In India’s ‘Brass City’, an Overwhelmingly Muslim Workforce Stares at a Looming Crisis
Moradabad: Since his early teens, 45-year-old Ashaqeel (who goes only by his first name) has been working as an artisan smelting and casting brass in a cubby-hole furnace area, in the Peerzada locality of western Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad. But despite over three decades of work, he has never felt as anxious about his prospects as he does now.
“Local authorities have increasingly raised concerns about our brass production units, labelling them to be polluters, and we’ve been asked to relocate or shift to different methods of production. Where do we go when we’ve been working here for the past three decades and beyond?” a weary Ashaqeel asked.
Moradabad was once known as India’s ‘peetal nagri (brass city)’, but now a growing number of locals involved in the industry are expressing unease at what they see as an increasingly bleak future.
Despite the city’s famous brass industry being part of the Union and UP government’s flagship ‘One District One Product’ scheme, demand for the metal has declined.
“The brass industry is now worth Rs 8,000-9,000 crore at best. Until 2008-09, the turnover was at least Rs 20,000 crores,” a member of Moradabad’s Brass Manufacturers Association, Azam Ansari, informed The Wire. The former board member in the All India Handicrafts Board stressed that the sharp decline in the metal’s international demand had also affected them. “Over 50% of brass manufacturing units and 25-30% of our export units have shut down in the last decade,” he pointed out.
Already under distress since the twin blows of demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the onset of the pandemic, and the rising cost of raw materials and coal forced thousands to migrate. Brass is now said to make up just 20-25% of the metal industry in Moradabad. “Aluminium has taken over and is now at least 70% of the industry,” Ansari said.
Moradabad’s industry has a three-stage production process, starting with artisans or karigars who form the backbone of the trade and undertake the work of casting, engraving and polishing the metal. The two other prominent players are the manufacturers and exporters. The divide between the three types of workers has widened over the past decade.
“The son of an exporter has access to more profits, more money. If the exporter is making Rs 6,000 on a big order, the manufacturer makes Rs 4,000-5,000 while the artisan makes Rs 500-600 at best and is still a piece-rate labourer,” said 52-year-old Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, who has been casting metal in kilns for over four decades.
While wages and profits have stagnated, the latent impact of communalism has also made an impact on the once-thriving industry.
For Muslim-owned businesses and workers, flashbacks to post-riot economic distress
Close to 47% of the city’s population is Muslim and many have been involved in the brass industry. Amongst the various stages of production, Muslims have traditionally dominated in artisan and manufacturing roles. At present, there are approximately 4,000 exporters of brass in Moradabad, a majority of whom are Hindus, according to both Azam Ansari and Z.S. Mansoori, head of the Peetal Basti Dastkar Association.
“The manufacturers and at least 80% of the artisans are Muslim. Hindus are more involved in the labour in terms of packaging and polishing,” Azam Ansari said. At present, there are around 30-40,000 manufacturers and close to 2.5 lakh labourers and artisans in the city – which Ansari claims is a decline from the over five lakh persons employed in the industry in its heydays.
The city has also been the site of UP’s earliest large-scale communal riots in 1980 – the biggest since Partition. A wave of violence began owing to tensions between local Muslims and Hindu Dalit groups near the Idgah area. This culminated on the day of Eid in August, 1980, after rumours spread that Hindus in the area had released a pig in the mosque. Muslims present there requested the police to remove the animal but to no avail.
As things became heated, a few stones were pelted on the police, following which the stationed police and Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) opened fire on the Muslims gathered there. The resultant deaths led to the spread of violence elsewhere, including the rural areas of Moradabad, Aligarh, Bareilly and beyond.
As recently as May 2023, the BJP-led Yogi Adityanath government of the state declared that they would table a report on the riots in the UP assembly, over four decades since the violence.
