Government measure is a big blow to print - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

The Department of Finance on 2 September issued guidelines to ban printing of diaries, greeting cards, coffee table books, and calendars in physical form. All such items will now be issued only in digital form. 

The government’s economy measure has to be seen as a clear attempt to promote digitisation and underplay print’s traditional role. Will this memo put small print businesses at risk?

06 Sep 2020 | By Noel D'Cunha

On 2 September, the memorandum was circulating on every single print WhatsApp group and social media. Only this time it was not “fake news". It was an office memorandum by the department of expenditure, ministry of finance, which said, “As the world is increasingly moving towards adopting digital force multipliers for productivity and given the fact that using technological innovations for planning, scheduling and forecasting is known to be economical, efficient and effective, the government of India has decided that there will be no further activities towards printing wall calendars, desktop calendars, diaries, festival greeting cards and similar materials by all ministries/departments/autonomous bodies and other organs of the government.”

There was an eerie silence on most groups.

And then the floodgates opened.

Prakash Kumar of The Vijay Books, Sivakasi, said, “This will mean a huge blow for the commercial print industry, which is already in bad shape. If this continues, soon books, publishers and paper would be a thing of the past.

Prakash Kumar

Rahul Jain, managing director, PSPL Advertising, added, “It's saddening. No way that this should be allowed to happen. What legacy are we going to leave behind?”

However, Niten Shah of Vyoma Graphics from Pune felt differently. “It’s basically a cost-cutting measure by the government and we should take it in the right spirit. Commercial printing was slowly dying, but Covid-19 has hastened the process. We need to face the reality. Lots of businesses have shut down due to the rapidly changing technology. Commercial printing seems to go that way.”

Rajesh G who is vice president (Central) at KMPA and head of Rajsree Industrial Printer concurred with Shah. He said, “Government tender conditions are designed for certain printers only. Most of the tender conditions will not suit the normal printers and they will not be able to apply for it.”

Rajesh G

The Association response
In its memorandum, the government said it took the decision, as using technological innovations for planning, scheduling and forecasting is known to be economical, efficient and effective. As one printer said, "Does this mean print is none of these things? It has a legacy of five hundred solid years. Civilisations have been built on its shoulder. Who is advising our government officials? What are our print associations doing?”

Tushar Dhote, president at Mumbai Mudrak Sangh (MMS) stated, “The decision to ban printing of diaries, calendars, and coffee table books taken by the government of India is absolutely uncalled for. The decision to do so is definitely detrimental to the printing industry, where thousands of workers in towns like Sivakasi and others depend on print for their livelihood.” 

Tushar Dhote

Dhote added, “This unplanned step taken by the Government will have more severe repercussions than the Covid-19 pandemic.”

He goes on to state, “I really fail to understand how can the government take such a drastic step without consulting the Federations and Associations of print and the paper industries.”

MMS has drafted a representation and has requested other progressive print and paper associations to come forward and join hands in revoking “the ban”.

Kamal Chopra of Foil Printers, Ludhiana, on behalf of printers of India and Offset Printers Association of Ludhiana, said: “The 2,50,000 printers of the country are already facing the crunch of lockdown and many printers who were not able to afford their livelihood are already facing closures. The printers always look forward to New Year and many are dependent only on such work. Printers are facing huge problems, due to this forced lockdown. One of their major sources of income comes from the educational institutions, which are not allowed to function due to the pandemic. Depending on the government work, the printers were eagerly waiting for the orders of calendars and diaries, which is an annual feature and another source of income for the 85% micro and small printers of the country. With these orders, the hope of survival for this key industry is dismal. It is, therefore, a plea to the government to reconsider this decision.”

Kamal Chopra

The ramifications of the memo
KMPA’s Rajesh G 
pointed out, “One thing we have to understand is when the government stops such tenders, many printers are going to lose huge quantities of print works, which we used to receive. Now, the printers who used to procure government tenders will target the commercial print market and compete on lower prices. Empirical data suggests print consumption had hit records low. On top of that, there is a cessation of government printing orders. This will result in a bloodbath in the market and printing rates will be further slashed.”

MMS’ Dhote agreed, “In the past few years, we have seen a downward trend in the commercial printing activities followed by a total fall in demand during the lockdown. This unofficial ban is the final nail in the coffin for the printing industry.”

