CHENNAI: Despite the unending list of woes that this pandemic has inflicted on the global populace, few sections of people have managed to find the unexpected silver lining amid the chaos. Be it the desk-bound accountant finding time to exercise since her office issued work-from-home orders, the long-distance father reunited with his child (thanks to being stuck in the same city for the lockdown) or the home cook finding more customers at her doorstep because they trust her more than the local restaurant. It was along these lines that the world recorded a boom in cycle sales, even as several other sectors were reporting a slump in business. India, too, is no exception. With more people taking to the streets on non-motorised two wheels, there were calls to attend to cycle pathways, and the government to promote the practice. Even as the sector finds itself in the limelight, the benefits of the trade do not trickle down the ecosystem, it seems. For sales boom or not, there’s nothing keeping the once-ubiquitous cycle repair shops from disappearing from our city’s landscape.
Collapse of small units
It’s been decades since M Sekhar gave up his cycle and moved on to motorbikes and cars for transport. Yet, with all the workers at his metal fabrications shop still dependent on the humble vehicle for commute, he’s had to keep up with the market scene. “We still have one or two shops around but it’s certainly not like it was years ago. My workers go to this man who takes the cycle home to finish the repairs. It’s a one-man unit; we don’t even have his phone number. He shows up from time to time and we get the repair and maintenance done while the workers are still here,” he explains. Business for the one-man unit, Annamalai*, is slow but steady. Focusing on the commercial/industrial pocket of Porur means he knows every cycle user there. That’s about the only way to ensure he gets to earn some money through the week.
Business has been dismal at this cycle repair and rental shop in Chindatripet too. With people barely renting cycles any more, even when it comes for `10 an hour, the shop’s owner Kottisha relies on the maintenance services he has to offer to earn a living. He’s been running the shop for 30 years now, and it’s come down to just him working the stall.
While shops like Kottisha’s have folded over the years, it’s people equipped with a broader business plan — not to mention, capital and land — who make it in the field. Rajamanickam* started off with a cycle repair shop 30 years ago. Now, it’s grown to be a showroom that sells bicycles. He’s retained his servicing unit, attending to cycles he sells and others that need his help. This wing of the shop was made necessary by the changing nature of the industry, one that has left customers with few choices in terms of maintenance, he says. He blames the customers and their demand for free services for the collapse of small units. “One month after a round of maintenance, you will have customers coming back to say the service did not hold up and demand that it be done at no extra cost. If it were a motorbike or car, a water wash with an oil change would cost you a minimum of `150-`200. Whether he used the oil or not, they recover their costs from what you pay for the service. It is not the same with cycle repair shops when service at the time of purchase or six months down the line or soon after a round of maintenance is expected to be done for free. People’s biggest excuse is that they never used the cycle and so the maintenance should be on the shop that sold it,” he recounts.
Skills come at a cost
While this problem is persistent enough, rental rates (for the building) and staff salary — having increased over the years — make it impossible for small shops to sustain, remarks Arulnidhi Subramanian, owner of Worldcycles, a shop for bicycle sales, accessories and service. That he has managed to profit from his venture is because it’s a hybrid entity that has been fuelled by his experience in the online spare parts business (cycle and automobile); that his shop sits in a school area only works as an advantage. “We look for people who have worked in repair shops before or had their own at some point. It’s only through reference and word of mouth that we go looking for skilled technicians," he says. It doesn’t come cheap either, points out Rajamanickam. Daily wages for the mechanic can range between `800 and `1,000. For one working on geared cycles, it can go up to `1,500, he says.
Geetha Ramakrishnan, advisor of the Unorganised Workers’ Federation, says that this was one of the industries that saw the heavy involvement of child labourers. A job like this requires hands-on training; with fewer shops around, there are fewer people skilled in the work, she reasons. “Usually, when a child drops out of school, the mother will take the child to the cycle repair shop to learn the trade and work there. Now, it’s the automobile repair shops. People leaving the sector seem to find jobs in the automobile sector and, perhaps, as painters,” she adds.
Changing biz models
These problems persist even as the business model gets more sophisticated. Sricharen Shridhar, founder of Fix My Cycle, a service that brings bicycle maintenance to the comfort of your home, had observed this trend of declining repair shops in the years leading up to the birth of his venture. Even the ones that were around relied heavily on older technicians, he points out. “The second generation was not keen on taking up the store or the set-up available then. In the sales side, the third generation has stepped in at a 50-year-old store. In the service sector, on the other hand, they are not keen at all. So, I had to kindle a new breed of skilled mechanics (for his venture). I had to train people; get them well-versed with the cycle and tips and tricks to do the job, groom them and deploy them in the market. When the company was launched in February 2017, we had six technicians in three cities. While half of them were well-trained, the others had to be trained by them. Now, we have four technicians in Chennai alone,” he narrates. Three years since the launch, the service is available in 21 cities in two countries.
While the affluent can afford to keep up with the growth of the industry, moving to online solutions when in need of bicycle maintenance, this option may not be available to everyone. Fix My Cycle does what it can but it is not a sustainable model of business, says Sricharen. “We get a handful of those kinds of services. For example, we go to an apartment, the gentleman who works as the security guard there might ask for us to take a look at his cycle too. At those costs, we have to ignore the price bracket and do something. While we have covered a lot of cycles like that, it isn’t ideal as a business. Those cycles do not have spares today. And the concept of selling as scraps has become prevalent in the cycle space too; and we do not do that. So, there’s little we can do,” he explains.
Even as the industry keeps moving to newer mediums, there are people like Gopinath who rely on years of living with the machine to attend to it. Having been used travelling 30 km a day on his trusted cycle, there’s little he can’t handle. Spare parts are easy to find and the work is adequate.
With the world moving the way it is, we’re not likely to see much of those one-room shops that have more components on the road that it could ever fit inside. And maybe, that’s not such a bad thing. As long as the people are taken care of; but we don’t seem to have a good history with that particular service.