WHEN THE BARÇA XI, LED BY THE world’s greatest footballer Messi, don their red-and-blue striped tees with the Nike logo, Qatar Foundation and Rakuten emblazoned on them, they sport the colours of a football club aiming for $1 billion in revenue this year. A branded Barcelona FC T-shirt vends for Rs 3,995 a pop at the Nike store. At Delhi’s ‘notorious’ Tank Road market, Rs 450 is the asking price. This can be haggled down further with a shopkeeper who identifies himself as ‘Pintu’ and stocks branded apparel from FILA track pants to Levi’s denims to Manchester United glory scarves and flags in his 40’ x 40’ store. A nudge reveals that while the flags and scarves are sourced from Ludhiana, the other ‘branded’ merchandise make their way from neighbouring Bangladesh into Kolkata as ‘rejects’ with a stitch gone awry or a misplaced logo or any minor defect. Bulk merchants in Kolkata assemble such discards in the Khiddirpore area and dispatch them to various parts of the country “after scissoring out the tag”. However, we found the tags to be intact though the Levi’s logo had been crossed out in a pair of denim.
In the vicinity, similar-sized stores hawk Adidas, Abercrombie, Nike, Superdry and homegrown counterfeits of Allen Solly and Mufti. Some stock their own brands, such as Mac Miller Jeans, Fine Grance, Metol, Mafeking, Menzking and what have you. But the range of counterfeit clothing in the wholesale market is so astounding that in April the US identified, yet again, Tank Road as one of the most notorious markets selling counterfeit products in the world, urging India to take sustained and coordinated enforcement action.
The US Trade Representative’s (USTR) Notorious Markets List highlights 33 online markets and 25 physical markets that engage in and facilitate copyright piracy and trademark counterfeiting. ‘Tank Road remains on the list in 2018. Stakeholders confirm that it remains a market selling counterfeit products,’ the USTR said in its April report, adding the products are supplied to other markets of the country and these wholesalers operate freely, allowing them to build well-established businesses over many years. ‘This activity harms the American economy by undermining the innovation and intellectual property rights of US IP owners in foreign markets. An estimated 2.5 per cent, or nearly half-a-trillion dollars’ worth of global imports are counterfeit and pirated products.’ According to UN Comtrade, at $403.6 million India was the second largest exporter of denim in 2018, after Pakistan ($578.6 million) and before China ($367.4 million). However shop owners and the Tank Road dealers’ association members Open spoke to denied their apparel was being exported, citing the ‘small scale’ of their businesses.
The USTR comes under the direct purview of the executive office of the US president and, the US claims, the publication of the Notorious Markets List helps it prioritise intellectual property rights enforcement efforts that protect job-supporting innovation the world over. As in the past, China continues to be the primary source of counterfeit products. Together with Hong Kong, through which Chinese merchandise often trans-ships, China accounted for 78 per cent of the value (measured by manufacturers’ suggested retail price) and 87 per cent of the seizures by the US Customs and Border Protection in 2017. Some Chinese markets, particularly in larger cities, have adopted policies and procedures intended to limit the availability of counterfeit merchandise.
Swoop-downs are not uncommon at the 15-acre Tank Road market. In May, a team of the Delhi Police’s District Investigation Unit (DIU) raided some shops and seized about 800 pieces of Superdry tees on a complaint from the company, arresting the shop owners on charges of fraud and misrepresentation. But a majority of the vendors are unfazed. “We are here to make a living and contraband is part and parcel of our livelihood… even the poor deserve to sport a Messi T-shirt,” says a vendor on condition of anonymity, who gets his stock-in-trade from a couple of industrial hubs in the National Capital Region, notoriously Nangloi and Uttam Nagar. Others like Anand Parbat, Kirti Nagar, Moti Nagar, Rama Road and a rash of stitching zones in Noida and Faridabad deliver made-to-order garments with tags that can take them to court.
“I have been here for three decades and, of late, selling 10,000 pieces a month, from my contracted tailoring unit in Nangloi Industrial Area in north-west Delhi,” says Balwant Singh, proprietor, Fashion Aliba
On the subject of counterfeits though, studies have found that luxury goods actually benefit from them in the long run. Renée Richardson Gosline, an assistant professor of marketing at MIT Sloan, conducted a study of 112 buyers of luxury bag knockoffs for her PhD thesis (‘The Real Value of Fakes: Dynamic Symbolic Boundaries in Socially Embedded Consumption’) at the Harvard Business School and found that more than 40 per cent bought the real thing within 30 months. Again, in their study titled ‘Jailhouse Frocks: Locating the public interest in policing counterfeit luxury fashion goods’, David Wall, a University of Durham professor of criminology, and Joanna Large observed that the economic damage caused by counterfeiting was one-fifth or less of estimates, and that counterfeiting could actually help luxury labels by raising brand awareness. Wall and Large believe that spending public money in busting those in the knockoff game is futile. Instead, they contend the money should be used to protect customers from dangerous goods. ‘There is an even stronger argument for protecting environments at risk; individuals who are exploited to sell the goods; the counterfeiters’ workers who suffer poor local working conditions and lack normal occupational benefits,’ they write.
All said and done, counterfeit remains a punishable crime under India’s intellectual property laws. But on Tank Road, where the sky too gets robbed with a maze of overhanging cable wires as alleys branch out into indecipherable pigeon holes, a fake is often all it takes.
