Re-scripting India’s Toy Story

N Madhavan | Updated on September 11, 2020

The government has a large role to play if we are to become a global toy hub, as Prime Minister Modi has suggested

In his recent radio address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called upon the country to become a global toy hub. He stressed the need for India to increase its share in the world toy market and asked its citizens to become ‘vocal for local toys.’

His exhortation is valid. After all, India is home to 25 per cent of world’s children aged between 0 and 12 years. Domestic demand is, therefore, huge. It also has a rich history and culture when it comes to toy making.

Just visit Chennapatna on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway to see the rich collection of toys made from soft wood — a Persian tradition that has survived over 200 years — or for that matter, Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh, or Kondapalli in Andhra Pradesh to name a few places. Thousands of artisans are hard at work keeping these crafts alive.

But India’s share in the global toy market, estimated at $90 billion, is just 0.5 per cent ($500 million). And, more significantly, 80 per cent of the toys sold in India are imported from China.

PM Modi wants India to attain ‘aatmanirbharta’ in this sector and take on China in the global market. But the 4,000-odd small units that churn out toys in India are in no position to achieve this, however aspirational they may become.

A closer look at what has held India back from making it big in this sector reveals one important flaw — labour laws, which only the government can set right.

Flexible labour laws: Toy making is unique in many ways. It is, by nature, labour intensive. The life of a toy is limited. For instance, a Transformer Toy sells well when the movie releases and the off-take dies down soon thereafter. The demand for a product, thus, changes rapidly and each toy requires a different skillset.

These factors not only rule out mechanisation, but also calls for flexible staffing. Indian laws do not permit recruitment or retrenchment based on demand if the organisation grows beyond a certain size in terms of employee strength.

This explains why most units in the toy sector are very small and also why no major corporates have forayed into the industry despite the low capital investment needs (all you need to invest is in moulding and stitching infrastructure apart from painting booths). Small-size units meant that there never was any economies of scale.

China, on the other hand, did the opposite. It built huge factories, some employing as many as 30,000 workers. In most cases, the workers were provided accommodation at the factory and were paid on an hourly or per piece basis.

The workers slogged for 14-16 hours a day seven days a week taking a break only to go to their native villages during the Chinese New year. This meant that they could generate huge volumes which dramatically reduced the cost of production. It is thus China became the toy supplier to the world, manufacturing almost 70 per cent of all the toys sold globally.

India can never do what China did, but it can surely frame laws that are more flexible for sectors such as toy manufacturing. The government can fix minimum wages to protect workers but allow companies to hire and retrench employees based on demand. It can allow women to work at night with adequate safeguards.

Unless the labour laws are tweaked there is little chance for a large player to emerge in the sector. Big corporates will continue to shy away from it. Scale is critical not only for cost but also for developing the eco-system.

Quality supply chain: Because of the fragmented nature of the sector, the country lacks a decent supply chain. As mentioned earlier, toys have a very short shelf life and tooling needs to be changed every time a new toy is to be made.

But tooling in India has barely evolved and is too costly. Most players depend on China for it. This has to change if India has to make a name for itself in this sector.

Leveraging technology: Wooden toys have their value but today’s children are fast gravitating towards intelligent toys and video games. The domestic toy sector needs to tap into India’s expertise in information technology to offer games that capture the imagination of the children. The Prime Minister is right in asking the start-ups to help achieve this transformation.

Offer plug-and-play infrastructure: The ₹5,000-crore toy cluster at Koppal in Karnataka is a step in the right direction. If India has to move fast and become a toy hub, the government needs to create large scale special economic zones focussed on toys with plug-and-play infrastructure.

It can legislate more flexible labour laws in these zones that suit the toy industry. Experts say that if this is done, India will have a flourishing toy industry in just three years.

Ensure quality: A large-scale skilling programme is key to ensuring that the toys that come out of these SEZs are of global quality. Quality in this sector is as critical as in the pharmaceutical sector as the users are infants and young children.

The government has made the right beginning by insisting on quality standards for all domestic toy manufacturers and those toys that are imported into the country.

Branding: While it will be difficult for Indian companies to achieve the scale China has built-up, they can command a premium for their toys if they are seen as compassionate employers who treat their workers well and produce toys in an eco-friendly manner. Global toy brands, which are already facing anti-China tirade back home, will not hesitate to gravitate towards India despite higher costs.

Toy manufacturing is an ideal sector to focus on to revive a struggling economy. It offers large-scale employment to semi-skilled/unskilled workers and, especially, women.

With China shifting focus to higher value toys, opportunity has opened up for laggards like India. Vietnam has already changed its laws and created a $4-billion toy industry in just three years. India needs to move fast, if it does not want to miss the bus again.

Published on September 10, 2020

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