JAIPUR/DELHI -- The elephant ride up the stone pathway of the medieval Amber fort outside Jaipur is designed to make tourists feel like Rajput warriors returning from battle—-or something on those fantastical lines. But one man, watching the majestic procession a few years ago, was awed by something far less regal.
Vijendra Shekhawat, who makes handmade paper, stared at the mounds of dung plopping out at regular intervals as the elephants ambled up to the sandstone and marble palace. The 30-year-old entrepreneur was mesmerized by the fibre-spokes sticking out of the wet poo. “I didn’t pick it up right then,” he said, laughing. “But I came back later.”
Much to the horror of his family, Shekhawat returned home with sacks of elephant poo to experiment whether it could be used to make handmade paper. The entrepreneur had already been using raw materials like silk waste and vegetable slush to prepare paper. His backyard holds a small mill with one “beater” machine that produces about 40kgs of pulp. His family, now trained, make up the workforce.
Shekhawat comes from Shekhawati, a region in the desert state of Rajasthan, which is home to many big industrialists including the world's top steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. “They inspire me to have big dreams,” said the paper-maker. Shekhawat became a breadwinner at an early age since his father’s wages from manual labour were too meager. The 15-year-old lad had to support his parents as well as a younger brother and sisters who could not work outside because Rajput tradition requires them to maintain purdah (veil).
After moving the entire family to Jaipur, Shekhawat found a low-paying job stitching skirts in the textile
industry and later making handmade paper. Following a decade of scrimping and saving, he was able to buy some basic equipment to make his own paper. The entrepreneur explained that he is naturally committed to green innovation. Even his visiting cards are made from poo paper. But bringing dung into their city house had Shekhawat’s conservative mother in hysterics. They, afterall, are the descendants of Rajput kings. “We thought he had gone mad…disgusting,” recalled the elderly lady. “We feared he would sink family name and what would neighbours say.”
The family at first refused to touch the stuff and permission to use any of the utensils was not granted. But Shekhawat was determined to see the venture through. After several failures, the right mix was set at 75% dung and 25% cotton waste. The poo has to be washed, sorted, beaten, laid out in sheets and colored. “It is eco friendly and chemical free,” he said. “It also saves trees.”
The poo source
Thrice a month, the two brothers set out on a motorbike to collect 1000kgs of dung from the elephant quarters behind the Amber fort. Abdul Lateef, owner of four elephants, rebuffed concerns that it is cruel to have elephants chained in small quarters and then paraded out on stones that heat up in the sun. “I treat them like my children,” insisted Lateef. Following protests by animal rights activists, timings were set for these walks.
Two female elephants stand in a shed surrounded by fodder and cocky monkeys. Despite being chained at the foot, they gently sway from side to side. Feeding one costs approximately Rs.2500 per day($50). One elephant poops about 12 times everyday, which is around 180 kgs of dung that can produce 265 sheets of paper (an average size of 30x25 inches).“I was surprised but happy to give it away otherwise we just throw it,” said Lateef. “I heard it helps farmers as well.”
The water that is expelled during the dung-cleaning is also used by Gendalal, a 60-year-old farmer, who grows vegetables and wheat in a 2500 sq meter patch of land. “So now I don’t have to use urea or chemical fertilizers,” he said. “It really soaks into the soil and has a good effect for two years.”
The poo to paper trail, which begins in the elephant sheds behind the Rajput fort, leads to an ethnic market
called Dilli Haat, a hugely popular hangout in the capital city. Items including jewellery, clothes, lanterns, utensils, curtains, pickles and toys, from all over the country, are spread out like a colorful bedspread under the open sky. But one sign catches the eyes—a big elephant bottom with a cute curly tail that reads “made using only the finest dung available in India.”
The shop contains various elephant poo products like paper, notepads, handicrafts, photoalbums and clocks. The cost of handmade paper is, of course, higher than regular paper. But paper merchant, Mahima Mehra, explained that demand for exotic paper is increasing both in the domestic and the international market. “The rise has been slow and steady and we are trying to make it more mainstream,” she said.
Most of the handmade paper products are sold in lifestyle stores, eco boutiques, nature shops, craft shops and bookshops. Mehra now supplies papers to 35 stores all over the country. “We are also targeting the senior management in big corporations to use this,” she said.
Poo of the future
A steady demand for handmade paper allows Shekhawat to make a profit of about $600 per month. The small mill presently churns out about 9000 sheets in a month, which he sells for about Rs. 11 per piece (22 cents). To expand the poo operations, the family has already bought a new patch of land in the north-eastern side of Rajasthan. Here Shekhawat also wants to set up a eco-camp for tourists to observe how the dung paper is made. Future plans also involve making paper with more raw materials like bamboo, sugarcane and vegetable waste.
But the family still doesnt't have enough money to buy a bigger “beater” machine, which will produce 100 kgs of pulp, as well as other equipment like cutting, pressing and glazing machines. Shekhawat explained that it has been really hard to get a bank loan. To buy a machine worth Rs. 2.5lakhs ($5000), he has to provide security of of Rs.18 lakhs ($36,000). “I’ve tried with ten banks but it hasn’t worked,” he said. “The last option will be to sell our city house but the family does not want to do that.”
Despite these glitches, Shekhawat, who has a one-year-old daughter, talked animatedly about how far his enterprise has come. The businessman also recalled a dark period of hardship when he couldn't afford the bus fare. "When my friends were out of sight, I would make an excuse to the conductor to get off and then walk home," he said.
For the family, elephant poo is like the cow dung, which is worshipped by millions of Indians. Even his elderly mother has made peace with the poo. “It has brought money and good things for this family,” she said, matter-of-factly.