Hand-stitched shoes sell for a premium; hand-embroidered saris are high fashion. But if everything handmade was equally prized, Uluberia’s shuttlecock makers wouldn’t be facing the challenges they are today.
Forty kilometres from Kolkata, across the Hooghly river, at least 5,000 people in Jadurberia village on the outskirts of Uluberia town—the hub of shuttlecock production in India—have through generations produced shuttlecocks for badminton. But they’re now losing out to automation.
Troubled flight: A worker glues the cotton thread of a shuttlecock for longevity before quality testing. Photographs by Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
“Our children aren’t any longer interested in making shuttlecocks,” says Tushar Sasmal, 51, who has for the past three decades made a living out of binding feathers into shuttlecocks. His son, who dropped out of school, has joined a factory nearby to boost the family income. Sasmal’s deft hands are no match for Chinese automated mass manufacturing —the product in question weighs only 4.74-5.5g, yet survives mighty blows for hours, bouncing off rackets at speeds approaching 300 kmph.
A shuttlecock is made of 16 feathers of identical length, usually of duck or goose, glued and bound together with a string and tucked into a rounded cork base. Uluberia’s producers import the feather from Bangladesh and the cork from Portugal, through traders in Punjab. A synthetic base from China is also used instead of cork. Currently, there are around 15 companies operating in Jadurberia.
It takes several hours to make one shuttlecock because each feather has to be washed in detergent several times and sun-dried for hours before being trimmed at both ends and tucked into the rounded base.
Led by firms such as DB Pandit & Co. and S Niyogi & Co., 80 small units in Jadurberia produce thousands of shuttlecocks a day. But business is shrinking—peak sales volume has dwindled by half in the past two-three years, though the figures were not immediately available.
Japanese sporting equipment manufacturer Yonex Co. Ltd’s shuttlecocks, produced in China, are now eating into the market of these indigenous producers. Founded in 1946, Yonex, a key sponsor of the Badminton Association of India, claims more than 80% of professionals worldwide use its rackets. Its shuttlecocks are made of tougher feathers than those produced in Uluberia and last longer, according to Sekhar Chandra Biswas, secretary of the West Bengal Badminton Association. Imported from China, Yonex’s shuttlecocks stand out for their superior flight quality, which makes the sport more competitive, he says.
In the past two years, Yonex shuttlecocks have been used in all key tournaments here, both at the state and national levels. Professionals use its shuttlecocks even for practice, says Biswas.
A Yonex barrel, which contains 12 shuttlecocks, sells for around Rs 900, whereas a barrel of 10 pieces of the best-quality shuttlecocks produced in Uluberia costs Rs 500. The wages of Uluberia’s shuttlecock workers are failing to keep pace with inflation—they earn Rs 120-125 a day—and their children are leaving in search of greener pastures.
But though they are beginning to lose out, nearly 1,000 barrels of shuttlecocks are still produced every day in Jadurberia in the peak season of December-January. The barrels are sold in states such as Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, according to Sankar Pandit, a partner at DB Pandit & Co, which produces around 130 barrels a day during the peak season.
He blames Indian shuttlecock producers for their fading fortunes. They could not expand the market beyond the shores of India because some companies exported poor-quality material in the early 2000s in an attempt to make a fast buck, he says. It cost Indian producers their credibility and doors were slammed on them.
Yonex is perhaps not the last challenge Indian shuttlecock producers will have to stand up to—the next could well be the synthetic shuttlecock. It hasn’t come to India yet, but it’s fast gaining acceptance elsewhere —it’s cheaper and may wipe out feathered shuttlecocks if it can equal them in flight quality. And if Indians start using them, Uluberia’s shuttlecock makers may find themselves facing an even bigger test.