PIPILI: Dasarathi Mahapatra’s hope of making a decent profit turned into despair as the peak season started with a record low of chandua (appliqué) and artefact sales in Pipili. Mahapatra had wanted to construct a concrete ceiling for his thatched house in a remote pocket of Pipili, but can barely manage a decent income for his extended family this month.
Demonetisation has struck at the heart of Pipili, the hub of applique work in the country. With the withdrawal of `500 and `1,000 denomination notes coming at the beginning of the tourist season, the future appears ominous for the artisan community of Pipili. Pipili and adjoining villages in a radius of 50 km are home to applique masters whose work has earned global recognition. There are 10,000 weavers and artisans directly involved in the trade while ancillary units would take the figure to one lakh.
The artisans sweat day and night during the off season, which starts after the Rath Yatra and extends till Deepavali. From the last week of August till October it is the production season as tourist inflow to Puri district is comparatively low during the period.
“Our artists stock the godowns with best of their work during this period and exhibit them from November and February when the footfalls are maximum,” Benudhar Mohapatra, a veteran applique wholesaler, said.The workers get paid for their labour on the basis of their skills. The salaries of regular employees range from `3,000 to ` 10,000. Last month, most of them had their payments delayed, or were paid in instalments or by cheque. For the semi-skilled workers, it was real hardship as most of them are daily wagers who prefer to be paid in cash. With their employer short of cash in the past three weeks, they have been left to fend for themselves.
In November last year, major applique showrooms in Pipili clocked handsome earnings of around `2 lakh to `3 lakh. The medium and small shops pulled in a decent `50,000 to `1 lakh. The numbers increased by a margin of 10 per cent in December and January. This November, however, has been a nightmare. The bigger shops have managed to sell goods worth about of `50,000 while only a handful got to the `1 lakh mark. The story of the smaller shops is miserable. “We are surviving on government orders and some foreign contacts who place orders on the phone. The cash crunch has been so critical that it is difficult to make regular payments to our artisans,” Benudhar added.
Foreign travellers are jackpots for the applique industry. They purchase on the MRP, do not bargain, and even tip the artisan. However, this has proved to be a winter of discomfort as very few foreigners have dropped in at the appliqué market. Those who came were, surprisingly, window-shoppers. “It was a strange sight for us. The foreigners never go empty-handed but even they were short of Indian currency this time,” Sushant Swain, a salesman, said. The cash crunch also impeded the flow of raw materials, most of which are procured from Kolkata nowadays. No trader was ready to supply materials on credit.
“The situation was so bad in November that I had to withdraw a fixed deposit for purchase of raw materials to keep the business going. My artisans have offered exceptional support during the crisis,” said a Chandanpur-based businessman.
Only a few shopkeepers in Pipili have a swipe machines. “On several occasions, the orders were cancelled as we could not provide change for a purchase of `400, when the customer offered a 2,000 rupee note,” said Sahil, an appliqué shop owner.
Kunjabihari Babu, an appliqué trader in his late eighties, said, “We maintain a decent 15-20 percent profit margin and rarely go out of business,” recollected the octogenarian. But the 1999 supercyclone and establishment of the Pipili bypass road on the Bhubaneswar-Puri National Highway took a heavy toll on their business. Now, demonetisation.