Congress Inaction On 'Jeans Park' Poll Promise Is Shredding The Denim Industry In Karnataka's Ballari

Sharan Setty

Oct 28, 2023, 11:05 AM | Updated 01:13 PM IST

The Karnataka government has now issued a notice to find suitable land for a jeans park.
The Karnataka government has now issued a notice to find suitable land for a jeans park.

While campaigning for the Indian National Congress ahead of the elections in Karnataka earlier this year, Rahul Gandhi recalled the 'plight' of women workers in the jeans manufacturing units of Ballari.

In a meeting by the streetside, he promised a crowd that the Congress party would invest Rs 5,000 crore, as soon as they returned to power in the state, to establish a 'jeans park' in the district.

He made the claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had 'looted' the district and disempowered the people of Kalyana Karnataka.

Fast forward to October, the jeans industry in the state is plagued by issues like frequent power cuts, competition from states like Gujarat, and the lack of a policy push from the state government.

How It Began

Before the corruption scandal involving politicians tainted its reputation, Ballari was known not just for mining, but also for its denim industry.

Affordable, low-cost jeans get produced here before they are shipped across the country. It is estimated that nearly a million pairs of jeans are manufactured annually today.

To introduce a sense of pride around the product, Gandhi made a promise to the people that they would finally see 'Made in Karnataka' tags once a jeans park was established and the production streamlined.

Jeans making in Ballari has a bit of history. The garment industry was reportedly introduced to the district during the British rule in India.

Ballari, like Bangalore (now Bengaluru), then happened to be a cantonment for the British, and the uniforms their troops wore came from Ballari.

Ever since, the city is known for producing textiles. Initially, it produced khakhi shorts for police personnel, and later came the denims.

Ballari's proximity to the Madras and Bombay presidencies especially gave it an advantage with respect to trade.

The Decline

Until just a couple of decades ago, Ballari's manufacturing cluster was the second-largest in the country. Today, with the entry of other players into the market, Ballari has fallen to the fifth or sixth place.

There are many reasons for this decline:

One, readymade garments from Gujarat have been flooding the markets in the south. Gujarati manufacturers extend a longer credit line to retailers.

There was a time when Ballari jeans cornered nearly a 70 per cent market base in south India.

Two, the garments from Gujarat cater to a diverse demography.

Whereas Surat- and Rajkot-based manufacturers make jeans for women and children as well, the ones in Karnataka are largely focused on men's wear.

Three, the Gujarat government has provided a fillip to the local manufacturing industry.

Karnataka barely offers any incentives or support to their manufacturers.

Four, connectivity is a major issue.

While Ballari was ideally located during the British era, it is now part of an economically struggling north Karnataka. It is not very well-connected, and access is difficult.

Five, unlike in Gujarat, cutting, stitching, ironing, pocket placement, and washing happen in different locations in Karnataka, increasing the cost of the finished product.

Today, nearly 60,000 people employed by some 500 units are dependent on the jeans business. There has been a demand spanning two decades to establish a jeans park. In 2006, the government came close to getting it done, but ended up backtracking.

What Ought To Be Done

Even as manufacturers are asking for subsidies on handlooms, red-tapism and bureaucratic lethargy are accused to have turned the government's attention away from the industry.

In the current festival season, the demand for denims is higher in the market, but due to unscheduled load shedding, the industry is affected badly.

Power cuts are becoming more frequent in Karnataka. The cuts do not just halt the work, but also potentially damage raw materials, say industrialists.

The centre has agreed to provide 20 lakh tonnes of coal to Karnataka to overcome its power shortage problem.

In August 2022, the energy demand in the state was 11,268 MW. In comparison, a year later, it stands at 16,950 MW.

The provision of free electricity as part of the 'Gruha Jyoti' scheme and the droughts in the state are among the main stated reasons for the power crisis in Karnataka.

Hit by Covid

The Covid-19 pandemic, too, affected manufacturing for a couple of years.

With declining exports, transportation to other states by air became nearly impossible around the time of the pandemic.

During the economic slowdown in 2019, payments from retailers also slowed down, increasing the manufacturers' debt and cost of production.

Empty Promise?

Apart from shelling out additional money for generators to counter power cuts, manufacturing units are concerned about droughts taking a toll.

Around 6,000 litres of water are required to dye and wash a hundred pairs of jeans. Every unit requires up to 1 lakh litres of water per day — too costly to bear for anyone.

The water shortage has claimed its victims. Around 60 dyeing units were operational in Ballari, of which 20 recently shut down.

According to the president of the Ballari Garment Processing Union, the manufacturers were promised water from the Hagari river. But the government backtracked here, as well.

"Nearly 20 dyeing units have shut down of late, as spending Rs 5,000 to Rs 7,000 on buying water from tankers is not economically viable when the cost of other raw material is high and the competition is so keen in the apparel market," Iqbal Sheikh told Deccan Chronicle.

As Telangana now gears up for elections, the Bharat Rashtra Samiti (BRS) and the BJP leaders have been quick to attack the Congress on this issue and blame Gandhi for failing to implement his promise.

After the tables have turned, the Congress has asked state officials to identify suitable land for the project.

Sharan Setty (Sharan K A) is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @sharansetty2.

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