Demonetisation locked their destiny into airless rooms where they do double the work for less than half the pay, say daily wage workers in this western Uttar Pradesh town’s famous ‘Tala Nagri’. Aligarh has been synonymous with locks since the Mughal era but the once thriving lock industry, employing more than one lakh people, has been brought to knees with demonetisation and GST dealing it a body blow. So, Shanti, who spends nine hours a day with four others making locks in ‘Tala Nagri’ (lock town), finds herself earning dramatically less than she did before November 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetised high value currency notes. Four machines around her lie vacant. “They have been lying vacant for the past three years since demonetisation. Now I do the work of two at Rs 150 per day,” she said. Before November 2016, she said she earned Rs 400 per day. Her colleague Jamal said his vote in the elections on April 18 will be for the candidate that can help them improve their lives. “These are poll issues for us. We will be voting keeping in mind the brunt we bore because of demonetisation and high GST rate,” he said.
Jamal and Shanti are among the semi-skilled labourers not eligible for minimum salary because the company she works for has less than 20 employees. The minimum salary for workers like her in a cottage industry with over 20 employees is Rs 324 per day. “You get nothing from Rs 150 per day. My house is three kilometres away and I have to walk because e-rickshaws take Rs 20 one way. I tried getting a job elsewhere but the lock companies are so badly hit by GST that they cannot afford more workers like us,” Shanti said. The legendary lock industry of Aligarh, about 150 km from the national capital Delhi, accounts for almost 75 per cent of the production in the country, earning the city the sobriquet ‘Tala Nagri’ and making the ‘Aligarh lock’ a byword for quality and also a distinct brand. “We don’t have automation in our industry despite the talk of make in India and digitisation and we are dependent on labour intensive machines. The end result is that we are not able to compete with China. “On top of that, policies like demonetisation and high rate of GST are pushing us on the brink of closure,” said Zafar Alam, manufacturer of Link Locks and a former MLA of Samajwadi Party. He said manufacturers will become traders if the government does not give incentives for automation and impose anti-dumping duty on Chinese products.
According to Prakash Sharma, owner of the Rajput Locks on Shahjamal Road which has over 40 lock industries, locks were made at every house in the area. “But half the houses stopped making locks after GST was implemented at 18 per cent. Earlier we were paying 4 per cent in taxes,” he said. “So we were hit by both on the one hand facing competition from China and, on the other, high GST rates,” he added. Hameed, who owns a unit on the same street, said China’s import duty for locks is 23 per cent. “We sell our lock at Rs 27 while the same Chinese product is sold at Rs 18. Shopkeepers have stopped buying our products as they say that our locks do not sell anymore because of high price,” he said. Unable to face competition, industry insiders said many smaller manufactures were forced to shut shop. “Our worlds crashed in the past four years. We want a government that would reduce the GST rates and bring automation technology too,” said Girish, a lock industry owner.
Workers said they want a government that will respect their skills and give them proper training to help them upgrade. The upcoming elections in Aligarh will be fought between incumbent BJP MP Satish Kumar Gautam, Congress candidate Birendra Singh and Mahagathbandan candidate Ajit Baliya. Aligarh goes to the polls on April 18 in round two of the seven phase elections. The constituency has a total of 18,73,993 voters. Khair, Baroli, Atroli , Kol and Aligarh city are assembly seats in the constituency.