Faced with a dwindling supply of white duck feathers, lack of mechanisation and soaring Chinese competition with alternative plastic products, traders at the shuttlecock manufacturing hub here are struggling to make ends meet amidst reducing margins.
Neither are they capable of fulfilling the entire demand, nor are they eager to explore new marketing channels like e-commerce to scale up their businesses, due to acute "supply crisis of basic raw material".
"Had the supply of feathers been steady, we could have met the entire demand. We used to source feathers mostly from Bangladesh, but nowadays the supply from there is very limited. Even the raw material supply from Murshidabad, east and west Midnapore, north Bengal's districts and also from other states has become irregular," Basudeb Khan, the owner of Penguins Shuttlecocks, told this visiting IANS correspondent.
Areas like Bahirtafa, Jaduberia, Kathiberia, Rajapur, Baniban, Brindabanpur and Uttar Pirpur in Howrah district's Uluberia sub-division -- about 42 km from Kolkata -- have been the traditional hub of domestic shuttlecock manufacturing in India. About 20-odd units, medium and large, currently produce over 1,000 barrels a day.
Explaining how the crisis is escalating the cost, Khan said the industry was sourcing white ducks' feathers in the range of Rs 800-1200 per 1,000 pieces about 3-4 years back. Now, the manufacturers are buying 1,000 pieces for a whopping Rs 1,900-2000.
Echoing Khan, S. Niyogi & Co. proprietor Gautam Niyogi, told IANS: "Not only rising prices, the quality of feathers is also a matter of concern. Apparently, the prices of feathers have doubled from what it was earlier but the net impact is even more severe, taking wastage into account. We now struggle to clock even a five per cent margin due to soaring costs because manufacturers are unable increase the prices of their products on account of competition."
To insulate their businesses from the lopsided raw material supply, some shuttlecock makers at this rural and semi-urban hamlet have started using "imported and finished" feathers from China but on a negligible scale. They also alleged that suppliers and brokers are "dictating the prices" of white ducks' feathers.
"Our present volumes meet about 50-60 per cent of the demand. We are not able to ramp up production due to the supply crisis of basic raw material. With this supply crunch, how can we explore the e-commerce channel to push up sales of our products," Khan asked.
The manufacturers urged the West Bengal government to promote duckery firms to improve the supply of feathers.
The association of these areas with the shuttlecock dates to the pre-independence era when the late Ganendranath Bose, who used to work in a Calcutta (now Kolkata)-based sports equipment shop handling imported shuttlecocks, commenced their manufacturing in the 1920s.
In the entire manufacturing chain -- starting from washing and cutting of feathers, drilling holes into the corks to pasting of feathers and packaging -- these units are assisted by over 2,000 families.
"There were about 120 units and many of them are not in existence today as they succumbed to foreign competition. Over 15,000-20,000 workers were employed in this cottage industry but now the artisan strength is around 5,000-6,000," Supriya Bose, who has witnessed the highs and lows of the business, told IANS.
"However, Uluberia's products are regarded as superior over that of (Pubjab's) Jalandhar, the other shuttlecock-making hub in India," he said.
The domestic shuttlecock manufacturing hub is "struggling at a time when shuttlers PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth are being featured in the newspapers on a daily basis and badminton as a game has gained huge popularity", Bose lamented.
Making a shuttlecock is a meticulous exercise as 16 overlapping feathers of identical length are manually glued and bound together with a string and fixed into a cork.
However, the quality of domestically-manufactured shuttlecocks is a concern, even though they are cost-effective.
Asked about quality issues, Niyogi said: "The quality of a good shuttlecock is measured by its flight and durability. Good flight depends on the quality of feathers. Unfortunately, due to inferior quality of feathers, we are not at par with foreign brands."
According to him, products of overseas brands like Japan's Yonex, RSL Tourney from England and Indonesia's Garuda are made of superior quality feathers but also machine-made.
The Uluberia Shuttlecock Cluster Industrial Co-operative Society has been trying to harness technology and also to set up a common facility centre in tandem with the West Bengal government.
Local manufacturers said their shuttlecocks sell between a range of Rs 200 to Rs 600 per barrel depending on the quality while foreign brands are priced at Rs 800-Rs 1,600 per barrel and even more.
"We are not able to compete with them on the marketing front even though our products are cost competitive," Khan said, adding that foreign products are usually used in the international and national tournaments while the shuttlecocks manufactured in Uluberia are consumed only for practice matches and club games.
"Of our total volume, about 60 per cent is of better quality and units do not have any issues in selling these products. But we are facing challenges to sell the remaining 40 per cent of relatively lower quality shuttlecocks. We are falling behind Chinese plastic cocks in this space due to their better durability," Angel Sports Maker's Chandradeb Golui told IANS.
(With inputs from agencies.)