Lakhs of print workers will lose their livelihood in one stroke. In addition, Prakash Kumar of Sivakasi says, “Our world will become an electronic junkyard in the very near future.”

Change is inevitable
Govind Pandey, group CEO, TWBA India, 
said, “Everything is changing and every industry has to adapt.”

Govind Pandey

He added, “People like to hold printed objects in their hands. The tactility is important, and its longevity also contributes to its effectiveness.”

Ajay Kakar, CMO at Aditya Birla Capital, said, “I think that we do a disservice to any medium when we compare it with another, in isolation. Or as an absolute. The starting point must always be the proposed audience and then the proposed messaging. The ideal medium for each campaign, so defined, will come up, naturally, as the outcome. And rest assured, there is and will always be a role for the print medium, for certain audiences and certain messaging.

Ajay Kakar

Govind Pandey, stated, “The traditional, mainstream blast-out-ten millions of copies of something I see dying a slow death. As technology evolves, marketers will continue to want to get to more finely customise pieces for specific customers learning from the digital world, where you can choose your exact demographics.

Kakar pointed out, “A call on diaries, calendars and so on, taken for the short term as cost-saving measures should not be read as a view on or the absence of faith in the print medium.”

Pandey said the symbiotic integration with digital is huge. “Together, print and online are greater than the sum of their parts. Print will increasingly team up with digital media as a way of driving traffic or working together in other interesting ways.”

Is it too late?
Kolkota-based PR Ray with four decades of experience in paper and allied industries 
seems to say it best. He said, “For me, this appears to be one of those dream schemes, which will die its own death after a year. But as I have been saying paper and print for the education sector will definitely reduce to a great extent. Our industry needs to wake up.”

Meanwhile, the clarion call from the industry is, “It's never too late. Lobbying and government pressure needs to be maintained against such schemes.”

Is it too late?

Shailesh Sharma: The destabilisation of print

This was avoidable. The timing was all wrong. The reason, the market sentiments are low. Now, this news will further dampen it. Not just the government, even private companies will take similar steps and slash print spends for calendars and diaries.

For example, if private organisations have the budget for promotional activities, their marketing team will think twice about spending it. This news will make corporates take corrective action – that is – spend less, save cost.

As a print company, I was looking to the festive season in the next few months as a ‘bailout’ post-lockdown. I was hoping to retain 50% of my team in the hope of getting business. Now, I will rethink.

Most of the commercial print community is into the printing of calendars and diaries. And if it is told that this market is not going to take off, what will they do with the people who will be engaged to do that work? Reducing the team is the only way to go.

Further, it’s about sentiment. Now, the messaging is: print is bad, digital is great. That’s how digital has replaced key segments of commercial printing such as annual reports and promotional materials. If calendars and diaries vanish, how many printers will survive?

Today, some of the bigger print firms can afford to shut shop and not do business for four to five months. But, what happens to the smaller firms? What happens to the workers who have no jobs, and no monies?

The hospitality business is in doldrums and so are the entertainment and airline sectors. It seems print is next.

To me, it looks like a strategic move. This is the thought process for the last few years. Any business that can be converted into a wealth making opportunity by 10x or 20x, will have big business invest in that space. The Ambanis purchased Alok Industry to operate the PPE business and increased the scale. Now, India has become the biggest manufacturer of PPE kit.

In 2008, when the world was reeling, India survived. The reason was: the semi-formal and informal economy was untouched. We are the largest employer in the economy pool. If the formal and informal economy is 50:50 in India, the formal economy, which is 50% employs only 10% of the people, while the informal employs the other 90% of the employed people.

There’s a reason. In a formal organisation, there’s automation and lean manufacturing and AI concepts. So, where the informal would employ five people, the same amount of work is extracted from one.

Demonetisation and GST implementation (still work-in-progress) were back-to-back blows to the informal sector. From 25 March, the harsh country-wide lockdown has created a crisis, which has affected the workforce in SME and MSME firms.

As a businessman in print, it may not affect me or my company. We have the resources to survive for the next few months or a year. Also, we can reboot when things start to look up. But, the workers may not have the same luxury.

I think we must drive this point down the line. Print is all about people’s lives. The policies of the government are detrimental to the poor man, though they talk about providing a better life for 130-crore Indians.

(Shailesh Sharma is the managing director of Inndus Cards & Gifts and is based in Mumbai)