While executives of Tank Road’s Readymade Garments and Cloth Dealers Welfare Association say there are more than 5,000 shops in the area, police sources put the number closer to 3,000. Annual sales at these shops vary from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 1 crore a year. Footfalls too fluctuate widely from 1,500 to 4,000-5,000 a day, according to the executives. Compared with Delhi’s largest wholesale market, Sadar Bazar, where over 15,000 shops see a daily footfall of over 50,000, according to an Indian Express report, Tank Road looks minuscule. The US certainly doesn’t think so. Nor does the DIU.
“Tank Road specialises in apparel and we travel the world—Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore— every six months to check out the latest trends. We even copy from Bollywood,” says Satwant Singh, president, Dealers Association
That’s because most complaints from global brands about forgery are related to Tank Road wholesalers, two DIU sources who did not want to be named told Open. However, both the DIU and Tank Road police sources admitted that on average, rarely did a month see more than two raids. May was an exception when the market was raided thrice following complaints from Superdry, Mufti and Levi’s. At the time of going to press, Levi’s and Reliance Brands (which manages Superdry in India) had not replied to Open’s queries.
Apparel firms monitor markets on their own through local detective agencies. When they discover instances of counterfeit sales, firms file a criminal case and obtain a search-and-seizure warrant to get the shop owner arrested and the lot seized. Less frequently, a firm takes recourse to a civil suit where their officials accompany a lower court-appointed team on raids. As Tank Road shops are small, lots seized are of 200-250 to 400 pieces each, DIU sources said.
MEN AND MANNEQUINS drape the lanes of Tank Road market. Executives of the dealers’ association feebly protest that there are now a few shops run by women too. In about the half-day spent in the market over two weekends, we didn’t see any. “Those shops are way more interior,” says Rajinder Asija, the 61-year-old treasurer of the dealers’ association during a long chat along with Satwant Singh, president, S Kulvinder Singh Channi, general secretary, and two other members—middle-aged and casually dressed—of the association.
As you hit the main road, ‘touts’ line up on both sides from hole-in-the-wall stores trying to snare you. Both police sources and the dealers’ association however explain it differently. Without these workers to attract clients, the more interior shops, they contend, will lose out on sales.
As for the ‘notorious’ tag, none of the executives, elected by about 2,500 members of the association in January for a two-year term, seem bothered. Channi, 48, got married only a day before our meeting. He produces a notification from the association that reads: ‘4% to 5% some selfish shop owners have damaged the reputation of this market [and] we strongly condemn them.’ This is regarding “those few” who have been selling counterfeits despite repeated warnings of ostracisation by the association and raids by companies and the police. The one-page notification emphasises this point thrice. “It’s been only four months since we were elected yet we have already issued four of these so far,” Channi, wearing a Superdry tee and cheap lycra jeans, says. In contrast to what the US or the police say, the association argues it’s only a case of a few rotten apples. Most shop owners either sell their own low-end brands, which now have a huge local market across the length and breadth of the country among lower-income households, or sell the ‘rejects’ coming from Bangladesh, off which thousands of small traders like Pintu support their families.
“We are here to make a living and contraband is part and parcel of our livelihood. Even the poor deserve to sport a Messi T-shirt,” says Ram (name changed), vendor
Both Singh and Asija agree with Channi when he blames the state for why the Tank Road market remains stuck at the lower end of the sector despite being around for 40 years now. “They have abandoned the small businessman—all the governments,” Channi says. Despite all the excitement around Make in India, Tank Road traders still need to import their stitching equipment. In fact, says Singh—the 58-year-old president came dressed for a formal interview in a cream shirt, black trousers and laced shoes—40 years ago, shops in this market were suppliers to Bata and till about five to seven years ago, there were a little under 10 export houses too. But then Tank Road market—whose origins go further back to the 60s when shops here used to supply artificial hair—moved to leather goods, then to glass and finally to apparel. There is hardly anything else they sell now.
Satyendra Mohan, 53, is a typical shop owner today who started on a shop floor as a stitcher, became a master tailor learning all his skills on the job, then started making his designs and finally set up his own shop. For the first 12 years, he handled equipment. For eight years now, he has been running his own shop, with sales of around Rs 60 lakh a year. They now hire professional fashion designers (when asked how much they pay them, Mohan begins to answer but parries the question midway after Asija gestures at him to keep mum). Many shopowners continue to make their own designs. Take Gaurav Enterprises: it has been selling shirts and trousers under Mafeking and Menzking brands, respectively, registered 20 years ago and the owners still make their own designs. To stay updated, they keep making rounds of trade fairs in cities like Ahmedabad, Delhi, Mumbai and even in Arab countries. Sometimes, one of the owners says, old clients invite them on sponsored trips to trade fairs. Besides, they also keep a tab on TV shows and films to understand changing tastes.
As our conversation progressed, the association executives seemed to be less and less forthcoming on details. Asija’s gesture to Mohan looked less an oddity and more a part of the idea they wanted to project. Neither the USTR report nor the police sources have given any number so far on what is the share of counterfeits in the sales of Tank Road. And everyone from high up the ladder like Singh to close to the bottom, such as Pintu, insists that because of the ‘4% to 5% some selfish shop owners’ the rest are being unfairly tarred with the same brush by bigger players.