The imports of newsprint by the Indian newspaper industry have been on a continuous decline in the last five financial years, with the drop being especially sharp during the Covid pandemic lockdowns and thereafter. This was revealed by the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) minister Anurag Thakur in the Lok Sabha on 26 July.
According to the minister, the Indian newspaper industry imported 1,384,056 kilograms of newsprint in the 2017-2018 financial year, which declined to 1,296,300 kilograms in 2018-2019. There was a negligible increase in imports to 1,296,354 in the 2019-2020 financial year. The imports almost halved in the pandemic-ravaged 2020-2021 financial year to 648,620 kilograms and dropped even further to 597,766 kilograms in the 2021-2022 financial year.
The industry is said to depend on domestic newsprint production for about 50% of its requirements, while the rest of the demand is met by imports. However, according to the Indian Newsprint Manufacturers Association data, domestic newsprint consumption is 2.2 million tons annually (MTPA), with imports of 1.5 MTPA. (One presumes that this is a pre-pandemic figure.)
The newspaper industry was severely affected during the first Covid-19- induced lockdown in the 2020-2021 financial year. The circulation and distribution came to a complete halt in most urban pockets. This was especially pronounced in metros, mini-metros, and second-tier cities where many housing societies restricted the entry of home delivery agents. Because of misinformation, readers were initially reluctant to pick up the papers and were apprehensive about the spread of the Covid-19 virus through newspaper surfaces. Although this disruptive theory was completely rejected by the medical fraternity, it caused irreparable harm to the largest portion of circulation which is home delivery.
The disruption in the global supply chain and rising costs due to the Russia-Ukraine war are other factors impacting imports of newsprint by the Indian newspaper industry. The price of imported newsprint is touching US$ 1,000 per ton today, which is said to be more than double the price before the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Recovery in the print media industry is patchy
The newspaper industry has recovered from the pandemic lows, but the bounce back is much slower in comparison to other print segments. Consequently, publishers have resorted to cutting the number of pages to save costs.
According to a recent report by the New Indian Express, the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) Kerala regional committee has urged the immediate intervention of the central and the state governments to curb the rising price of newsprint following the Russia-Ukraine war.
In a statement, MV Shreyams Kumar, chairman of INS-Kerala regional committee, said about 45% of the newsprint imports are from Russia. Nearly 50% of the input cost of the newspaper business is for newsprint. “Following the imposition of sanctions by the US and Europe on Russia, the newsprint prices have spiked,” he said.
Thakur, in his reply in the Lok Sabha, said that the central government in February 2020 reduced the basic customs duty on newsprint from 10% to 5%. The minister added that the government has received representations from the newspaper industry for a further cut in the basic customs duty, which is being examined by the central government. At the same time, the government has instituted a system for registering and recording all paper imports, which could help it to evaluate the opportunities for increasing paper manufacturing in the country, including newsprint.