Riding on the regional strength


September 15, 2003

In Europe as also in the West, the two textile giants, India and China, are often referred to as the elephant and the dragon respectively – India is, usually, the heavier, slower but a more patient elephant while China is portrayed as the faster, fire-breathing and market-usurping dragon which can occasionally run into problems because of its inability to cope with smaller details.

China may have emerged as the textile and apparel superpower because of its low-cost mass production capability. Nevertheless, India has been the quiet player which has been working backstage and making inroads into the global markets. India hopes that its ancient tradition of handicrafts combined with modern technology will enable it to assert its position in the world’s markets even after 2004 when restrictions on the textile trade, in the form of quotas, are eliminated as the World Trade Center (WTO) regulations are enforced.

Even as they admit that they face a threat from China, many Indian exporters maintain that Indian textiles are best woven by hand rather than by machines. That, they argue, ensures their survival.

Representatives of India Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO), which organised the Tex-Styles India 2003 from February 28 to March 3 in Delhi, have been closely monitoring the breathtaking pace at which China’s textile and apparel industry has been making progress. They say that although India is the world’s second largest producer of textiles and apparel after China, India’s share of the overall global textiles market is only 2.8% and much smaller than that of China’s. India caters mainly to its large domestic market with more than a billion population.

However, India is a top global supplier of yarn accounting for 22% of the world’s trade in this commodity; it also accounts for 3.2% share of the global fabrics and meets 2.2% of the world’s apparel demand. Indeed, India produces everything from yarn to finished apparel.

Ambitious or just unrealistic?

India’s exports of textiles were hit during the last fiscal year ended March 31, 2002, and recorded an 11% drop to nearly $10.7 billion. However, India’s textile pundits are saying that exports will rise in the current fiscal year ended March 31, 2003, to the level of $13 billion. It has also set its sights on an ambitious goal of reaching $50 billion in the year 2010, which many critics describe as "unrealistic".

Unlike China, India thrives on catering to small volume requirements of buyers. This is true in the case of apparel and allied industries such as home furnishings where India can truly flex its muscles. This is particularly evident in the case of several Indian companies which supply small but highly specialised silk fabrics to Western countries, especially to the United States. Indeed, some Indians are even importing raw yarn for the manufacture of silk from China because, according to many Indian companies, the quality of Chinese silk yarn is superior to the Indian variety.

Many Indians, aware that they run the risk of not being able to compete against Pakistan and China in the international markets on grounds of cost effectiveness, weaker quality and designs, have begun to upgrade and modernise their production operations. A study prepared by McKinsey & Company under commission from the Indian Cotton Textiles Export Promotion Council also provided a forewarning of this future scenario.

Some suppliers, who run what are known as cottage industries, where traditional hand work is carried out, turned to other mechanised means of production because the traditional hand work has been turning out to be slower and more expensive. These suppliers have been using machines now and have discovered that they can, as a result, cut costs and pass down the benefit of low-cost supplies to the importers. Indeed, by using machines, such manufacturers have been able to supply not only upper-end buyers but the lower-end clientele as well.

Subcontinent hub

A business investment consultant in India, Devangshu Dutta, suggests that when looking at India’s potential, one should consider the growth of the subcontinent hub, taking into account the combined forces of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Total apparel exports from the three places are estimated to grow to more than US$15 billion by 2005 and US$25 billion by 2010 from about US$12 billion in 2000.

Mr Dutta says a direct comparison between India and China would be unfair as India grows with the subcontinent and the region has good potential in the future. The subcontinent is also one of the largest and fastest growing consumer markets.

There are plenty of opportunities for raw material manufacturers and machinery makers while import duties are being brought down, he says, adding that in the textile and apparel industry, foreign direct investment is on an upward trend with manufacturing as the focus area.

However, Mr Dutta says that in addition to the dominance of small-scale production, the industry does not have a clear leadership and a true supply chain integration. Supply bases are spread out over a large geographical region, while the use of technology, especially information technology, has been insufficient.

Moreover, the Indian government still has to deal with its excise and other duty or tax imbalances, and modify the labour law which makes removal of staff difficult for employers, who therefore refrain from expansion.