Channapatna toys displayed at a store in Ramanagara district. | Photo: Rohini Swamy/ThePrint
Channapatna toys displayed at a store in Ramanagara district. | Photo: Rohini Swamy/ThePrint
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Bengaluru: In his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ address Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded Karnataka’s toy hub Channapatna as he sought to give a push to toy manufacturing in India. But toy makers in this town were left seething on the same day, with the state government deciding to set up India’s first toy cluster in the northern district of Koppal.

ThePrint visited Channapatna, which greets visitors on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway with a display sign, ‘Welcome to Land of Toys’. But the cheer of this message was strictly missing among the artisans in the town, which has earned the title of ‘toy city’ or ‘Gombegala Nagara’ in Kannada.

“If Koppal is going to have India’s first toy manufacturing cluster, what about us? We have been the ‘Land of Toys’ for generations. Shouldn’t our town be the one to become India’s toy manufacturing capital?” Manjunath P. asked. His family has been in the business of making the intricately beautiful Channapatna toys for five generations.

Venkatesh, an engineering graduate who returned to take over his family business, was stressed over several questions.

“Do we have to travel to Koppal to sell our toys? Do we have to train artisans to go there and manufacture Channapatna toys? This is our heritage, our culture, our livelihood. Will these trained artisans come back to Channapatna and continue this tradition?” 

Of the 1,500 lacquer artisans in the town, several echoed these concerns.

In its statement Sunday, the B.S. Yediyurappa government said the Koppal cluster will be spread over 400 acres, with an investment of Rs 5,000 crore, and will provide 40,000 jobs.

But this only gave more heartburn to toy makers in the Ramanagara district even as the government defended the decision, saying it won’t threaten the traditional art form of toy-making as the Koppal industry would primarily be for plastic toys.

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The struggle of Channapatna

Artisans in Channapatna have been passionately preserving the Persian art of making toys from soft wood of the aale mara (ivory wood) tree in this 200-year-old industry.

Their ‘toy emporiums’ line the highway, selling the trademark wooden rocking horses, seat covers made of wooden beads, and a beautiful array of lacquer toys.

For over two decades, Umar has been painting these lacquer toys, giving them expressions and bringing them to life.

“I learnt this from my brother. I have been doing this from age nine. This is my life and tradition and I will do anything to keep it alive,” he said while drawing a pair of eyes on a tiny lacquer Krishna.

The humming from lathe machines is heard in every bylane of this town. But these sounds have returned to the town, located about 70 km from Bengaluru, after months.

Like other industries, this toy hub has been struggling since March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which dealt a crippling blow bringing business to a grinding halt amid the lockdown.

“A spinning top would sell for Rs 25 apiece. Now we are forced to sell it at Rs 13-14. We oblige as we need money to survive. We don’t have any other skill,” said Shivaraju, who proudly displays the colourful tops his family produces.

Of the 200-plus toy making units, only 25 to 30 per cent are functional after the lockdown, according to the toy makers. Many local artisans have shut their units and are working as taxi drivers, masons and construction workers for their survival.

Kareem Mohammed’s father closed their toy unit and advised him to find another job. “The day we pulled the shutters down on our unit, we all cried. What could we have done? We have seven members in our family and were unable to survive on meagre earnings,” he said.

“My unit used to generate around Rs 80-90 lakh per annum. We export to European countries as well. With domestic and international connectivity, our business has just stopped,” said Venkatesh, who runs two units — one in the town and the other in the nearby Crafts Village, which was the first to be built in India to promote the work of these artisans. 

The lockdown-induced trouble comes over and above the dent the influx of Chinese toys has made in recent years to the local industry, which is valued at around Rs 20 crore, according to Sreekala Kadidal, an independent director at the government-run Channapatna Crafts Park.

“In this, the Channapatna toys alone would contribute close to Rs 6-10 crore,” said Kadidal.

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‘Why were we ignored?’

When Modi hailed the town in his address, artisans thought it would help the sector regain its glory and compete internationally. But within hours, the Koppal announcement dashed those dreams.

The artisans unanimously said Modi should have declared Channapatna as the toy manufacturing hub, not Koppal.

Bhagyalakshmi, who has been producing wooden rocking horses and other toys for 32 years, along with her three sons and sister, highlighted the disparate treatment meted out to workers like her during the lockdown.

“Taxi drivers, barbers, washermen, they all were given Rs 5,000 during the lockdown period. Why were we ignored? Mentioning us on TV is not enough. Help us on the ground, can’t you see us struggling?”

Bhagyalakshmi also recounted how Union Home Minister Amit Shah had once come to their town and tried his hand at making a toy.

Shivalingaiah echoed this anguish. “We will make anything you want — wooden dolls, vases, jewellery boxes, bangles, keychains. You name it, we will make it. But please do not hurt our income by setting up a hub hundreds of kilometres away from here.” 

Manjunath, who closed his manufacturing unit and only has a shop selling Channapatna toys, sees a lot of potential for the toy making industry, especially at a time when there is a lot of talk about going ‘vocal for local’.

“It should not be all talk. They should execute it as well,” he said.

Koppal won’t threaten traditional workers, says govt

Gaurav Gupta, Principal Secretary, Commerce and Industries, Karnataka, said the impression that setting up Koppal as a toy hub would rob the Channapatna artisans of their traditional livelihood is completely wrong.

Speaking to ThePrint, Gupta clarified that Koppal would be a place where India can mass produce toys for the global industry.

“Companies like Mattel, Hasbro and Spinmaster have been selling toys produced across the world under their brand. Koppal will be a place where such toys can be produced for these toy conglomerates. This will generate more than 40,000 jobs,” said Gupta.

He also said the traditional artisans of Channapatna toys or the Kinhal artisans from Koppal need not be worried at all. The Koppal toy hub is envisioned to generate more jobs and contribute to the futuristic toy industry, not threaten the artisans’ traditional art.

According to Gupta, the local artisans and Koppal toy cluster will co-exist as they cater to different segments of the market. Every year new toys are designed globally and produced, and global toy makers draw inspiration from different toy making traditions and customer preferences.

Koppal toy hub will be a perfect launch pad for global toy-making to arrive in India, leading to increased economic activity and job generation in the much needed northern region of Karnataka, he added.

Channapatna Crafts Park director Kadidal too stressed that the traditional workers are worried over nothing. “The toys being produced in Koppal will be made of plastic material. It is not going to affect Channapatna. I would say a certain amount of competition is welcome and that will keep the artisans on their toes and try to meet international standards,” Kadidal said.

However, she raised concerns over the GST rate of 12 per cent for toys. “How do you expect the artisans to compete with China when the GST is 12 per cent? It should be at least brought down to the earlier 5.5 per cent,” she added.

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