Editor's note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Ashok Kumar does not mind the unannounced visitor. On a scorching April afternoon, he is in the middle of stitching cricket balls in his one-room apartment which also doubles up as a factory in the Nayi Basti in Meerut's Sports Complex on Delhi Road. Upon an apology for interrupting his day, he says, "It is perfectly fine. Not like I am drowning in work."
The sports industry is taking a hit because of compulsions on cow slaughter. Image credit Parth MN
Ashok is 34, and he has been making cricket balls for professional matches for almost 15 years. But he is going through the worst phase of his life. "I normally used to make 200-250 of them per day," he says, sitting beside a bucket in which about 25-30 balls have been readied. "Today, it is down to 50 pieces per day. There was a time when we employed 15 workers. Now only one is remaining. I have had to lay off the rest."
Ashok has an answer to when things started going south. "Yogi ji ke pehle kaafi kuch theek tha (Before Yogi, it was fine)," he says with a wry smile.
After Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, he has been cracking down on cow slaughter. Within days of his swearing in, the state chief secretary wrote to all regional administrative and police authorities informing that the "Closure of illegal slaughterhouses and a ban on mechanised slaughterhouses is a priority for the current government". Locals in Meerut, one of the important cities in Western Uttar Pradesh, say the government has found one reason or the other to make lives difficult of those engaged in cow slaughter. Even the ones legally operating are filled with fear, considering the increasing hate crimes under the pretext of Gau Raksha.
It has made leather exclusive, and expensive, driving people that worked in Meerut's sports industry jobless. "The cricket ball would be sold for Rs 700 or Rs 800 earlier," says Ashok. "Today, it is sold at Rs 1,700 or so. Our margins have halved. Our orders have decreased. If we made Rs 30,000 earlier, today we barely manage to sustain the household. We cannot afford to employ as many labourers as we did."
The Nayi Basti, where more than 30,000 people live, is dotted with single room factories like that of Ashok's. The residents are mostly Dalits. One can name any cricket gear and its factory exists in the nondescript Basti. They are all sailing in the same boat, considering that the majority of it involves the use of leather.
The Meerut Sports Goods Industry, along with Jalandhar, accounts for nearly 75 percent of the sports goods in the country. The single-room factories supply their goods to the iconic Suraj Kund market in Meerut city, which is dotted with sports shops on both sides on a one-kilometre stretch.
Puneet Mohan Sharma, 60, president of All India Sports Goods Manufacturers Association, who has his own shop in Suraj Kund, says if he comments on the lack of availability of leather, he would be termed anti-national or anti-Hindu. "But the fact is that 95 percent of cricket goods involve the use of leather," he says. "Naturally, the shops that ordered goods from Nayi Basti have had to downsize and cut down on orders. It has hampered their income."
Sharma says the introduction of GST, along with leather crisis, has resulted in the collapse of 60 percent of the businesses here. "Our annual turnover would be around Rs 1,000 crore," he says. "It has come down to Rs 400 crore. Those who are still in business are marginally afloat. They have had to reduce staff. Most of the shops had 3-4 workers that would show the customers around. The crisis of unemployment is only intensifying. This entire street used to bustle with crowd. Today, it resembles a morgue."
Uttar Pradesh's unemployment rate of 9.6 percent is much above the national rate of 6.8 percent, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Their report notes the state's labour participation rate is almost 39 percent, or more than 3 percent below the national average, which reflects starkly considering it is India's most populous state. And the policies of the government, it turns out, are worsening the crisis.
Sharma says to understand the crisis of the sports industry, one must comprehend what the sports industry is. "It is a cottage industry, or micro-industry, whose units are smaller than small scale industries," he says. "The ones engaged in it do not know anything else. It has been their traditional livelihood. The industry was originally based in Pakistan but after partition, some based themselves in Meerut, while some settled in Jalandhar."
The sports goods industry, says Sharma, only had to worry about the 6 percent Value Added Tax (VAT). "GST has thrown them off their calculations now that they are taxed much more," he says. "Especially the smaller ones have found it impossible to sustain."
Dharmendra Kumar, 39, who makes batting gloves at his single-room factory in Nayi Basti, and supplies them to Suraj Kund market, says his expenses on tax filings have multiplied since GST's advent. "Every month or two we have to file our returns when we earlier filed it once a year," he says, sitting in his congested factory with gloves hanging on the wall. "Leather has become expensive as well. Our production cost has gone up drastically. And bulk orders have decreased. Bass, dal-roti nikal rahi hai aaj kal."
Dharmendra, who has been in this business for 12 years, says he never thought he would be leisurely sitting at his factory for an interview in the middle of the IPL season. "This is supposed to be the peak period," he says, a TV overlooking his factory, playing an IPL match.
Lack of work has compelled Dharmendra to sack labourers as well in the past two years. "I had to do it to sustain my business," he says. "I did it with a heavy heart. But I had no choice."
What do they do now? "I do not know," he says. "Dar dar bhatak rahe honge bechare." (They must be running from pillar to post)