Textbook printers in Andhra caught in the tender tangle

For the first time in 25 years, the Andhra Pradesh government has invited tenders from across the country to print textbooks of State-run schools. Nellore Sravani assesses the impact of this unprecedented move on the 60-odd establishments who rely on the government’s annual order

March 01, 2024 07:15 am | Updated 07:16 am IST

A printing press in the Industrial Estate near Nunna, on the outskirts of Vijayawada, wears a deserted look due to the uncertainty caused by a tender issued by the State government inviting printers from outside Andhra Pradesh to take up textbook printing work. 

A printing press in the Industrial Estate near Nunna, on the outskirts of Vijayawada, wears a deserted look due to the uncertainty caused by a tender issued by the State government inviting printers from outside Andhra Pradesh to take up textbook printing work.  | Photo Credit: K.V.S. Giri

It has been nearly three years since Krishna Rao’s printing press at Ajith Singh Nagar in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, saw any activity. Set up in a rented space, the unit was once a source of employment for 40 semi-skilled and skilled workers, most from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 

With mounting expenses and no income, he had to shut it down for two years, in 2022 and 2023. After clearing all his debts gradually over three years, Krishna Rao, whose main business was printing and supplying textbooks to the Andhra Pradesh government, was looking forward to opening his unit again in February. 

But his hopes were dashed last month. On February 2 the government issued a notification inviting tenders from across the country to print the textbooks for students in State-run schools. Printers would also need to procure paper on their own. Earlier, the A.P. government would supply paper to establishments like Krishna Rao’s to print textbooks. This is the first time in 25 years that such a tender has been put out. 

In all, 60 printers, 50,000 employees, and more than 2 lakh people indirectly connected with the trade in the State will be affected by the tender floated by the Department of Andhra Pradesh Government Textbook Press (APGTBP), the printers say. After the deadline to bid for printing of 3.60 crore textbooks, valued at ₹190.31 crore came to a close on February 16, three printers, two from Uttar Pradesh and one from Maharashtra, have reportedly been awarded the work, the printers say. 

Shuttered units, unpaid bills 

Krishna Rao and his peers, engaged mainly in textbook printing in A.P., start the bulk of their work in mid-January, after they receive paper from the government. The hectic run ends before the start of the academic year in June. 

For some, what they earn at this time sustains them and their families for the rest of the year, even though the profit margin is only 5-10%, they claim. Some others, who can afford it, occasionally take up other printing work, such as pamphlets, posters, and wedding cards. Printing of textbooks and printing of cards are done on different machines. 

Usually in February, the presses in Vijayawada-Guntur, a region historically associated with printing, come alive. Workers are hired on a contractual basis from other States, all of whom work towards achieving the target and deadline set by the government. 

All the textbooks and workbooks prescribed for students from Class I to X in government schools across the State are printed here and then transported to the Collectorates of all 26 districts. They are then distributed to children in government schools free of charge under the Centre’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme. 

This time round, many units, including Krishna Rao’s, remain shuttered even in the fourth week of February. One reason is the delay by the State government in paying their bills for the last two years, amounting to ₹56 crore. The other is due to the uncertainty over their livelihoods caused by the tender. 

“There are two main points in the tender,” explains Dhyan Chand, proprietor of another printing press in Vijayawada, which is also on the verge of being shut down.  

“Until last year, each of us required about 140 tonnes of paper and printed 5-6 lakh books. If we are to procure paper from the mills ourselves, we have to spend ₹180 crore and ₹1.5 crore individually. Where will we get this money from? With turnovers not crossing even ₹50 lakh a year, how can we arrange for paper ourselves? If the government does not supply the paper, we have no option but to close our shops,” he says. 

For printing the requisite number of textbooks, around 18,000 tonnes of paper are procured by the State government from mills every year. Earlier, a private mill in Bhimavaram, along with Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited (TNPL), was supplying the paper to the government. After the former shut down four-five years back, the bulk is being supplied by the TNPL.  

According to a letter sent by the TNPL to the judicial preview committee, the government owes them nearly ₹200 crore.  The tender ‘with paper’ has been floated in a bid to circumvent payment of dues to the TNPL, Dhyan Chand says. 

While TNPL officials refused to comment on the issue, the letter, written in response to the tender put up by the APGTBP, said the dues needed to be cleared before any more paper was supplied.  

