Glass doesn’t Gleam

Bangles, chandeliers, glass utensils, bulbs, tube lights, artistic showpieces, exquisite works of art: Firozabad produces them all. Known as a city where people ‘breathe not air, but glass' - pessimism stalks its cracked mirrors. The economic slump has knocked the wind out of it

Samarth Pathak Firozabad, Hardnews

The city of Firozabad in western UP is the heart of India's glass industry. Since decades, this small industrial town has manufactured, supplied and exported anything and everything pertaining to glass. Situated in close proximity to Agra, Firozabad is home to more than a 1000 glass workshops, factories and industries, employing nearly four lakh labourers.

However, the past few months have spelt doom for the industry. The economic slump has hit the exporters hard. Most industries are working at a loss. In the last six months, a significant number of factories have closed down leaving hundreds of workers unemployed. Dreams of many, in the ‘glass capital' of India, have shattered as the city feels the heat of the global economic meltdown.

Waseem Adeel, owner of New Pankaj Industries, sits in his office with lines of worry clearly etched in his face. "My factory shut down six months back. We were basically engaged in exporting finished glass products. The recession has not affected the domestic industry which produces bangles, but the export industry has been hit very badly. Another major factor of the shut down is the rising costs of gas. All the major glass factories here run on gas supplied by GAIL. But rising costs of production, and no incomes are killing the industry," laments Adeel.

Adeel's views are backed by many. Already facing a survival threat by cheaper Chinese imports, the Firozabad glass industry faces a serious risk of falling apart. Most showrooms are selling Chinese goods at throwaway prices, which are eating up the business of local industries.

Adding fuel to fire is the fact that while the Chinese government gives numerous subsidies and aid to its industries, the Indian government remains woefully ignorant of the needs of its own glass industry and expects it to counter the Chinese growth in the market without granting aid to them. Even now, while Firozabad is cracking up in the face of recession, no satisfactory help has been extended to the industries as yet.

Interestingly, all glass industries in Firozabad are registered as small scale enterprises. Hence, many complain, that the special assistance which is given to the industries by the government invariably leaves them out.

Most firms have now shifted their focus from exports and are entering the domestic business of bangles. A simple walk on the congested road near the city's bus stand is testimony to this fact. One has to zigzag to reach the destination, since a stream of rehris (carts) full of coloured bangles are plying on the streets. Though the business of bangles has not yet been affected by the slump (primarily because it is targeted to domestic customers), glass manufacturers are still suffering heavy losses because of no exports.

Shamshad Ali comes from a family which has been in the glass business since generations. His grandfather had founded one of the city's first glass factories. Today, Ali owns four. However, stung by the recession, his business has plummeted. Visibly alarmed, sitting in his dim lit office at Meera Mills, says Ali: "We are the only certified manufacturers-exporters in the city. Our glass products were bought by clients worldwide. But the meltdown has wreaked havoc on our business. Clients are canceling orders, and we have virtually no demand now. One of my factories is on the verge of shutting down, and we are working at a quarter of our capacity. Earlier we had a 90 per cent export business, now it's just about 40 per cent."

His anger at Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL), which supplies gas to most industries in Firozabad, is palpable. Ali alleges that high rates of gas supplies are ruining his business. "GAIL charges a commission which has to be paid even if there is no production. This is why many factories are still operating even while suffering heavy losses, just so that the authority's fee can be paid." Watching a group of labourers working near the glass furnace of his mill, Ali continues, "Our glass sales have reduced by nearly 70 per cent. It is a huge depreciation. It has affected the workers the most. When there is no work, most of them are asked to leave. We have no other option."

Not surprisingly, the worst hit are daily wage labourers in the factories. Most belong to rural areas near Firozabad and Agra and are employed as per the workload. With clients canceling orders and the factories working at a loss, it is the labour force which faces the axe. Faced with unemployment in times of high inflation, many are now opting to return to their villages to work in the fields, while others have taken up odd jobs like pulling rickshaws, or working in furniture shops and dhabas to support their families.

Guddu is one of the many workers now in dire straits. Hopelessness is clearly reflected in his eyes as he speaks of the hazy future ahead. "The glass factory I used to work in shut down a few months back. We were told that it was running at a loss and even our wages had been gradually dipping. When it closed down, I was in shock. Going back to my village in Lalpur near Firozabad is not an option since we are poor, I don't have land and NREGA is not operating there. So I am earning a living by pulling rickshaws. There are many, at least one lakh workers, right now in Firozabad who have been directly affected by the mandi (recession). These are hard times," he says, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.

Peeping through a broken window of his factory, Guddu looks longingly at the workers working with molten glass near a furnace. Tears well up his eyes: "I used to love working here. We were a good team. We enjoyed working as well as playing cards when we were free. We earned enough to sustain ourselves in the city, and also to send money back home. Many of my colleagues have returned to their villages. God knows if we will ever meet again. I am not going home because I cannot bear to tell my parents that I have been fired from the factory."

Bangles, chandeliers, glass utensils, bulbs, tube lights, artistic showpieces, exquisite works of art: Firozabad produces them all. It is known as a city where the people "breathe not air, but glass" -- but the economic meltdown has knocked the wind out of it. And people in the business are demanding help from the government.

Says Shamshad Ali, "We make world class products, but do not have the resources to market ourselves. To emerge as a powerful industry, we have to make our presence felt in the global markets. And for this, we need to participate in international fairs, which is extremely costly. The participation cost itself amounts to nearly Rs 8 lakh, which small enterprises like ours cannot afford. The authorities must promote us, but they do not. The Marketing Development Assistance (MDA) scheme is there, but it has its loopholes. Also, the glass industry needs technology to compete with international brands, which the government must provide. After all, we are the pride of India, and it is the government's responsibility to help the industry and workers in times of such intense and widespread crisis."