Little bits of China all around us

Little bits of China all around us

Bhagirath Palace, India’s biggest wholesale lights market, is a long row of shopfronts festooned with strings of LED lights for sale — green, blue, red, yellow, white; all flickering brightly to evoke the Diwali spirit on a sultry afternoon two months ahead of the festival of lights.

Ashok Malhotra’s first-floor shop is a fascinating jewel in this crown. Almost all of the lights on display in his flickering shop, Malhotra informs us, are imported from the Guzhen, famous as China’s (and slowly the world’s) lighting capital.

Malhotra’s shop showcases the Chinese city’s mastery in light-making – from a variety of “fancy” fittings on the wall, to designer lamps on the floor, to chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. “They are all Chinese,” says the affable Malhotra, sitting behind his desk. “We have about 400 designs of chandeliers, but only about 10 of them are Indian.”

In fact, not just his shop, 90% of the lights in this market (from small LED bulbs to expansive and expensive chandeliers) are Chinese.

Malhotra casts his eyes to the ceiling to find some Indian chandeliers, and finally spots two in a nondescript corner. “Most people want to but only Chinese lights — they are fancier and cheaper. We are all patriotic, but the idea of dealing in only Indian goods is not practical at the moment. For two decades, we have allowed China to make inroads into all aspects of life; the march towards self-reliance is going to be a long and painful process.”

Most traders in Bhagirath Palace, and in Sadar Bazar, which is India’s biggest wholesale market for household goods, and in Teliwara, the largest toy hub, are wondering what the future holds for them as the Union government pushes the Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self- Reliant India ) initiative. The steps include raising import duties and making Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) certification mandatory for several items, including LED lights imported from China and other countries, in the wake of the pandemic and rising border tensions in eastern Ladakh.

These traders talk about the “implausibility” of the sudden curbs on Chinese imports, and how they be thrown out of business

Price and quality

In one corner of Bhagirath Palace, Harsh Jain, a dealer of electrical switches and LED lights, has started selling Diwali decorations — mostly rope lights imported from Guzhen. But this year, for the first time, he has created a special portion inside his shop for Indian lights to try and respond to the government’s call. So far, the Indian lights – a dozen sample strings flickering on a shelf — have few takers. “My customers, mostly retailers from north India, face no nationalistic dilemmas. Most of them are buy only Chinese lights because they are more attractive in terms of price and quality. Guzhen boasts of thousands of light-making factories, and India’s small-scale manufacturers do not have the wherewithal to match them in quality, variety, and cost,” Jain said.

According to Bharat Ahuja, president of the Bhagirath Palace Electrical Market Association, traders are so heavily dependent on Chinese imports that stopping them will paralyse the market. “Before curbing imports, the government has to promote manufacturing in a big way through the right policy initiatives. The fact is that setting up and running a factory in India continues to be a difficult proposition,” said Ahuja, who manufactures electrical switch gears and MCBs (miniature circuit breakers).

Barely three kilometres away, Sadar Bazar illustrates the true scale of the problem. Here, China’s dominance in the Indian household goods market, and the difficulty in adhering to a boycott call, is even more apparent.

Rakesh Kumar Yadav, president of the Sadar Bazar Traders’ Association, says 70% of all goods sold in the market are from China. Thousands of shops in the market’s narrow, labyrinthine gallis sell wall clocks, cosmetics, toys, plastic goods, artificial jewellery, food choppers, coffee makers, blenders and hairdryers… “You name it, we sell it,” says Yadav, “and most of it, let’s face it, comes from China.”

“Traders don’t have a choice. Indian manufacturers can’t meet the demand. While curbing Chinese imports, the government should also stop Indian and multinational companies from getting their products manufactured in China,” said Yadav, who is a cello tape dealer.

People should conduct a simple experiment, says Pawan Kumar, national organising general secretary of Bhartiya Udyog Vyapar Mandal, just walk around their houses, look at different objects, and check where they come from. “Almost everything is likely to have been made in China.”

From wood cutters to woollen scarves

Kumar, an importer, says that before the Covid-19 pandemic, roughly 500 to 600 containers carrying a variety of goods came to Sadar Bazaar every month, mostly from Yiwu, an international trading hub in China’s Zhejiang province.

“Forget small household items, not many people know that a lot of furniture in the market such as Kirti Nagar is also imported from China,” he added. Kumar used to manufacture home appliances until 2010, when he became an importer. “I had eight BIS {Bureau of Indian Standards} licenses. While I sold a simple dry iron for ₹300, a

Chinese steam iron would cost just ₹250. How could I match that?”

He reads out the list of items in his container, weighing 20 tons, which is due to arrive in Mumbai from Yiwu — mobile phone screen guards, flip covers, charging cables, woodcutters, woollen scarves, mixer-grinders, colour spray guns… the list goes on. Kumar, however, is supportive of the government’s recent moves to reduce the import dependence on China. “Eventually, we should limit our imports only to essentials,” he said.

One of the biggest toy dealers in Sadar Bazar’s Teliwara, Sumit Matta, is a worried man. He says the call to make India a toy hub in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mann Ki Baat address last month did not go down well with toy traders. “All of us listened to it with great interest, and it was widely shared on our WhatsApp groups. But it did not seem to take into account many concerns of domestic toy manufacturers and traders,” said Matta, who like most others in Teliwara, exited his family’s hardware business to get into the toy business 15 years ago. Teliwara used to be hardware hub before it turned into a wholesale market for toys over the last two decades. Today, it has about 300 shops, most of them selling toys imported from the coastal city of Shantou in China’s Guangdong province.

“Until July, 95% of the toys in my shop were imported from China; now I have brought down their share to 80%” said Matta. The few Indian toys on his shelves include dolls and doctor sets, which he says were recently manufactured in Rajkot. “We closely worked with the manufacturer to ensure the quality is as good as that of Chinese ones. These days, we are getting a lot of calls from toy manufacturers wanting to know what they can manufacture for us. But there are very few who make battery-operated toys.”

Rajendra Sharma, president of the Teliwada Toy Market Association and a soft-toy dealer, says it is difficult to convince his customers to buy Indian toys as they do not match the quality of Chinese goods. “The government seems to be making imports of toys difficult without ramping up manufacturing,” said Sharma.

“At this rate, Teliwara will revert to being a hardware market. In fact, many of us are already thinking of reviving our old business of agricultural tools.”

At least they are mostly made-in-India, he added.

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