Sialkot the city of high per capita income (Daily Times)

Feeling depressed, visit the booming Sialkotis!

Why a Karachiite feels tense all the time? Answer:  One is always afraid of being held-up at every traffic signal at gun point or an armed robbery while relaxing at home; One has to be wary not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and be caught by a stray bullet of a target killer; One has to drive in the maddening traffic; and hear the cribbing people at every social gathering.

On the other hand, in Islamabad, in spite of high security measures and entering top five-star hotels, which look like Fort Knox, the scenic beauty of Islamabad is soothing for a visitor. The pace of life is as slow as its bureaucracy, over the period I have learnt to amuse myself with the rumours of uncertain future of the government and bureaucrats. Islamabad has less small vices. And I am too small to be involved in any of its bigger ones.

But if one wants to run away from the tension of the highly politically-charged city like Karachi and hovering uncertainties of Islamabad, visit Pakistan’s exports and small & medium industry city — Sialkot. Visit to this ancient city is always redeeming, which I do to assure myself. Cynicism has no place here.

Although Sialkot’s history dates back to some 5000 years, unfortunately not many traces are left except the name of Raja Sul in Mahabharata. The city was also known as Sakaladvipa – island of Sakala — in the Vedic period, as it is situated between the river Chenab and Ravi.

But today it is known more as the city of entrepreneurs. It produces almost 50 per cent of the world’s hand-stitched footballs, a range of other sports goods and sports wear, surgical instruments, cutlery, musical instruments and leather accessories for the motorbikes. This city including its suburbs has a population of less than three million. But the total exports from this booming city are over US$ one billion. Sialkotis take pride in the highest per capita income in the country.

Over a thousand exporters of all sizes — big, medium and small — are actively and single-mindedly busy in production and competing at the global market. Sialkotis have a strong determination to meet the challenges of globalisation, in spite of many handicaps. They believe in “business first.” That is what gives you the feeling that there is life beyond the judicial crisis, international pressures, conflicts on the borders and political impasse in the country. These issues are important for the country, but they do not fog the minds of Sialkotis as they do of the people in the big cities.

When I tried to probe the Sialkotis on these issues during my visit last week, their replies were short and there was little eagerness to carry the topic further. Yes, all they want to talk about are the challenges ahead for the exports industry of Sialkot. “Not a single day’s strike is observed by the business in this city,” says Pervaiz Iqbal Soni, former President Hosiery Manufacturers Association (Sialkot Chapter). “People do take out the procession but without disturbing the business, as for Sialkotis meeting buyers’ deadline is more important than any other thing,” he added proudly.

When machine stitched footballs were introduced, the 100 years old sports goods industry felt threatened. But not for long as now many units have started producing machine-stitched footballs for international brands. A young 4th generation football manufacturer Faisal Gundra says “initially people were afraid to change but then we all realised that its simple technology and we can do it.” The sports goods industry is recovering the market that had been taken away by China. Strong Chinese Yuan and rising labour cost has brought back many buyers to Sialkot.

Chairman of Sports Goods Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Sohail Yaqoob Mehr said that the present challenges for the industries in Sialkot are electricity and gas shortage like anywhere in Pakistan and shortage of labour. All the businessmen I talked to in my short stay complained of shortage of labour. It seems they live on an island in Pakistan because the rest of the country is complaining about high unemployment. When I asked why people from other areas are not pulled by the employment opportunities in Sialkot? Former President of Sialkot Chamber Tahir Kapur said because of high per capita income the city is expensive and the outsiders will have a housing problem. However he said people are coming from far off towns to work here every day.

One outstanding quality of Sialkoti entrepreneurs is that they don’t wait for the rescue and dole from Islamabad. They are usually the first one to put their money in the kitty to solve their problems and then ask the government to chip in. They have done so by building the country’s first private sector managed dry port, then chipping in for the construction of major roads. And the biggest contribution was to build the first private sector airport, which is now catering to 28 flights a week besides the cargo flights.

WTO Social compliance regulations are a problem for all the export-based industries in Pakistan. The industry’s view is that while the Western importers push these conditions, they are not prepared to give a decent price. Social compliance has a cost which cuts into exporters profits and when it is passed through to the buyers it makes our products uncompetitive.

The good side of these regulations is that the employers are forced to eliminate child labour and give better deals to their labour. As these regulations are common for all the nations, they should add to the cost of our competition also.

Sialkot business leaders say what while Glove Manufacturers have established a small training school for women where they are taught cutting and stitching, there are no such facilities in other trades. Surgical instruments industry has also established a Surgical Technology Institute with government assistance which will train about 250 students.

In spite of these measures taken by the industry, it seems that the inevitable time has come for the Sialkot sports goods and surgical industry to go through a mergers, acquisitions and consolidation phase. It is sad as it may lead to the natural death of many small players, but such are the ironies of a capitalist economy and globalization. Economic evolution has the same course of natural selection as that of human beings. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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