Among the many industries hit hard by the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the sports industry stands out. Safety guidelines to contain the spread of the virus prohibited large gatherings. Spectators were no longer allowed into stadiums; outdoor sports, in particular, faced a major blow.
This economic slowdown also had a major impact on India’s “sports city”, Meerut. Situated between the banks of the Ganga and Yamuna, this bustling city has thousands of sports equipment manufacturing units, and their English willow bats have a high demand internationally. However, the industry found itself stumped, drastically affected by restrictions on exports and disruption of supply chains.
Each year, the IPL season brought a festive air to the industry. Huge crowds would invest in tickets to watch live matches, and later purchase equipment and apparel from local markets. However, with the IPL going overseas to the United Arab Emirates, even the little hope the industry had was vanquished.
Newslaundry visited several manufacturers in Meerut to find out how the pandemic had affected them.
Premier Legguard Works
Situated on Delhi Road, Premier Legguard Works has been known for manufacturing cricket equipment for over 50 years. Their products are exported to Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom, among others. Sumnesh Agarwal, the owner of PLW, inherited the business from his father.
“After corona, our business has shrunk by at least 50 percent,” Sumnesh said. “It can even be more than that since the prime season for our business is February-March, the time when we receive orders from all over the world. We had received some orders this year but due to the lockdown in March, all the goods lie stocked. There is no guarantee if they will be ordered again.”
PLW imports its raw materials, but couldn’t do so during the pandemic due to overseas trade restrictions.
“We order English willows from England to manufacture our bats,” Sumnesh said. “We could not get them after the lockdown. We do not know if we will receive orders in the approaching Australian season. The Indian market too will take at least nine months to fully open. Our industry is among the worst affected because sports are ranked very low among people’s priorities. Each human needs food, clothing and shelter. We have been pushed back a year. 2020 is gone.”
Other struggles include the government withholding GST refunds, Sumnesh said. “This makes it hard to bear expenses like workers’ salaries. Layoffs are a possibility. We have not even called back the workers who went home in the lockdown.”
Sumnesh’s factory is stacked with finished and semi-finished goods that were to be exported in March. Now, they lie unattended. Even the “unlocking” of the economy hasn’t had much of an impact, though the silver lining is that the indoor games industry flourished during the lockdown. Despite marked up prices, Sumnesh said, this part of his business increased by 10 percent.
The unattended stock at Premier Legguard Works.
Amitco Khel Industries
Amitco Khel Industries lies in Suraj Kund Road, which had earned the epithet of “sports market” thanks to its proliferation of sports shops, some even predating Independence. Sports equipment from here is exported nationally and internationally.
The company’s manager, Saurabh Taneja, said there are three outlets on this road, as well as a factory in Rajasthan’s Partapur that manufactures leather balls, kits, bats, goalposts, and more. The company was set up in 1993 and deals in both indoor and outdoor sports equipment.
“Our work is not only at the pan-India level but we also take government tenders,” Saurabh explained. “Due to the lockdown, our showrooms were closed which has deeply affected our business. There is a little relief now but our business has halved since last year. Even the retail shopkeepers are not buying goods. Neither did the IPL have any considerable impact.”
An empty Amitco Khel Industries showroom.
However, Saurabh hopes that the industry will bounce back in time.
“In the coming times, sports are going to be extremely popular since people have been bored at their homes,” he said. “But the situation will only return to normal after the coronavirus vaccine arrives.”
Did they have to lay off any workers? “We have not let go of even one worker,” he said. “We did pay them half their salaries when the lockdown was stringent but we are paying them fully again.”
Excellent Sports Industries
Excellent Sports Industries has had a showroom on the Suraj Kund Road for over 42 years. Apart from India, they supply sports equipment to Nepal, Sri Lanka, the United States and Australia, among others, said owner Vibhor Agarwal.
When Newslaundry visited, Vibhor was surrounded by customers. A rope enclosed his desk to ensure social distancing.
“I never saw such a situation in my life. I hope that it never comes again,” said Vibhor on the impact of the pandemic on sales. “The sports industry has suffered major losses. The small retailers have been ruined.”
Like Premier Legguard Works, Excellent Sports Industries also had some work during the lockdown when it came to indoor games, but suffered “heavy losses” in all outdoor equipment.
“As restrictions are being slowly lifted world over, the industry is also reviving,” Vibhor added. “We have begun receiving international orders; people have begun playing as well. So there is some revival but the rate is slow.”
He hopes the industry will revive by next March. “There have also been losses due to the closing up of schools since children are not using the school’s equipment. In all, there has been about a 50 percent revival.”
Vishwa Sports Co.
Among Meerut’s oldest sports companies is Vishwa Sports Co., located at Suraj Kund Road. Currently run by Abhishek Agarwal, it’s been in business since before Partition, and exports to several countries including Canada, the UK, and the US.
“The English season was at its peak when the lockdown was announced and all of their orders were canceled this time since no material could be transported,” Abhishek told Newslaundry. “The demand for indoor games did increase but outdoor games, which form a major chunk of the industry, were reduced to almost zero. This has been a major effect.”
He added” “Even the IPL did not bring major relief. After the unlock, we have had only 50 percent of our earlier business while older payments are not coming through. Our family has been in this business for 120 years and we have never had to face such a situation.”
Smaller home based industries are also at a loss in Meerut. Earnings have all but dried up ever since the pandemic began in India.
Newslaundry met Omprakash , 50, in his home in Hanuman Puri, adjacent to Suraj Kund Roads. For 30 years, Omprakash has manufactured bats from his 35-guz home, with the help of his two sons and a few workers. After the lockdown, he started to make carrom boards instead. There were several unfinished boards strewn about on the floor.
50-year old Omprakash.
Omprakash said, “The bat work was shut for eight months so we began making carroms instead. But even this seems unlikely to be very profitable. The situation during the lockdown was critical. In the midst of this crisis, we had to take a loan of about Rs 3 lakh and we have to repay it with the added interest. We never had to face such a situation in 30 years. The condition is grave.”
In the same area, Rajkumar also specialises in making bats at home but has now taken to making Ludo boards. His son, Rahul, told Newslaundry, “We are beginning work from scratch now. Bats were not selling so we have begun making Ludo boards et al also. We lived off our savings for three months and, at the same time, we have not received older payments. There is little hope from 2020..."
A worker standing nearby added, “2020 is for saving one’s life only. 2021 will be for business.”
Puneet Mohan Sharma, the president of All India Sports Goods Manufacturers Federation, Puneet Mohan Sharma, said, “Sports as a commodity is neither a luxury nor a necessity. When people fulfil all of their essential needs, then only do they think of sports. Today, our markets are down by 70 percent. And until schools, colleges and training centres don’t reopen for people to visit them without hesitation, nothing can be done. Our major business is through tenders from schools and colleges. No new orders are coming in and IPL has also not been helpful since there is no boom in the business until the arrival of spectators.”
Did the government offer any assistance to the industry?
“If the government wanted, then they could have waived off electricity bills but instead, they charged bills with interest,” Puneet replied. “Same for GST which should not be applicable on sports. Till July 1, 2017, there was no tax on sports goods, but after the introduction of GST, there is a lot of confusion. If it was necessary to levy tax, then a minimum or simple tax would have sufficed. Now we have only one demand from the government: a waiver on the interest for this period and removal of GST or its reduction to a minimum. If they do this, only then will our businesses be helped.”
A version of this story was published in Newslaundry Hindi. Translated by Utkarsh Sharma.
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