On 2 September 2020, the Finance Ministry's department of expenditure circulated a notification citing "there will be no further activities towards printing of wall calendars, desktop calendars, diaries, festival greeting cards, and similar materials" by all ministries, departments, autonomous bodies and other organs of the government.
The notification clearly stated that materials earlier printed in physical format will be done digitally from now on. It encouraged use of eBooks in place of coffee table books. It also suggested the agencies "make efforts to adopt innovative means to use digital or online methods" for such activities.
This came as a shocker even as the print industry has been reeling from the nationwide lockdown imposed in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, with no signs of relief from the government to get back to normalcy.
Several industry veterans and leaders from the pulp, paper and print sector have lashed out at the latest notification from the government.
Double whammy for print
Some members of the print fraternity believe that the time is ripe to raise a collective voice against such measures from the government, which could only worsen in the future with the ban likely extending to the public sectors and destroying the smaller establishments.
"Currently, the ban is only for the government sectors and it’s the right time (and it's already a delay) for the print industry to raise voice on this, as in future the ban may get extended or can be adopted by top private sectors as well. This will definitely have a huge impact on the print houses, which depends hugely on seasonal prints such as calendars and diaries," Gayathiri Madheswaran, manager - quality control and certified QMS lead auditor at UAE-based Rashid Printers & Stationers, told PrintWeek.
She said the habits of sending greeting cards have already vanished up to 95% and people are opting to send greetings via social media, as "they consider it is cheaper and initiatives such as ban of calendars and diaries will be soon adopted by many resulting in non-existence of diaries and calendars in future."
"Due to the Covid-19 pandemic across the world, print industry had a major hit in all the countries and these initiatives by the government at this tough time will make smaller companies to completely vanish from the industry and bigger companies will try reduce manpower in order to sustain as per the market requirement," Madheswaran added.
Pavithra Kumari, a print sourcing specialist for Chennai-based Williams Lea Tag, feels that print and digital must be clubbed together to reap maximum benefits in terms of marketing.
"Times like this allowed us to revisit and rejuvenate the way business functions and the readiness to evolve. It's a reality check on how sustainable the businesses are. And, I would say nothing is too late when it comes to adopting a change," Kumari told PrintWeek. "As far as marketing is concerned, I see digital as an extended feature to print to reap maximum efforts put into marketing. I think competition should be on how well to use these channels and platforms to reach the customers and not on the processes. I always believe print and digital have to go hand-in-hand to make a successful marketing campaign."
She further said that print has always accommodated and upgraded per the needs and demands of the industry. It could be an addition of a web address on the print material or replacing it into QR code to view information digitally.
"When the industries start to perceive the new trends as an opportunity and not as a threat, the growth happens automatically. If the change is good, gives much better options to explore, and provides means to survive, then I would say it's worth considering and adapting," Kumari explained.
However, Shyamala Viswanathan, assistant manager - production quality cell, Eenadu Newspaper, questioned the government's decision: "According to me, when we take this kind of decision we should think of how does it affects mankind, society, and the environment not as a mere correction but as a corrective action."
"Yes, it is a very demanding period not only for the print industry but also for many fields, too. This period will tell us whether we are looking forward to 'exnovation' or innovation, which will be purely based on our critical decision-making process. We need to ensure that we don’t bind with any bias (status quo of current financial constraint and drop in economy)," Viswanathan said.
"As a printer, the suggestion is that we can’t completely replace print with digital media. Would that be possible? Instead, it can be blended one like how students get their physical book along with the digital discs or drive or links… Do digital media make enough profit from advertisements compared to print media?" she questioned.
It is said that the print media sees a decline in advertising revenue, but not less than the digital media contribution. "Even online teaching has become a must due to this pandemic, there are a lot of disadvantages to it such as lack of concentration, eye strain, and mental trauma. More than that the purpose of schooling is to improve social behaviour, hence the purpose is not fulfilled. Anything that doesn’t serve purpose needs to be reconsidered," she added.
She further noted that in the current situation organisations need to focus on retaining customers and increase the throughput. This can be done with the advertisements and pleasing customers.
"So to stop printing the calendars, diaries, and greeting cards would have an adverse effect on this. Our Indian market needs organisations to be a little philanthropist, which would help to sustain in the market by customer’s trust," she said.
