family.” The future is certainly uncertain for each household there.

Each house on Kumhar Gram’s narrow lanes has neat stacks of flower pots and scrubbers, terracotta sculptures and earthen lamps, for display and sale. Together, a family earns Rs 15,000-20,000 in the peak season, Diwali being the best time for sales while winter is mostly harsh and dry. “I don’t know if we will be forced to steal to keep hunger at bay,” said Chand’s neighbour Daya Ram darkly.

Unlike the families there that migrated from Rajasthan, 50-year-old Ram's grandfather arrived from neighbouring Haryana. “Pottery is a centuries' old tradition. There was a need for something to keep food in and eat out of. Copper came much later,” muttered Ram in response to the news of the order.

The ban does not explicitly talk about pollution from the kilns, only implies that they could prove harmful in residential areas. But Ram argued against the wood-fire smoke being a health hazard. “There is no pollution. We have been using wood and sawdust for decades without facing health issues. Shouldn’t we be ill otherwise?” he asked.

In another house, a photo on the wall shows Deen Dayal, 40, receiving a merit certificate from the state government. “Pottery has been a family tradition passed on to each succeeding generation after my grandfather came here from Rajasthan 50 years ago. The high point was when I received state and national merit awards,” said Dayal.

Indeed, the colony that is being proscribed has produced two national award winners, both bestowed the title of ‘master craftsman’, besides 11 national, six national merit and several state awards. There is much irony, therefore, when the lanky Dayal points at the photograph on the wall, unable to figure out how the same government that honoured him now thinks his work is illegal.

His brother, Lucky, 39, interjected to say, “If our products are banned, then the only beneficiary is going to be China. Is the government trying to promote Chinese products?” He added, “Rituals related to either the arrival of a child or the death require the use of earthenware. It makes our work as potters all the more important.”

The ban on wood-fired kilns affects the whole process of pottery making, for without baking the first step of kneading serves no purpose. Vijay, a third-generation potter from Kumhar Gram, estimated the daily loss to all households of Rs 4 lakh. “The government gave us wheels to run our businesses,” the 25-year-old said, “and now the same government orders us to shun the only skill we have.”

Clad in a reddish brown kurta that once was white 51-year-old Sanjay cast an eye over his unsold stock and his voice took on an anxious tone. “Modiji ne kaha mitti ke diye jalao. Lekin mitti ke diye kaha se jalayenge Diwali par jab banenge hi nahi (The PM asked people to use earthen lamps at Diwali, but where will they get these lamps from)?” he said. The answer to that question is what the government, the courts and the potters must be struggling about.

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