The construction of the ambitious Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway, which promises to cut down travel time between the two cities drastically, has badly affected the business of the thriving toy industry of Channapatna.
Located along the old Mysuru-Bengaluru highway, Channapatna, a city in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district, known for its wooden toys and lacquerware, is usually abuzz with crowds and does swift business throughout the year, clocking in an average turnover of ₹10-₹12 crore per year. Most of the shops are located along the highway.
However, the toy town wouldn’t be a pit stop for commuters and tourists travelling between Bengaluru and Mysuru anymore, as the new expressway that is being constructed at an elevation, would completely bypass it.
Channapatna is listed under the World Trade Organisation’s Geographical Indication, which empowers its artisans with exclusive right to sell toys under the name of ‘Channapatna toys’. The art of toy making was patronised by the Mysuru Wadiyar kings and Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of Mysuru state. It is said that Tipu Sultan, who came up with innovative import and export policies, encouraged the export of Channapatna toys worldwide. With the craft being at least 200 years old, Channapatna toys have been gifted to world leaders over the years, including former US president Barack Obama during his visit to India in 2010.
Toy town wears an eerie look; tourist footfall dwindles
The Mysuru Expressway, however, has now blocked out the toy town from the world, threatening the livelihood of hundreds of artisan families.
The drop in business has already begun to show, with several shops complaining of poor footfalls.
This reporter, on a visit to the toy town, saw several shops along the old Mysuru-Bengaluru road empty. The town, which is usually noisy and teeming with tourists, wore a silent, calm and rather abandoned look. Dejected by the bleak business, several shopkeepers said they might have to close their shops till the construction of the Channapatna stretch of the Expressway is completed.
Sudha Kumari, a toy merchant said that tourists and commuters travelling between Mysuru and Bengaluru would often stop by to buy toys. “But these days, we are suffering losses as buyers have stopped coming. We are thinking of shutting the shop permanently,” she said.
The Federal saw many shops have already been closed. While some traders are bidding time, others are thinking of shifting base.
Shivanna S, who owns a Channapatna toy centre near Janapada Loka, said that earlier, he earned around ₹4,000-₹5,000 a day, but barely manages to earn ₹500 now. He ascribes the drop in income to a thinner public in the toy town compared to earlier times when the traffic was heavy.
“Now I am thinking of closing this unit and trying to shift to Mysuru. But the problem is a huge amount of money is needed to rent out a shop there,” he said.
Shivanna’s entire family, including his wife and children, is engaged in toy making and the drop in business is a huge jolt to them.
Artisans allege government negligence
The Lacquerware Craft Complex, run by the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation on 6 acres of land, is an example of the apathy of the government and local people’s representatives towards the craft form and the 3,000-old artisans of the Channapatna cluster dependent on it.
The crafts park, touted to be the first of its kind in India, was built primarily to preserve, nurture and grow skills by providing artisans with employment opportunities. Even though the complex is built in a sprawling area, the project manager said only 180 artisans had been engaged in the project.
The Federal found many of the workshops closed and the only active one had six to seven artisans. The machines used to carve out the famous Channapatna toys were also not in a good condition.
According to the project manager, the centre provides facilities for the artisans to reside and work on the campus and several listed artisans get trained at the place. While artisans are free to sell their products on their own, the centre is also required to supply craft products to emporiums run by the government.
Ramesh Babu, an artisan of Channapatna toys said, “We are all affected by the expressway construction. But there are no government efforts to save us and the craft complex is just an example to show the interest of the government,” he said.
Factories stop production
Small factories of toys are also now running under loss as they are directly connected to the toy sellers. They stopped buying from toy makers after their own sales went south.
Karim Khan, who runs a small toy-making unit said his business is so dull now that he is thinking of closing it. “There is also competition from Chinese products in the market. We don’t get orders from Bengaluru or Mysuru or any other places, while we used to get good orders from several cities earlier,” he said.
Rahmatullah Saab, another toy-unit owner, said the toy business is under threat as there is no proper plan by the government to save this handicraft industry. “Not just artisans working on machines, hundreds of women, who make toys at their homes, in the villages in and around Channapatna are also directly linked to this business and are sitting empty-handed now,” he added.
‘Chinese incursion’ of online business
Even though Channapatna toys have a significant presence on online and e-commerce platforms, sellers and toymakers have raised red flags about the huge influx of artificial Chinese toys which resemble their handmade craft and often confuse buyers.
Habib Khan, a toy maker said while earlier they used to get good orders from online dealers, now the demand has fallen.
Eateries suffer too
The expressway has affected not only the businesses of toy makers and store owners, but also of related services. A hotel along the highway in Channapatna, which used to witness a heavy rush during working hours and the famous Janapada Loka, a folk museum, that has an exclusive display of the village folk arts of Karnataka, have witnessed a drastic drop in footfalls.
The famous ‘Shree Renukamba Tatte Idli’ restaurants along the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway near Bidadi town are also facing heavy losses due to a fall in diners. Local shops and vendors, including the famous ‘maddur vada’ sellers also complain of losses due to a lack of buyers.
An officer with the National Highway Authority of India said that there is a plan to build ‘bays’ where the expressway touches a town or a village. There a temporary structure will be built to have shops that would sell products, including toys. Eateries are also being planned.
The toymakers of Channapatna, however, say small fixes wouldn’t help them and the government needs to rise to the occasion to save the 200-year-old craft tradition. For they don’t want the lines of the famous Kannada song, “Channapattanada Chandanada Gombe (toy)…” to dissipate as yet.