Writing about the riots’ impact on the city’s brass industry, economist Sami Uddin noted that the communal violence which continued for about four months in Moradabad led to a “sudden fall in production and exports of the industry”. Azam Ansari also said that the scale of violence, “caused the most hardships for Muslim karigars and piece-rate workers” owing to the imposition of curfews and scarcity of raw materials.
Even as the industry bounced back over the next three decades, several workers and industry insiders now express a sense of foreboding.
Rizwan*, a prominent Muslim exporter in the city’s Asalatpur area, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that capital and access to upward mobility amongst Muslims in the industry has been waning. “At least three generations of my family have been in this business and we have seen its dividends till around 2010, but my children don’t want to join this line of work. They will settle abroad for good. There is very little scope to grow now,” he admitted.
He said that industries that once offered socio-economic mobility for local Muslims, were now being targeted across UP, albeit “silently”.
One of the first moves of the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in UP in 2017 was enforcing stricter guidelines on the sale of meat, as well as closure of several private slaughterhouses. Coupled with draconian anti-cow slaughter laws, these changes have directly impacted the meat and leather industries in the state. “If you look at the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) space, we can feel social pressures affecting our businesses,” Rizwan said.
He further emphasised, “Moradabad’s brass industry was dominated by Muslims, Aligarh’s locks industry has been dominated by Muslims. In Saharanpur, the wooden goods industry, then you have zari-zardozi work and even Banarasi silks also see a strong Muslim presence, the leather hub of Kanpur-Unnao has always seen upward mobility for Muslims. Now our qasais (butchers) and hoteliers are being threatened for selling meat, our businesses being boycotted. While it is not always overt targeting, a lot of us do sense an insidious, invisible attack”.
No state support, loss of artisan cards and a quiet exodus
Despite being a Padma Shree awardee, 75-year-old Dilshad Hussain believes that the brass business has become unsustainable. Hussain and his six children, as well as his wife, all work out of the bylanes of Kaitwali Masjid locality and have even received commissions for the Prime Minister’s Office, foreign dignitaries and bureaucratic officials. “[But] it’s not a regular job, I get commissioned for an order around once in three months, then there are months where no work is given at all,” he said.
Both he and all his children have won state and national-level awards for the engraving work. He also undertakes training programs, seminars and workshops as part of the government’s ‘Skill India’ initiative. “But where once upon a time, we could make 100 pieces in one go, we now receive only limited advance pay for orders and can make just 50 to 60 pieces,” the septuagenarian said.
Akarigar in the industry earns approximately Rs 12-13,000 on average, and at best a monthly earning of Rs 20,000. Adding to their woes is the central government’s halting of various schemes. “If you look at the policies introduced between 2004-08, all of them have effectively stopped. First, there was the artisans credit card yojana where loans were given to artisans at a 4% yearly interest. Now that is no longer the case and we have MUDRA loans at 12% yearly interest with taxes that come to almost 22% annually. Artisans’ identification cards have also stopped being circulated, last reissued in 2017,” Ansari told The Wire.
Even though the Ministry of Textiles under the development commissioner for handicrafts allows applications for obtaining Aadhaar-linked photo identity cards, Ansari said that “cards are not being issued at the moment”. In 2014, the textiles ministry had passed a decision to link the cards to each artisan’s Aadhaar.
“The advantage of this was that if a karigar goes abroad, then his Aadhaar-linked card would show his identity as that of an artisan affiliated to the Indian government. This provided them much-needed identification to go showcase their work at international exhibits and fairs. It also gave them the patronage that they were official, government-recognised artisans,” Ansari added. Rahman also pointed out that smaller karigars were earlier able to go to nearby states and showcase their work in exhibits across cities, but that has taken a hit now.
While the Adityanath government has been making a big push for their ‘One District One Product’ scheme to boost industrial production and exports, the institution developed for training and technological-development in the brass industry, lies stagnant. The Metal Handicrafts Service Center was inaugurated in the city in 1983, but it was relaunched just last year in 2022.
