Working hard: A man sorts and processes scraps in front of his house in the “scrap village” on Hoàng Cầu Street. — VNS Photo Khánh Dương
By Khánh Dương
HÀ NỘI — In a narrow alley on Hoàng Cầu Street in Đống Đa District, among a residential complex and multi-storey buildings, there is a row of shabby one-storey houses without address plaques. About 10 houses here were carelessly erected of wood. Pieces of canvas cover the low roofs and doors, making the houses more scruffy-looking.
Passing these dark houses, nothing attracts more attention than big sacks filled with scraps, piled on the ground and stacked to the roof. This is where migrant scrap dealers have stayed and earned a living for more than 10 years.
Rural women with quang gánh (two baskets hung from either end of a bamboo bole) or on bicycles, carrying heavy loads of paper, cardboard and sacks are easily found on any Hà Nội street. Each woman brings a small scale from home with her. Every day, the women collect unused items that can be recycled from households or offices, then sell them to scrap dealers.
Inside Hà Nội’s so-called “scrap village”, scraps of many materials -- from unused paper, cloth, nylon, wood, tiny pieces of metal, plastic bottles, to cans -- are scattered on the floor.
While sorting messy heaps of items for potential recycling, “scrappers” collect all kinds of household leftovers, including old TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, stoves, electric irons, and sometimes even used gas tanks.
Among the rusty messes of scraps, no one knows whether any bullets, explosives or flammable materials are hiding. Even plastic and metal bottles found by scrap collectors may contain non-toxic liquids or something much worse.
An unnamed man about 40 years old said that a used gas tank can be purchased for up to VNĐ100,000 (US$4.7). He is ready to buy such used gas tanks, with whatever gas remains inside, to use at his house.
More than half of the limited space in his less-than-20 sq.m house is used to store the leftover items and materials he collects. The other half of the space at the back of his house is a private room for his family to cook and rest. Stoves, gas tanks his family uses for cooking, and a humid toilet sit right next to messes of scraps, while bunches of electric wires dangle over the roof of the house.
The lives of dozens of scrappers living and working here for the past 10 years remain threatened by such dangers.
Last week, a massive explosion resulted from a scrap collector trying to cut up an oxygen tank or a bomb to sell for parts. The explosion killed five people in Hà Đông District and destroyed much of a nearby residential area.
When asked if he is scared of explosions and blasts that may happen anytime in an environment full of flammable items, the 40 year old scrapper said: “No. Nothing to be scared of.”
It’s as if the explosions were news in an unknown part of the city, unrelated to his daily work.
“The dead man cut up an oxygen tank or a huge bomb. I have no oxygen tanks or bombs here.”
His words might have meant that he knows enough to distinguish oxygen tanks, bombs, and other such explosives from non-explosives. But he confesses that he can not distinguish between explosives and non-explosives while collecting scraps. He just collects everything he regards as precious and resalable.
Poor migrants in the “scrap village” do not think of fire safety prevention methods or equip their houses with fire extinguishers. But scrap dealers accidentally stockpile old fire extinguishers in their collection of scraps, due to lack of knowledge.
Scrap dealers show few signs of fear or increased vigilance after the explosion last week. But local residents are worried that they may be the victims of a fire or explosion caused by the scrap houses someday.
“The village has existed since 2005, without a business licence. Scrappers even collect broken guns. They often buy wrapped packages of scraps. So it is impossible to know whether there are explosives or flammable materials inside, until they open them. I don’t know whether they saw or cut up metal pieces and blocks or not,” said Vũ Thị Hoa, a local resident.
“Only cigarette ash, or a mouse breaking through an electric line, can trigger a fire. Dusty scraps may also bring about diseases,” said another local resident who wishes to remain anonymous, agreeing with his neighbours.
Other residents complained that they are surrounded by waste from the “scrap village”, as well as from a nearby construction site. Large heaps composed of tonnes of garbage are also thrown out by a household in the alley.
A tea seller named Bích said that the scrappers all hail from poor rural regions. Scrappers have to work hard to make ends meet. It is very hard to ban them from doing business because scrap collecting is their livelihood.
Nguyễn Ngọc Kim, head of street population group number 74 of Ô Chợ Dừa Ward, said “The fire happened”.
The cause was cigarette ash from a nearby construction site, dropped into the “village”. Heaps of cloth, wood and metal collected by the scrappers caught fire, he said.
But the street population group is not authorised to ban the scrappers from doing business, Kim said. Local authorities and police have since reminded scrappers about fire safety. But the compromised safety situation remains the same.
No only the residents of Hoàng Cầu Street worry. Residents worry about their safety in all residential areas of the city.
Many other “scrap villages” have existed in Hà Nội for a long time, including those on Triều Khúc Street, Nguyễn Xiển Street, Tam Trinh Street, Dịch Vọng Ward of Cầu Giấy District, near Đại Thanh, Xa La, and Linh Đàm residential areas.
An uncountable number of small-scale scrap villages and scrap stores are being operated without business licenses in densely populated areas near schools, hospitals and markets. This has turned the city into a “time bomb”.
Not far from Hoàng Cầu “scrap village”, along the narrow Đê La Thành Street, infamous for its traffic jams, welding and metal cutting and processing happen day and night on the street pavement. Motorists and pedestrians fear electric sparks may spark fires or explosions. There is also air pollution, including dust and heat -- as well as noise pollution from the continuous hammering which pounds from these venues.
The risk of fire and explosion inside the crowded capital city is now more dangerous than ever before.
What authorities say
The explosion in Hà Đông District last week shows a “hole” in local authorities’ management of scrap spots in the city, according to many experts. Unlicensed scrap stores on rented ground and shabby tents raise the question of who will be responsible for an explosion or fire, when it happens.
Business regulations mandate that scrap businesses have licences, along with commitments to environmental protection and fire prevention. Licenses scrap businesses must be located far from residential areas, schools and medical facilities, at certain minimum distances. Unlicensed scrapping businesses are not following any of these public safety precautions.
Phạm Văn Viên, the Chairman of Ô Chợ Dừa Ward’s People’s Committee, said that all seven households in the “scrap village” on Hoàng Cầu Street have inadequate facilities to qualify for business licences.
The biggest obstacle for residential managers is that these small-scale scrappers rent houses from local land owners to run their businesses.
The Ward’s People’s Committee will cooperate with authorised agencies to persuade land owners to hand over their premises to local authorities, in an attempt to solve the problem, he said.
Meanwhile, the efforts and commitments of city authorities mean there is hope for positive change. Nguyễn Đức Chung, the Chairman of the Municipal People’s Committee, recently asked relevant agencies to step up inspections, while fighting against violations by individuals and organisations who deal with explosives and flammable items in the city. — VNS