Raj Bahadur grows flowers in 15 bighas of his ancestral land, which is about eight km away from Kannauj in central Uttar Pradesh.

Currently, Bahadur does not have any loan to repay, and his eight children are able to go to school.

But the way things are evolving, the future may be bleak for Bahadur, as the traditional and centuries-old perfumes and attar industries of the sleepy town faces serious challenges, such as lack of policy support and global competition.

During poll campaigns, both the ruling BJP and Opposition Samajwadi Party face tough questions from the people involved in this industry.

The perfume industries provide livelihood for about 50,000 families, directly and indirectly. In Kannauj, there are about 300 small, medium, and large units that extract attar , perfumes, and essential oils from flowers and medicinal roots.

Industry in distress

The industry serves not just big Ayurvedic medicine manufacturers such as Dabur and Patanjali, but also multinational giants in the cosmetics, spa and aroma therapy sectors.

“Governments have not cared much for us. This is a handicraft industry. Kannauj is known as the ‘Grasse of East’. But the fact is that many of the perfume units in France’s Grasse function on the essential oils supplied by us,” said Pawan Trivedi, secretary of the Attar and Perfumers Association, Kannauj.

Farmers also are under stress. To make 0.5 gram of rose oil, a unit needs 100 kg of rose or jasmine flowers. Industries collect fresh flowers from a 30 km radius of the city.

“The price always fluctuates. If there is availability of flowers, prices will nosedive. If there is scarcity, we will get a good price. We need at least ₹5,000 for a quintal of rose flowers. The government should ensure that,” Bahadur said.

Trivedi and other office-bearers of the association have had several meetings with authorities from the Centre and the State. They have basically two demands: the GST on attar be reduced to 12 per cent; and piped-gas connection be provided to them.

“We are getting firewood now from 100-200 km away. There is a gas line going some 25 km away from Kannauj. If this town is connected to that gas pipeline, it will be huge boost for this industry,” Trivedi said.

He added that the GST rate for menthol oil, which is extracted through the same process as their perfurmes, is 12 per cent.

“We do not understand why there is a different rate for attar . Our products are mostly used in medicines. But the government considers this as a luxury product,” he said.

Lack of common brand

Non-availability of essential ingredients such as sandalwood and flowers has also put hurdles before the industries. “There were more than 25 factories in and around Kannauj that extracted sandalwood oil, which is the base for attar products. Now, there is just one factory functioning here. The auction of sandalwood from Salem in Tamil Nadu was the only way for us to get it,” said Rajiv Mehrotra, another factory owner.

“We are importing sandalwood from Australia, but its quality is very poor,” he added.

Though the product is protected under the Geographical Identity (GI) tag, the lack of a common brand has impacted the growth of the industry, admit traders and industrialists.

“While we get ₹1, the multinationals make ₹10 out of our work,” lamented Ram Snehi, who unsuccessfully ran a small unit for some years.

“Non-availability of raw materials and lack of support from administration is why I closed down my small unit in 2015,” he added.