Suhagin ladies pehnati hai hain yahan ki chudiya…poore Hindustan main mashoor hain Firozabad ki chudiya…tabhi to ise suhaag nagari bhi kaha jata hai…”(Married ladies wear glass chunks made here, Firozabad glass bangles are famous all over India, that’s why it is also called Suhaag Nagari) says Salimuddin, one of the workers of a bangle factory, while sipping his tea on a roadside stall. He and his colleagues are on a break and everyone is keen to share their story. “Since childhood, I have been working in bangle factory. My father and his father also did the same,” adds Salimuddin. Another worker, who wants to remain unnamed, says, “Yahan karigar bahut jyada garmi main kaam karte hain, koi aam aadmi kaam nahi kar payega. Uss hisaab se majdoori bahut kam milti hain roz ka 250 se 300 rupaiye…” (Workers work in so much heat and high temperature that a normal person can’t work. We do not get the wages according to the environment in which we work, people earn between Rs 250 and Rs 300 daily.) Firozabad, a district in Uttar Pradesh, about 40km away from Agra and 255km from Delhi, is a home to many Jain temples but mostly it is known as glass making hub which is a biggest industrial cluster in this sector. Famous for all sorts of glass work, not only in India but also globally, Firozabad glass industry has a fair share in the sector: in 2012, according to ASSOCHAM, it was estimated to be around Rs 150 billion.
“This city is also known as Suhaag Nagri and is famous for its glass handicraft and mouth blown glass work. Now challenges are huge, plastic industry has almost made some of us shut shop, but we are fighting,” says Sanjay Agarwal of General Traders who also represent the UP Glass Manufacturers’ Syndicate as its secretary in Firozabad. City is home to at least 200 organised manufacturing units out of which 130 units are manufacturing bangles, about 40 are practicing mouth blown technique and rest are automated, either manufacturing bottle or glass tumblers, Agarwal tells us further.
There is less written on how this small town became world famous for glass making. The city gained the district title on 5 February, 1989. According to district records, city was associated and de-associated several times and finally got attached to Agra in 1833. The glass industry hadn’t established itself then. “I don’t know the exact history of how glass industry started in this town, but it is at least 200 years old. I am doing this business, my father and his fore fathers were also in this business,” says owner of the Nav Bharat Bangle store, one of the bangle sellers in the famous Gali Bohran area.
Wikipedia points out at Agra gazetteer 1884 and pegs the beginning of glass making to the end of the 19th century. Since then, Firozabad is producing all sorts of glassware, riding the waves of changes all along.
For instance, a few decades earlier, when plastic was not popular it was labour, raw material, power, mismanagement issues that were the major challenges of the industry. According to the Shodhganga study on Firozabad glass industry, which gives an overview of the sector between 1985 and 1993, “During 1985 the production was 43.500 metric tonnes which went up 50,000 metric tonnes in 1986. During this period growth rate was 14.84 per cent from its previous year 1985. The production were 60,000 metric tonnes, 65,000 metric tonnes and 68,000 metric tonnes during 1990, 1991, 1992 respectively and its growth rates were 20 per cent, 8.33 per cent and 4.62 per cent.” It is concluded that the production were increasing but at the diminishing rate. It reveals that the industry was facing crises due to the lack of capital funds, shortages of trained labour, shortage of raw material, shortage of power or energy, lack of energy conservation, lack of new technology, mismanagement of employees, tendency of labour turnover (mobility of labour), lack of education trainings and government apathy.
Though today issues are somewhat different, glass industry is still facing problems. MSME development institute’s director RK Kapoor admits that Firozabad glass sector is going through a lot of difficulties. “The biggest challenge for the market is to shift factories somewhere else as it falls in TTZ region. Second, there is a shortage of skilled workers and the third difficulty is that factory workers work in extreme conditions, high temperatures and toxic gas, which in turn cause various diseases. Natural gas fuel price is another issue which businesses are fighting against.”
