The Indian government needs to get serious about forests and paper

Some print buyers are accepting price increases


It’s true that print prices and margins are under pressure globally and also that Indian print businesses through the All India Federation of Master Printers led by the two Mumbai associations, have started a campaign to inform print buyers of the prevailing increase in prices of inputs including paper. The campaign has had initial success in Mumbai, with commercial printers persuading regular customers to raise prices in some cases by 5, 7.5 and 10%. However, the same report says that so far the offset packaging printers have not been able to similarly influence their generally larger volume customers.

There is no question that hyper-competition or selling at unremunerative prices has resulted in a crisis in the industry which has not been able to protect itself at a time when the domestic paper industry is in fact healthy and becoming more efficient. The subcontinent needs a healthy paper industry but this is a difficult proposition considering that the country is totally inefficient in its production of wood fiber or raw material.

Not only are the forests dismally mismanaged by the states and the national government but so are the water and ground water resources in the country. India uses more ground water than either China or the United States, and this too mostly in its hugely inefficient agriculture. While we take great pride in exporting Basmati rice, most of us are neither aware of the extraordinary amount of water needed to produce it, nor that that Indian scientists have developed genetically modified varieties that use less water but which cannot be tried out because our discussion of genetically modified crops is both unscientific and sentimental.

Healthy forestry which can yield fiber requires organized harvesting of old trees since it is the faster growing young trees that have the maximum capacity to bind carbon and act as carbon sinks that generate oxygen and clean the atmosphere. Thus, healthy forests can actually supply better fiber and pulp than Indian paper manufacturers currently have access to. Although one of my friends has recently written about fast growing bamboo as an alternative raw material for pulp, I believe she may be somewhat misguided. Bamboo is first of all inefficient for paper pulp because it is hollow and its one-way logistics from the forests to the mills is expensive. Secondly, bamboo is far more useful as a raw material for directly manufacturing other products. Eucalyptus, a fast growing tree, is also of limited value for pulp since it tends to rapidly bring up ground water and the water table.

Although our current government and the state are perceived to be more responsive, we are still far away from having rational and politically acceptable thinking on matters such as sustainable forestry or the role of forestry in protecting watersheds that in turn feed the rivers. Similarly, in spite of the good work done by various organizations including the Centre of Science and Environment and its recognition by the government, a rational and systematic approach to solid waste, garbage and recycling is still in the hands of a few ethical city commissioners and non-governmental organizations. As I have written several times, very little of our used paper actually reaches paper mills for recycling—a figure that is still below 20% and still relies on the ‘informal sector’ for collection.

Although there is no question that both the demand for paper and print in India are above our 7% GDP growth, the paths to health for the paper and print industry are not simple or short term. But isn’t this why we elect governments? To go beyond slogans and to meaningfully invest in and exploit our two most abundant natural resources in a virtuous cycle—human ingenuity and natural sunlight— which can be combined to generate better forests, rivers, pulp, paper and print.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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