Nobody can beat me at it, gushes 56-year-old Zahiruddin, as he explains the intricate floral patterns made of cobalt oxide on one of his blue pottery creations.
Sitting at his modest house in Mohalla Punjabiyan, the hub of artisans in Khurja, the Shilp Guru awardee for 2017 is worried about the future of the micro-industry that feeds thousands in the sleepy town in Bulandshahr district. With no melas and mahotsavs because of the lockdown, we have been reduced to hand to mouth, he laments.
The work, he says, has reduced to less than half. It is a labour-intensive industry and many of our skilled labourers come from West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. With Khurja being declared a hotspot during the pandemic, most of them are not going to return anytime soon, says Mr. Zahiruddin, who runs a small unit with his brother Raeesuddin. It is a lifestyle product. Even when markets are opening up, nobody stops at our shop to even have a look, he says, pointing to the rush of vehicles on the good old GT Road that connects the Ceramics City to Delhi and, of course, to its rich past.
Till a week back, even most of the bank branches were not open, complains Ravi Rana, president of the Khurja Pottery Manufacturers Association.
Azam Khan, assistant manager, District Industries Centre, Bulandshahr, says, as per records, Khurja has 250 ceramic factories but around 450 units are operational. From high-end blue pottery and bone china to utilitarian insulators, they provide employment to at least 50,000 people, directly or indirectly. The town generates a turnover of around 100 crore a year. Because of the pandemic, the manufacturing has been adversely affected and the output has reduced to 50%, says Mr. Khan.
Opportunity in adversity
There is an opportunity in adversity. Sami Ahmed Khan of Mark Industries, which specialises in hand-painted stoneware crockery, says, with malls closed, local demand has reduced to less than half but the export business is keeping them hopeful. Usually, Khurja products are in demand in Europe like England, Belgium and Germany but this year, owing to a backlash against Chinese products, we are getting queries from the U.S. as well, he says.
We cant compete with China in terms of volume and are struggling to match Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in quality. China has a mechanised industry, while we have largely handmade products. When they are using hydraulic presses, we are still relying on jigger jolly machines. Still, the pandemic has provided us with a window to compete, provided we get government support, says Mr. Sami.
He says the States one district, one product scheme should not remain a mere lip service. The GST on ceramic products could be brought down from 12% to 5% and the interest on loans could be waived for two-three years.
We have been told that it is the time for online business and exports, something that many of us dont understand or find feasible. The intermediary pays us the Khurja rate and keeps the cream for himself. Why would an artisan spend 10 days on a vessel when he knows he wont get the price for his art, says Mr. Zahiruddin. This, he adds, is keeping the younger generation away from learning the nuances of the craft. They want to keep it basic.
Old-timers like Khursheeduzzmah, the last surviving National Award winner in town, has lost faith in the award itself. Now you can get it made for a few thousand rupees and get a stall in a mahotsav, he alleges.
The potters also feel they are facing the brunt of the governments proactive policy towards reducing pollution in the National Capital Region. The coal-fed brick chimneys that once dotted the towns skyline have been reduced to derelict monuments. Now the diesel-fed furnaces and the ones using rubber oil are also illegal and fetch heavy fines, says Mr. Sami. The gas furnaces, he says, have yet to reach every lane that has a unit. The worker should not suffer because of the complex web of pollution and labour laws. The nature of business is such that parts of one product are made in different lanes of the town. The government could think of establishing an effluent treatment plant for the town, he says. Also, we should get input tax benefit on the gas we buy.
Streamlining of rates
Mr. Khan maintains that they tried to involve the Public Works Department to use the waste product for the construction of roads. The use of gas furnace work has multiplied but there are some issues over pricing. We are helping artisans to enrol online players. The artisans compare the gas price in Firozabad, not realising that a public sector company (GAIL) is providing the gas there, while in Khurja a private player (Adani) is the supplier. However, in recent months, there has been a degree of streamlining of rates. Under the PM Employment Generation Scheme, Mr. Khan says there is 25% subsidy on new loans. This could be granted to existing units for upgrading, he says.
As for the research and development, L.P. Sharma, scientist-in-charge of Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, Khurja, says despite being understaffed, the institute is carrying out projects to make potters self-reliant in different parts of the country.
In Khurja, a project involving 200 potters for hotelware is under way. We have exposed the traditional potters of Khurja to demands of customers in different parts of the world and helped them in tweaking their skills accordingly. Our ratings have doubled in the last few decades. Of course, gaps are there, but we should remember where we started from, says Mr. Sharma.
The pandemic has even delayed the National Awards for Craftsmen conferred by the Ministry of Textiles. The Ministry wanted to send the certificate home or organise a ceremony at the district level, but I want to receive it from the President of India, even if that means I have to wait for another three years, says Mr. Zahiruddin.