“Against the previous year’s supply of 16,514 tonnes of paper and 1,326 tonnes of board, the APGTBP has to settle a total outstanding of ₹199.68 crore to TNPL. We have not received payment for a single bill against the previous year’s supplies starting from January 2023,” the letter says, adding that the TNPL was informed that the reason for the delay of payment by A.P. was due to “lack of funds”. In the letter, the TNPL goes on to say that if the APGTBP still proceeds with the tender, the company would have to take legal recourse for collection of dues.

Asked about this, the A.P. Government Textbook Press (APGTBP) Press Director Ravindranath Reddy said the Tamil Nadu government owed some amount to the State in lieu of the Krishna river water sharing. “We had asked them to see if the amount can be adjusted. Discussions are on. Our main priority is supplying textbooks on time for the 2024-25 academic year,” the official said.  

However, printers feel if the government wants timely distribution of books, inviting outsiders is the last thing it should do. “How can they ensure timely delivery, when the printer has his unit outside the State? Here, the department officials conduct regular checks on our units between January and June to monitor the work,” points out Dhyan Chand. 

A printer receives around 150 tonnes of paper for one machine every year. Each of them prints around 6 lakh books in four months, incurring expenses of ₹35 lakh, while the income hovers around ₹50 lakh per machine. As per today’s rate, the cost of printing one page is 7 paise.  

“Two years ago, the government emphasised distributing books with high-quality pages. Most of us spent our savings on upgrading the machines. It cost us ₹10-₹15 lakh. “Now when we have all the machinery and workforce, how can the government give the work to someone else,” asks Chandrasekhar Rao, a member of the Andhra Pradesh Web Offset Printers’ Association. 

Besides, 45 of the 60 printers in the State have small-scale units, with no more than two machines. All are part of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) classification of the Central government (micro being those with no more than an annual turnover of ₹5 crore, small with no more than ₹50 crore, and medium being those with no more than ₹250 crore annual turnover). The most affected are those solely dependent on the textbook printing work and those who had only one or two printing machines. 

Balancing act 

At first, the department had promised local printers that they would be given 25% of the total work this academic year (2024-25). After repeated pleas, the State government said only 33% of this year’s work would be given to the ‘outsiders’, while the rest would come to local printers. 

“After multiple discussions with the government, they have agreed to give us 67% of the work. While this is better than not getting any work at all, we want the government to revert to the old system of supplying paper to us. We will still lose ₹6-7 lakh worth of work because of the participation of ‘outsiders’,” says Chandrasekhar Rao. 

But, the discussions did not yield much on their request for supply of paper from the government. If 67% of work goes to them, each of them may need around 120 tonnes of paper, which would cost them ₹1.25 crore.  

Printers say it takes three to four months of continuous work, with around 150 machines, to print around 4 crore books every year. “The same cannot be done by two or three units. If the government wants quality in textbooks and timely delivery, it is only better that the old system continues, as the three may all use paper of different quality,” Chandrasekhar Rao explains.   

Livelihoods at stake 

Krishna Rao says he had set up the unit in 2019 after working for years in supervisor and managerial roles in the printing industry. The following year, the pandemic broke out. As if that was not enough, the State government did not clear bills for the expenses he had incurred in two years.  

The expenses included wages to the labourers, water charges, electricity bills, repair work, and more. While income per machine is anywhere between ₹40 and ₹50 lakh, the expenses come to around ₹35 lakh. 

Forty unskilled, semi-skilled and highly skilled labourers are employed at a unit to run one printing machine, to bind books, stack and pile them, to load and unload them from the truck, among other jobs. They are paid anywhere between ₹400 and ₹1,000 per day. 

When Krishna Rao shut down his unit, Nagaraju, who used to work as the machine operator there, was forced to hunt for a similar job at other units within the city“I entered the printing business in 1992. I know no other work and have no other skill. It is not just us who will be affected by the new tender, but the families dependent on us — the sweepers, the woman selling chai to us during the February-June season and her family, the truck drivers who transport the books to other districts. They all will be equally hit if work does not come to printers in the State,” Nagaraju says. He is yet to receive three months’ salary, close to ₹1.2 lakh, from his new employer. 

“In the good old days, my employer came to work by car, which he later had to sell. Now he comes on a two-wheeler. This is proof of the grim situation we are in,” he shares. 

(Names of all printers changed on request)

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