With orders from educational institutions and automobile industries, the month of April usually promises flourishing business for printing press owners. Like many others’, their familiar flow of life has been rudely jolted this year, with the nationwide lockdown in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. To put it simply in a nutshell, it amounts to an everyday loss of revenue of Rs 5.1 crore for the printing press economy in the city!
Printing is a booming business with more than 10,000 units in the city — 7000 small and 3000 established presses, according to business experts. The COVID-triggered slump has left the multicrore business in disarray. “The small units have a turnover of Rs 3000 per day on an average and the reputed ones do business to the tune of Rs 10,000 a day,” said T Jaishankar, coordinator of printing press union, CITU.
In dire straits
Thanks to the multitude of educational institutions and other industries operating in the city, Chennai is the second printing hub of Tamil Nadu, after Sivakasi. Lured by the prospects, many such as Syed Zoya started small printing press units here, Zoya’s being in Saidapet. It has been just two years since he ventured into the business and the loans from micro finance organisations and banks are still waiting to be repaid, but he is already thinking of shutting down the business.
“It has been about a month since I downed the shutters of the unit. There is zero inflow of money and I am living completely on the debts,” says Zoya, who has paid the salaries of two of his employees, despite the state of the business.
Last year this time, his hands were full from orders of posters from politicians; wedding cards from citizens on this auspicious month; bill books from automobile companies to kick start the new financial year and textbooks from schools and colleges. “I could repay 20 per cent of the loan from the profits I incurred in April and May,” he remembers. The current situation, however, is gloomy and uncertain, giving him and others like him sleepless nights.
Many in the business dreamt of saving money to upgrade their machinery. “The technology we currently use existed in Canada and Korea 15 years ago. Two units in Chennai have upgraded their machinery and it was my goal to do so too, to be in the competition. But all that seems far-fetched now,” says Sriram Kumar, a printing press owner.
Hungry days, sleepless nights
The printing economy is a diverse one, encompassing many other units — stationeries selling paper and ink; DTP centres where design happens; bookbinding centres; lamination services and even the transport sector that is involved in distribution of the prints. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the entire spectrum of people associated with the printing press business.
Kavitha Williams (name changed) occupies one of the lower rungs of the printing press business — binding. The 35-year-old employee at a printing press in Chintadripet has been in the business for 22 years now after she quit school at the age of 13. Till a month ago, she used to earn Rs 5000 a month, slogging nine to ten hours a day. Now that meagre income is also lost, thanks to the coronavirus.
As her husband, who works in the private transport sector, is also out of work, Kavitha’s family is starving, literally. “I have a sick mother-in-law who needs expensive medicines. With no savings and people hesitating to lend us money, we are fast running out of options,” says Kavitha, whose family (including two kids and mother-in-law) has been surviving on rice and buttermilk since mid-April.
A lot of young girls from economically backward sections were drawn to jobs in the printing press industry, as it pays better than the textile or construction sectors. “This is comfortable compared to those industries where people stand for hours together. But we do not have any fixed work timings. There have been days when the volume of work was such that I worked for thirteen hours too,” said Sulochana, who used to work at a printing press in Vadapalani. Predicting that it will take at least till August for the business to pick up, Sulochana’s owner has asked her to join work after that. Till then, she gets no pay.
Many students also take up binding and punching work at the press during summer holidays and get new books in return. Photojournalist N Sampath recollected how he used to work for a month at the press two decades ago, to get 30 new books in return. “That was enough for the whole year,” he said.
A glimmer of hope
The printing press operators have mailed the Chief Minister and Industry Minister requesting them to allow the units to operate. It may be noted that the units owned by print media giants in Chennai are still operational. “A lot of them have their own press and since there is a need to disseminate the information during the crisis, it is relaxed from the lockdown,” says Manikandan K, who has been in the business for more than ten years now.
As the owners suffer losses, employees take a hit too. “We live on the profits incurred on a daily basis. I have taken out loans at huge interest rates to pay my employees and the rent of Rs 15,000,” said Manikandan, requesting the government to at least pay their employees half of their salaries.
Printing is also one of the unorganised sectors, with many employees working for meagre wages and deprived of any insurance cover. If employees were encouraged to take group insurance, if not covered under the terms of employment itself, that would have helped them to a large extent during these difficult times, according to union coordinator, T Jaishankar.