From the Taliban takeover to lockdowns in India, how Bhilwara’s textile industry survived 2021

From the Taliban takeover to lockdowns in India, how Bhilwara’s textile industry survived 2021

From the Taliban takeover to lockdowns in India, how Bhilwara’s textile industry survived 2021

Innovations ushered in by new generations and rising demand for school uniforms have helped the Rajasthani textile hub slowly find ground after a few turbulent months

Bhilwara, Rajasthan: "One in three people in Bhilwara seem to be associated with the textile industry," said Nikhil Kabra of Ajay Syntex.

In the district of Bhilwara in Rajasthan, over 70 crore meters of various polyester blends are produced in a year by more than 400 weaving houses that manufacture synthetic yarn and 19 processing houses that turn them into shirts and suits. These MSMEs employ nearly 75,000 individuals.

In India, Bhilwara is synonymous with the textile industry. The story dates back to 1935, when the first cotton mill, the Mewar Textile Mill, was established here. Many other such industries followed suit over time, and Bhilwara earned the title of India's textile city. The Sangam group, established in 1984, became the foremost producer of yarn in the country and brought a lot of business to the region. Mayur Suitings from Bhilwara was also instrumental in expanding the market.

Moreover, with an annual turnover of around Rs 8,000 crore and 19,500 rotors for spinning houses, Bhilwara is one of the largest exporters of polyester and viscose-blended yarn.

According to the Government of Rajasthan's Industries Report of January 2021, the textile industries of Bhilwara showed an annual growth rate of 8% to 10% compared to the previous year. However, this progress wasn't without the challenges of the pandemic.

Unprocessed cloth material stacked under a shed (Photo Credits: Punita Maheshwari)

"The factories were shut for three months during the two lockdowns. It was a tough time as we also had to let go of around 20% of our workforce," said Mahendra Singh Nahar, the commercial manager of Sona Processing House. 

Ram Lal Mali, a labourer in the processing house, echoed his views, adding that the government should intervene and ensure that labourers' rights are secure.

"We've never seen a worse time than this. Many people were in debt, and we didn't have the means to feed our families," he told 101Reporters. "This is not a work-from-home industry. It's been difficult to recover from the blow of the factory closures [during the lockdowns]."

School Uniforms, Taliban & Turbulent Times

As Covid-19 cases dropped in numbers and restrictions eased, Bhilwara suffered another significant blow — one bought on by the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, one of the 60 countries to which Bhilwara exported its textile products.

"With the Taliban entering Afghanistan, exports to Afghanistan declined by 75% — from  Rs 40 lakh to  Rs 10 lakh a month," Nahar confirmed. 

While the industry saw a collective slump in the months of July, August and September 2021, the processing houses have managed to revive and are now running at a 100% capacity. 

One of the most significant factors for this revival has been the reopening of schools. This led to an increase in demand for uniforms, which constitute 25% to 40% of the production. 

However, not all textile manufacturing sectors in Bhilwara have been as fortunate. Amit Mehta, who trades in weaving, spinning and processing of yarn, explained: "A couple of months of high isn't enough to offset the damage, and there are reasons for that. Weaving centres are larger in number and have no specific association, unlike processing houses, where workers seem to have more solidarity. These are fewer in number, have more economic stability and, hence, have been able to start making profits sooner."

Young Businessmen Spearheading Innovation

Several people within the trading community, including Mehta, found alternative businesses to sustain themselves during the pandemic. And while many others migrated to their native towns, trends show a healthier rate of return back to Bhilwara than in several other industrial districts.

"The textile trade in Bhilwara is more than just an occupation," Kishan Patwari, a manufacturer-turned-marketer told 101Reporters. "After we went on strike, labourers received partial salary payments from their companies. So when production picked up pace post lockdown, there wasn’t much shortage of labour."  

"Even folks from this generation return home after studying outside the state because there's an appetite for risk as well as adaptability to innovations and ways to live," he added. 

Kabra, 30, a third-generation businessman who returned to Bhilwara after studying in Mumbai, couldn't agree more.

"The textile business in Bhilwara is rooted in families, so there's financial security," he explained. "Millennials have stepped outside the box, learned and brought with them the perks of innovations, which the older generation has accepted."

Times have changed for the business, and so has Kabra's outlook. Going for quicker, quarterly turnovers, he feels that the textile industry is vast and expands beyond garments to technical textiles. This includes military tents and the cement fibre used between layers of roads for added stiffness.

"Bhilwara has the machinery and resources to do this. It will also increase our options and allow us to enter different markets in such uncertain times," Kabra said. 

According to the Export Survey Potential, the Weaving Mills Association proposed that an Inland Container Depot be set up in the town to export goods to ports from Bhilwara. Kabra believes that this could immensely help the town's businesspeople.

Hopes & Promises Of The Textile Hub

While Kabra's young mind spoke of innovation, Sanjay Periwal, president of the Weaving Mills Association in Bhilwara, highlighted the recent addition of 12% GST on clothing.

"We disagree with the central government's decision," he told 101Reporters. "We had asked for a subsidy in yarn GST. Increasing the GST on the final product will pose a burden on buyers."

In a recent proposal to the chief minister of Rajasthan, the Weaving Mills Association sought the following: waiver of electricity charges for 2020; minimum electricity unit charges, i.e. Rs 3.20 per unit; a capital subsidy of 25% to 30%; and the establishment of a textile park in Bhilwara to bring it close to global standards.

The association expects compliance, especially given its commitment to high environmental standards. The processing houses use a lot of water to churn out the final product and ensure that they do not release polluted water into the rivers. They also comply with the zero-discharge policy and re-use processed water. 

As the industry waits for the government to declare Bhilwara a textile hub, its labourers await a plan that offers them a buffer in case of any unprecedented occasions in future. Mali, who's a husband and a father to one said: “We are still recovering from the debts that arose during the pandemic, and we'd like support in case any problematic economic condition surfaces again.”

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