Agarwal talks about how plastic industry has spoiled it for the glass industry. “Glass was the only material which is eco-friendly and was used for various purposes from kitchen to living room. But in the past 10 to 15 years, cheap plastic has taken over glass products. Consumers are buying plastic over glass as it is easily available and is not expensive and, most importantly, unbreakable,” added Agarwal.
According to the ASSOCHAM whitepaper on the glass sector, it’s extremely energy efficient industry. Paper states, “as every tonne of glass recycled saves 322KwH of energy, 246 kg of CO2 and 1.2 tonnes of virgin raw material, it helps in savings on waste transport and disposal costs, product packaged in glass denotes premiumness in terms of quality and care of the packaging of the product, and glass reduces the quantity of waste to be treated or dumped.” Further in the paper, ASSOCHAM recommends that the people should be made aware about the benefits of using glass for various purposes through awareness campaigns.
As a member of the glass manufacturer association, Agarwal is concerned about the revenue loss which businesses are facing. Due to high plastic consumption glass manufacturing has hit rock bottom and in the last few years demand has gone down. “Despite the less demand, we are unable to cut down the production as it is continuous process industry. Here the process has a fixed cost involved whether it is raw material or labour cost. And due to over production we are selling at cheap prices too,” said Agarwal. Meanwhile, prices of raw materials have escalated too, as a result manufacturers are not being able to absorb the price difference created due to the over production and less demand.
Another blow came to the glass market in the form of Taj Trapezium Zone (TTZ) which includes Firozabad too. TTZ is a defined area of 10,400 sq km earmarked over the districts of Agra, Firozabad, Mathura, Hathras and Etah in Uttar Pradesh and Bharatpur in Rajasthan to protect Taj Mahal from pollution.
Understandably, glass makers are not happy over the situation. Due to ever increasing pollution level, the SC is only tightening its grip over the matter. “We are also environment lovers, but it seems that the state civic authorities do not want us to profit at all,” says an industrial source. According to him, the authorities are again troubling manufacturers on account of elevated pollution levels. “We are using natural gas which is the best non polluting fuel available in India. Now authorities are reprimanding Firozabad units for pollution. However, it’s been proved by recent report by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) which states that city emissions do not even reach Taj Mahal,” he says.
Another major challenge for glass manufacturers is fuel price. Back in 2014, during elections fuel price and it’s availability was the main agenda in the manifesto. But it was all promises which are yet to be fulfilled, say industry sources. At present around 199 glass units are operating on natural gas, while at least 30 to 40 units are awaiting release of gas supply. Akash Jain, who is an exporter and manufacturer of glassware under the name Eagle Glassware, says, “Our plant runs on natural gas. But there are small bangle makers who are not able to pay huge amount for fuel. Government should lower the price and make the terms more lenient.” Like fuel availability, electricity shortage is another challenge.
On the bright side, today technology has taken over and a number of manufacturers have transformed their businesses. The government setup, Centre for development of Glass Industry, under MSME ministry, is lending businesses training and providing machines. “Earlier it was a manual process. CDGI helped us with transformation. Their technicians provided us trainings and assisted us in purchasing machinery for our shop floor where at least 200 people work.” says Jain.
Machines though an asset for businesses, they come with their own rider too. Since machineries took over, many people have lost their jobs or have migrated to another field. This has become a double-edged sword, with people moving between jobs more easily than before. “It’s a challenge for us to retain workers, as it is a labour intensive industry. It is critical for a person to be well versed with working of the glass industry. Despite giving them trainings, its hard to maintain the workforce as nowadays, people are shifting to different professions,” says Rajendra Prasad Jain of Firozabad Ceramics.
Indeed, in past few years glass industry has transformed itself from cottage to fairly organised industrial sector, from rudimentary mouth blown and hand working process to modern techniques with assistance of government initiatives. According to the Care Ratings, the per capita consumption of container glass in India is at 1.8 kg; much lower compared to other nations. There is a great potential that is yet to be tapped, but first the sector needs lot more attention than it is getting. First and foremost, there is a pressing need to create awareness among people about the benefits of using glass over plastic.