Textbook printing in Bihar on the verge of collapse

Direct transfer to students bankrupts printers

Rameshwar Nath Rai, proprietor of Super Offset Printers and Stationers and is also the working president of Bihar Offset Printers' Association

In August 2018, the Bihar state education department instructed district education officers (DEOs) and district programme officers (DPOs) to directly transfer money for the purchase of textbooks to the bank accounts of parents of underage students who do not have their own bank accounts. This was seen as a remedy following complaints by schools and parents that banks were refusing to open accounts for students under 10 years of age. Government officials said that the provision was for the 2018-19 academic session only.

In April 2018, the Bihar State Textbook Printing Corporation Limited empanelled 54 printing and publishing agencies to print books for classes I to VIII. Of the 2 crore (20 million) primary class students studying in Bihar government schools, only 30% received new textbooks directly from the government; the rest were using old textbooks provided by the schools and preserved from previous years. Earlier, the education department provided textbooks to students directly instead of granting a sum of money. In April this year, the state released Rs. 285 crore for direct transfer to students’ bank accounts for buying textbooks. However, while for students above 10 years of age opening a bank account is feasible, for those who are younger banks have resisted or declined opening accounts.

Direct transfer defeats textbooks

A recent survey by the Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC) reveals that only 18% of class I to VIII students in the government schools have purchased textbooks while the rest are using older textbooks preserved by their schools. Some students cannot purchase any textbooks as neither they nor their parents have bank accounts. Nevertheless, the BEPC survey shows that nearly 80% of the students received money in their bank accounts through direct transfer of funds.

Once the biggest source of revenue for offset printers, printing textbooks in Bihar is now a loss-stricken business. According to printers, if the current situation continues for another year or so, the textbook printing industry in Bihar will collapse.

Earlier, the government provided the paper for printing textbooks, which has changed in the last couple of years. Printers have been instructed to produce the textbooks at their own cost and to distribute and sell them directly to the students. We used to print the textbooks for direct supply to the government, but for the past one year, that has changed. The government has now instructed us to print textbooks and circulate and sell these to schools in the state and directly collect money from the students,” says Rohit Jain, director of The Offsetters (India) Private Limited.

Lower sales at lower prices

The sale of textbooks in Bihar has crashed and the printers asked by the government to supply and sell these textbooks directly to students have suffered huge losses. “The entire process requires huge investment. We need to buy the paper, bear the cost of printing and then sell it directly to students. It really isn’t viable and perhaps only a few might succeed. Although the government is granting funds to students directly, those who belong to economically weaker sections often use these funds for their other more pressing personal expenses,” Jain adds.

The pricing of government textbooks is another serious issue. “The amount that is being granted to these students for purchasing textbooks is too low. They are being given a sum from Rs. 120 to Rs. 250 for buying books for classes I to VIII, which is not sufficient. These are extremely low prices for a set of textbooks,” Jain explains.

The low prices encourage and even compel the use of lower quality paper since the printers do not have the working capital to invest in consumables and overheads for which they have so far received almost nothing in return. Jain says, “Even if the government is subsidising textbooks, I don’t think a set of 7 or 8 textbooks would cost less than Rs. 700 to Rs. 800. We simply cannot afford to sell books at the specified low rates. Hence, some printers are using lower quality paper in a desperate attempt to save themselves from suffering further losses,” Jain informs.

Government chooses to play the blame game

As a consequence of the earlier policy and rising education demand, a couple of years ago more than 80 printers invested in web offset presses across the state. Rameshwar Nath Rai, proprietor of Super Offset Printers and Stationers says, “In those days, the paper was also being supplied by the government through Hindustan Paper Corporation (HPC). However, since the paper that was being supplied by HPC often arrived late, it resulted in a delay in the textbook printing and binding process. As a result, the government began blaming the printers for the shortage, and untimely availability, of textbooks.”

Some of the textbook printers in Bihar say they will continue printing textbooks for the government only if the rules are amended in the coming academic year, failing which they will have to either migrate to commercial work or printing for private publishers. Since the government textbook work is still a relatively large quantity, other textbook printers say they will have to shut down their businesses.

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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