“For decades, it seems as if there was a vested interest in letting this institute stagnate and hence shut down, which would only affect the future generations and their economic prospects in the brass industry. It’s locals who put up a fight to ensure training and skill development takes place here. During the pandemic (2020-2021), neither state nor central government gave grants to the institute and people had to earn their salaries by themselves, by holding paid courses here instead of the teaching staff being paid by the government,” said Ravindra Kumar, who heads the centre.
Kumar pointed out how many small exporters and metal-traders from across the country would come here for upskilling, testing of products and certification. “There’s over 800 types of tests here, it’s completely controlled by the government and is an accredited laboratory. But our salaries aren’t paid by the government so we have to charge fees for training or conducting workshops to pay our salaries,” he said.
Notably, he informed that other MSME enterprises receive both training and salaries from the ministry of textiles, such as the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology and Indian Institute of Carpet Technology.
“We have repeatedly been writing letters to the ministry seeking financial assistance of just Rs 4 crores. If the other institutes are getting Rs 5 crores, or Rs 100 crores, at least give us 4 crore to make this space world-class and better-equipped,” Kumar said.
Seen as ‘polluters’, metal workers forced out of jobs
After the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reprimanded state authorities in 2018 for disposal of electronic waste on the banks of the Ramganga river in Moradabad, the UP government decided to shut down metal factories operating in the region citing a violation of pollution norms. As a result, at least 75 brass-making units were closed.
Today, workers such as Aashaqeel suffer losses. “Government officials have flagged pollution as a problem for the last 8 to 10 years. We’ve been asked to relocate or shift to different methods of production. The government is saying these are the NGT’s orders so we must comply. But at least tell us about alternatives then, or do we just stop making our living and let this industry die?” he asked.
For 53-year-old brass urn manufacturer Raees Ahmed, no one in his family’s upcoming generations will enter this line of work. Such engraved urns are exported to the USA and Europe and used to store the remains of loved ones, or items of the deceased such as spectacles, cufflinks, a watch, etc by Christians in foreign countries.
Ahmed claims that work has dropped down to just 25% of what it once was. Where once, an artisan made Rs 500 they now make Rs 350 at best. “My father, his father and his brothers, and grandfather’s father were all associated with the brass industry in one way or another. People now realise there’s no money in this line of work, and high cost of production.”
The people making ingots and undertaking the casting of metals are the ones who face the brunt of pollution norms. “Earlier I had around 50 artisans doing the engraving work, now that has gone down to 15 people. A lot of artisans have migrated out of Moradabad, and gone to Bangladesh and Nepal to work. Others have taken to jobs like driving e-rickshaws,” Ahmed told The Wire.
52-year-old Haji Amin concurs. Amin has been working for the past 24 years manufacturing Buddhist singing bowls made up of brass and aluminium. “Earlier, we had around 30 people working at our workshop, now it’s just five people. Our work particularly declined after GST was introduced. Where an item was earlier sold for Rs 100, it’s now retailing at Rs 120. Because countries like Nepal have caught up and now compete with us on pricing for buyers, it is manufacturers in Moradabad who’ve suffered,” Amin pointed out. Since raw materials which go into smelting the brass are taxed under GST, costs of production have now risen and so have the prices for finished products. As a result, producers from the city are losing out to cheaper products from Nepal and Bangladesh.
He said that a “big chunk” of karigars had migrated to Nepal, Bangladesh and the Gulf over the past decade.
“There is rising unemployment here. Which youth wants to work amongst dust, the lack of safety next to a furnace and this heat? My father and grandfather were associated with this line of work. I have four sons, all of them are working in the same industry but my grandchildren will not. It’s getting harder for our community to feel safe as it is, so if a child is well-educated, why make brass utensils when they can leave and aspire towards a good government job?” Amin added.
Sabah Gurmat is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. This story is part of an ongoing series on the socio-economic decline of industries and businesses led by Muslims.
Reporting for her article was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.