Viswanathan, however, had a few questions. "If completely moving to digital will help reach target consumers as effective as print does, what about the e-waste generated due to an increase in digital gadgets? What about those who depend on the print media?" These questions, she said, will be left unanswered.
Meeta Shah of A&M Enterprise has similar opinions about the ban. She told PrintWeek that the ban will specifically affect those specialised in stationery printing more than others.
"It (the ban) will create a huge loss to the print industry, especially those who specialise in calendar and diary printing and look out for the season to make most of their production sales. In fact, their total business revenue depends on diaries and calendar printing," Shah said. "The government's decision is just adding to more loss to such printers apart from the loss they have already faced due to the Covid-19 pandemic."
She said the labour industry will also face a huge loss. "On one hand, the government is asking to get back to normalcy and work with safety precautions. But, on the other hand, it is restricting business opportunities for one to get going in this pandemic period."
Shah said that A&M Enterprise will also find it difficult to manage the season as they are specialised in making calendars and diaries with finishing. "We all should get together for the solution."
However, for Aparna Vinod, who is pursuing Masters in Food and Packaging Innovation at the University of Melbourne and a design consultant at Divide by Zero Technologies, this is an unfortunate situation.
"This decision, although would essentially enable adopting green measures, has some very real consequences for businesses that cater to the calendar/diary printing and their suppliers for paper, plate and ink. My concern is majorly towards the SMEs and printers in semi-urban cities. Due to the lack of financial resources to switch to other printing formats, they will definitely be the ones to be the most affected," she said.
Although adopting digital means for planning and scheduling is efficient, Vinod questions whether we and the general population is ready for this shift at such short notice. "This is an unfortunate situation for the entire print industry and we must stand together to support these businesses during this time of crisis," she insisted.
Rohit Pandit, secretary general of Indian Paper Manufacturers Association said, "While concern about strained government finances is valid, this step will not even be a drop in the ocean. But, it will impact printers, paper mills and traders (also farmers supplying pulpwood) already reeling from severe demand compression due to closure of schools, educational institutes, offices."
"Rather than a demand stimulus, which is the need of the hour, this will further compress demand for the already beleaguered paper industry," he added.
BR Rao, convenor - industry affairs, FPTA, agreed to Pandit's sentiment. "To improve the economy, the government must spend more and create more activity instead of cutting down on these small value items. These types of actions will create unemployment and will serve no purpose."
Some industry insiders have said the ban will deal a major blow to print houses, which depend on seasonal print services, especially during the New Year, which is just around the corner. Some printers have been waiting for the New Year orders to sum up losses incurred during the lockdown. However, the government's move has shattered hopes of those printers.
Kamal Mohan Chopra of Foil Printers has made an appeal to the government to "withdraw this uncalled for memorandum" on behalf of the 2,50,000 printers in India.
Woes of pulp and paper industry
Hitesh Chadha, marketing specialist at DSG Papers, came down heavily on the latest government move. "This directive in no way can be appreciated. Rather than adopting digitalisation for technical advancement and innovation, these unfortunate steps are being initiated in the name of digitisation. Don't know why the paper industry is being made to suffer!"
Meanwhile, Ambarish Bagri, director at Ambarish Agencies termed the move to ban certain stationeries by the Indian govt as "totally absurd". He said that paper traders and mills will have to face another bearish phase due to the drastic drop in demand.
Nitin Goel, director at Greenobin Recycling, however, had a diplomatic view about the ban. "With everyone adapting to the 'new normal' this is another change, which not only is expected from government agencies but also from other consumers as well. Being online is a trend now."
"With the kind of technological advancements and our dependence on the same, it won't be hard to believe that reading/writing grades of paper production will be stopped after 30 years from now. It's high time the paper industry starts investing in R&D for innovative solutions of paper and its usage," he opined.
TG Saravanan, senior manager - purchase at Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers said that the government initiative will not improve the Indian economy, which is reeling under pressure due to the pandemic. It will only cut the expenditure to the exchequer. "Instead of looking at cost cutting measures, initiatives to improve the health of Indian economy may be the right way of going forward," he concluded.