Knobs and knockers

We use brass handles all the time, but do we ever notice them? Aligarth is a town north of Delhi and if there is a brass door handle capital of the world, it is there. In the early 1990s my work took me to the sooty basements and cellars of Aligarth where B&Q’s door handles were born. I was lucky enough to witness, listen to and smell the story of our humble door handle.

Aligarth is a four-hour drive from Delhi. It was a relief to finally arrive as the traffic in India ranged from complete gridlock to a terror run. There was no lane discipline and no rules. The image of a woman, lying in a pond of her blood, crushed almost beyond recognition by the overturned lorry, haunts me still.

Vinta, IndiaThe streets of Aligarth were packed with cyclists, mules, cattle, scooters and carts. The streets are narrow and along both sides of the street are tiny shops, each specialising in a few basic items such as plastic ware, pot and pans, batteries, hardware, spices and herbs and in one shop, coffins. Every other shop seemed to offer bicycle repairs.

Our car turned from an even narrower side street into a side alley and stopped. A large Indian man came out to greet us. He was the owner and was followed by his three young sons. Whilst shaking my hand the elder son placed garlands over my head. I felt like royalty.

His factory was squeezed down the street. There were four floors and a large dark basement. After the usual small talk we were invited to tour the factory starting with the courtyard.

The floor was hard, sun baked red mud. In one corner was a pile of brass scrap from old ship parts, bar fittings, pipes and other brass junk. Three Indians squatted on the floors sorting all this junk into distinct piles. Next to this pile was a pile of black coke.

Alongside one wall were six holes containing metal pots which glowed red. One Indian took some of the scrap, and with iron tongs lifted the lid from one of the pots. Yellow smoke billowed from the pot and he carefully dropped the scrap into it and replaced the lid.

Two workers went to another pot and with some metal bars, removed the lids and lifted the pot from the hole in the ground. Flames from the burning coke shot up as if to try and drag the pot back into the hole. The flames failed. It was carried over to a stack of circular metal frames. These were filled to the top with black sand and in the highest one was a small hole. The pot was then handed over to one man who carefully poured the molten brass into the hole and yellow smoke bellowed as droplets of brass spat everywhere.

I was told that the brass was over 1,000 degrees centigrade. All the Indian workers had one thing in common. Because of the climate and heat of this manufacturing process, other than tatty shorts, they were all naked. Some wore gloves but none wore any shoes. This was despite the splashes of molten brass.

After a few minutes the frames were flipped over and the sand fell out together with red-hot brass door handles. With metal bars, the workers separated the sand from the handles which were left to cool.

On the upper floors were rows of grinding machines. Indians sat at these machines holding the handles against spinning stone grinding wheels. Sparks and splinters of brass and stone shot from the machine. There were no guards on the machine and the workers had loose clothing hanging close to the spinning parts.

In the basement workers sat on the mud floor alongside rows of polishing machines. One to each machine, they pushed the brass handles against the polishing wheel. The polishing produced fine black soot but without dust extraction, the floor, walls and ceiling were caked with this soot – it was everywhere. The only human feature you could recognise was the white of the workers’ eyes and teeth. Some had rags to stop the dust going into their mouths. I snapped away photographing all this detail. My emotions were mixed as I was horrified but also I experienced a strange sense of excitement. Perhaps it was the same mixed emotions journalists must experience when covering a major disaster – horror at the event but excitement at being the one to have found a story that needed telling.

The factory was in a terrible mess. Wiring hanged from the ceiling, lights were suspended on these wires and in some cases wires were joined with tape while the fire exits were blocked or did not exist. Stock was piled indiscriminately along the corridors, on the stairs and overhanging on shelves. This factory was lethal.

I challenged the owner. “This is the way India is, all the brass factories are the same,” he replied.

He was right, as we found out when we visited another factory. Here the working conditions were even more cramped and the polishing unit was even worse. Whilst photographing this room, we were thrown into complete darkness because the power had failed and apparently it happened all the time. “I would not like to be holding a crucible of molten brass when that happened,” I thought.

I wanted to see the grinding area which was down a narrow spiral staircase with a low ceiling. I had to bend over to enter the tight stairway. In this polishing unit, however, were youngsters and while it was hard to tell their age they looked too young.

The agent was unclear how he was going to make the changes but he recognised that things had to change. As he drove me to the airport the next day he handed me an A4 brown envelope. He had found out only that morning that a report commissioned by the Indian Government on the health problems with India Health Workers had been published.

“One manufacturer said to the author, “see how dextrous this young child is (who was working at a furnace). He has to be because if a drop of molten brass falls on his foot there will be a hole in it.”

“Local people and governments officials said that all moulders develop tuberculosis.”

 

“The most hazardous process was considered to be that of moulding in a box furnace workshop. One young man pointing to six children said “none of these children will survive beyond the age of 30 because they will all die of TB.”

“60% of polishers get ill and approximately 20-30% of them soon die.”

It was in the early 1990s that finding out about the story behind brass door handles led to B&Q working with suppliers to dramatically improve working conditions through introducing new health and safety standards. And while they may have seemed wanting in terms of western sensibilities, they represented a major step change compared to what I witnessed.