Saturday, July 1, 2006

Jalandhar scores a goal

The football industry in Jalandhar has never had it so good. Thanks to the FIFA World Cup-generated rage for the game, more than 75 lakh footballs have been exported to all corners of the world in the past six months. Varinder Singh reports

Footballs of all shapes and sizes displayed at a hotel in Jalandhar
Footballs of all shapes and sizes displayed at a hotel in Jalandhar — Photo A. J. Philip

Indian footballers may not have been able to make their way to the FIFA World Cup, but lakhs of colourful footballs — all made in Jalandhar — have found their way to various parts of the world.

The hype over the football World Cup has given a major boost to the football-making industry of Jalandhar. The perked-up enthusiasm for the game has made the industry shun the prolonged pessimism and bask in the glory brought about by the unprecedented demand for the sports product.

The cheerless part of the story, however, is that Indian football and players have failed to draw youngsters to the game. But what brings verve to the industry and the more than 40,000 workers involved in football-making is the economic fillip given by the World Cup in an indirect way.

If the demand has soared from the annual mark of two crore footballs to nearly three crore overnight, the wages of the over 40,000 workers too have gone up significantly. This economic upswing has changed their lot. These workers, mostly women, are not only from Jalandhar city and villages nearby, where football sewing has become a cottage industry, but are scattered all over the Doaba and Majha regions of Punjab.

The World Cup has contributed a lot in effecting a positive change in its own right in the pessimistic economic scenario of Punjab, where industry in general and farming in particular have almost been reduced to economically unviable sectors.

The festive World Cup will come to an end shortly, leaving a mark on the hearts of football lovers the world over, and though the demand for footballs is already coming down, the effect is going to stay in Jalandhar and Punjab for long in one or the other manner. Reason — Jalandhar has once again been successful in bringing itself on the world map of football manufacturing.

The World Cup has seen footballs manufactured at Jalandhar landing in far-flung places of the world, including Italy, New Zealand, France, Europe, and South America.

Even as Rajesh Mayor, owner of Mayor and Company, one of renowned sports goods export house, maintains that the Jalandhar football manufacturing industry has been able to export nearly 75 lakh footballs to the world in the wake of the demand stirred by the World Cup, Ashok Katyal, MD of Sakay International, pegs the number of exported balls at one crore. As per his estimates, the annual turnover of the sports goods industry has jumped from about Rs 150 crore during last year to about Rs 250 crore — a neat Rs 100 crore leap.

While there were over 250 football-producing units in Jalandhar —largest number in the world in one city — a few big manufacturing houses, including Sakay Traders, Mayor and Company and Soccer International, have earned worldwide fame. The only stumbling block for them is the stiff competition from their Chinese counterparts. Most big football companies make footballs for internationally renowned names. For example, Mayor and Company, according to Rajesh Mayor, caters to Puma, Umbro and Mighter and so do the others.

Though footballs and accessories of all Jalandhar-based companies were grabbed by international consumer goods companies for their promotional campaigns, not a single football could become a part of the arena of World Cup events.

"Football mania has gripped people around the world like never before. The craze for footballs and accessories has caught the fancy of people so much that the usually dull Indian market, too, has turned hot all of a sudden, and to such an extent that if a football-maker and dealer sold 1000 footballs in a day in domestic market six months back, now, he would be selling at least 1500. My estimate says that there has been a 100 per cent hike in demand of football and accessories in the Indian market during the past about six months," observes Nitin Kohli, owner of Tracer and Vijaynti sports shoe brand.

Kohli says he has never seen such a "mad rush for football" ever before and he had never found football-makers so busy at any point of time earlier. "Demand from the West spiralled so much all of a sudden that those football manufacturers who were all set to export their football consignments via sea had to send these through air cargo," said Nitin Kohli.

Not only manufacturers and dealers but workers too have got busy. This situation has proved to be a boon for them as their almost static wages got doubled overnight. "If a football could be sewn at a price ranging between Rs 20 and Rs 25 six months back, now you have to pay workers about Rs 40 for sewing a football of high-quality synthetic leather," says Kohli.

Football craze has not only changed the life of labourers engaged in football sewing work but it has also changed their lives in more ways than one. Most of their wards, who could hardly afford to receive education, are now studying in schools run by the Sports Goods Foundation, a body of football and sports goods manufacturers. "Child labour has become a thing of the past now. Now children of football-makers are studying in free schools and not working in the industry," says Katyal and Mayor.

A taste for the game

Football craze has spilled beyond playgrounds and TV. Dozens of colourful footballs of all sizes have been put here and there neatly — even affixed with help of a net on the ceiling — at Tiffany’s restaurant of Radisson Windsor Hotel in Jalandhar. Visitors not only enjoy live matches on an array of TV sets but also keep their date with the sport with menu-displaying footballs placed on tables. It seems that the colour and zeal brought in by the World Cup will not fade for quite a while.

Chinese Challenge

Rajesh Mayor
Rajesh Mayor

India may have been the biggest football producer till a few years back with an annual export order of nearly one crore footballs (99 per cent of this order was catered to by the sports industry in Jalandhar) but now China has emerged as a big player in the export market and is poised to gobble up almost the entire Indian share. Rajesh Mayor, owner of Jalandhar-based Mayor and Company, one of the leading football exporters of India, paints a rather gloomy picture about the future of the Indian football industry. The biggest factor that has hit the industry hard is hike in prices of raw material. For instance, the price of latex rubber, a key input for football-making, has nearly doubled in the past three months.

Excerpts from an interview:

How do you foresee the future of the Indian or Jalandhar-based football industry and what is the biggest challenge before Indian football-makers?

The future seems to be not so good. China has become a major threat to our industry. Interestingly, China entered football-making industry about five years ago, but has gone far ahead in exports in comparison to India. Nowadays, it might be exporting five crore footballs per annum, whereas our annual export figures have remained static around one crore pieces. The difference is vast and is increasing, which shows that China is going to run us down.

Is there any government help coming to the rescue of the Indian football industry?

Almost nothing is in sight for us. There is no mechanism to control overpricing of inputs. Besides latex, the price of items such as rubber and PVC and even labour charges have increased manifold, but the price of the finished product has not had any big hike. How can manufacturers meet the difference? Moreover, our R& D is very poor.

What is the difference between production costs prevailing in China and India?

We (Association of Football Makers) had sent a team to China to conduct a research on that. Surprisingly, the football made in Jalandhar or say India at a cost of Rs 50 is made in China for Rs 8. One of the reasons is that China has patented one of the two machine-stitching methods and this particular method not only cuts costs but is also very popular. So, we cannot use that and, hence, we resort to hand stitching, which in turn increases the costs.

What are the other problems? Is there any solution to the prevailing quagmire?

Erratic power supply, another big problem faced by us, is not faced by our Chinese counterparts. There is hardly any solution in sight. My estimate is that if the current situation continues, the Indian industry would be gobbled up by China within the next two years.

— V.S.