Panipat is home to some 150 or 200 mills, which take discarded clothes from western countries and turn them into recycled cloth. The industry employs around 20,000 people.
Panipat’s history in textiles began after partition. Weavers were uprooted and moved to the ancient city. They set up looms to knit coarse, handspun cotton carpets, wall hangings and sofa covers. The city’s later emergence as a recycling hub coincided with a slump in Prato, a small industrial town in Italy, with textile tradition. In the 1990s Panipat mill owners bought discarded Italian machinery from Prato designed to make cheap shoddy yarn from recycled wool. (Shoddy is a word for reclaimed fiber). The industry took off; its annual revenues rose to over 300 million dollars.
Panipat may help the planet but also exhibits the least attractive features of the textile business in developing countries: sweatshop conditions for workers, rock bottom pay, use of child labor and so on. Almost all workers there are contract laborers who earn a tenth of what those in the formal sector are paid. Also times have changed. Cheaper and lighter polyester substitutes are preferred by wholesale buyers such as aid agencies, railways and hospitals, whether Indian or foreign. Such materials need expensive machines that many Panipat mills cannot afford.