For Gautam Nair, MD and CEO of Matrix Clothing, the year 2020 was the toughest in his 41 years of doing business. An exporter of knitwear apparel to countries across the world, Nair’s first quarter was a complete washout.
His factories in Gurgaon and Jharkhand were closed in the months of April and May. However, during this time, Nair got a call from the textile secretary requesting him to use his capacities to make PPE (personal protective equipment) kits.
Nair was among a few key manufacturers in the textile space who got personal calls from the textile ministry to undertake the manufacturing of PPE kits. There were apprehensions about manufacturing an entirely new range of products, and then there were the logistical issues like sourcing the yarn from Ludhiana which would then be spun in Coimbatore. The industry cited concerns regarding moving the product from one location to another during the pandemic when the country was in a lockdown.
Smaller manufacturers like Amitabh Kharbanda of Noida-based Sunlord Apparel, who manufactured about 500 PPE kits in total, says, “There was a sharp learning curve in terms of meeting quality standardsin the initial days, testing took close to three weeks”. However, the bigger manufacturers with greater backward integration were able to pivot into manufacturing masks and PPE overalls quickly.
One of the key challenges was to educate people, including factory owners and workers, on what a PPE kit was and its purpose. There were several hits and misses on meeting quality standards with many manufacturers unable to meet the criteria initially.
The Union textiles ministry and industry chambers organised Zoom calls with industry representatives to demonstrate what a PPE kit should be and educate them about quality standards. Nair, for instance, got several calls from the ministry every day, checking in to see if he needed support on procedural bottlenecks or technical know-how.
PPE samples were sent to Coimbatore for testing in the early days when there was only one testing centre. “They (the ministry of textiles) said they will pay for the transport, the ministry of textiles organised passes for transit,” says Nair.
Rahul Mehta of the Clothing Manufacturer Association of India says: “The ministry (textiles) tried to step in and clear every bottleneck, from personally calling key manufacturers to ensuring that they did not hit any roadblocks. The ministry and the government showed a lot of dynamism.”
Officials from Welspun India talk about the calls from the prime minister’s office and the Gujarat chief minister’s office asking them to set up a manufacturing facility for masks and overalls. The company is largely into home textiles, so they had to set up a separate facility almost overnight to manufacture N-95 masks, respirators and overalls. They began with crude, fabricated, in-house equipment until the imported equipment to manufacture the gear could arrive. The government enabled all the permits, “an entire ecosystem was built”, from knowledge transfer, sessions on R&D, setting up of testing facilities in every state—and all these things happened within no time. India is now producing close to 500,000 PPE suits daily and over 600 companies are certified to manufacture PPEs.
Several stakeholders worked seamlessly to accomplish this stellar feat of India becoming the second largest manufacturer of PPE body overalls in the world (next only to China). Getting factories up and running and importing equipment to manufacture the PPE kits required permissions to come through, and textile ministry officials hand-held the companies through the process. At a time when the country was under a lockdown and movement was restricted, the ministry reached out to consulates in countries where equipment had to be imported from, arranging passes for smooth transit of the PPE gear.
Permissions to open factories to manufacture the PPE gear came through seamlessly in the first week of April. A single window procurement agency, Hindustan Lifecare Ltd, set guidelines on how to manufacture PPE kits after reports of faulty PPE kits flooded the market. The agency procures the kits from the manufacturers and distributes them.
According to a report by Invest India, a government agency for investment promotion and facilitation, the global PPE kits market is worth $52 billion (Rs 3.8 lakh crore) and India is a $1 billion (Rs 7,300 crore) market. Medical textiles is a relatively new industry for India. This market too was largely dominated by China. In the initial days, when the factories had to be opened during the peak of the pandemic, villagers had to be convinced to allow workers from there to join work in the factories. A lot of convincing went into getting workers into the factories–several factories got workers to stay on the shop-floors to allay fears that they would bring the virus back home.
Matrix Clothing, however, is not planning to continue manufacturing PPE kits, as other orders resume and markets across the globe open again. As players like Matrix withdraw from the medical textiles space, it is now up to the government and textile manufacturers to establish a sustained record in terms of deliverability and quality of medical textiles.
China, according to the General Administration of Customs, saw its textile exports jump by 30.4 per cent in 2020 on the back of demand for face masks and PPE. Vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu in January said that India’s apparel industry must aim to capture a double digit share in global fabric exports from the current level of 5-6 per cent. For this to happen, he called for upskilling of textile and apparel workers and adoption of latest technologies. Budget 2021-22 calls for setting up of seven mega textile parks to boost exports and jobs. India has set a stellar example of what it can accomplish if industry and government work in tandem. Letting go of this momentum would be a waste.