Paper shortage sounds death knell for printing industry

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Many of the protests these days, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation have creative approaches. In one such protest, authors and book publishers were seen carrying their demands and agitations written on leaves, as the industry is struggling with severe paper and other material shortages.

“Solve the paper and printing material crisis,” they demanded.

A debilitating economic crisis brought on by a shortage of foreign exchange reserves to finance essential imports, has seen the country run low on food, fuel, and pharmaceuticals. Although officials are desperately trying to rein in the worsening foreign debt crisis and shore up external reserves by requesting the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the future of the cash-strapped Nation is still uncertain.

Although the people immediately feel the gravity of shortage of fuel, medicine, and food, they don’t seem to understand the impact of the economic crisis on industries like printing.

Agitations of parents and teachers

This situation reached its climax and made international headlines, after the authorities announced in March that school term tests had to be postponed in the Western Province due to lack of printing paper.

“School principals cannot hold the tests as printers are unable to secure foreign exchange to import paper and ink,” the Department of Education of the Western Province said.

Not only that, the authorities also said printing of school textbooks had come to a halt. The parents and teachers allege that the children did not receive all the textbooks for the year.

“My nephew, who is in Grade 5 this year, only received some textbooks. So I gave him the books used by my son,” a parent said.

A teacher who is in charge of a Grade 7 class in a rural area, told Ceylon Today that the school did not receive many textbooks this year.

“For example, students in my class did not receive the Sinhala textbook. As a last resort, I used my personal contacts and got a few books that were used for many years. A majority of those books are not in good condition. So, I advised the children to share the books as much as possible.”

“Not only that, when I went to buy a bulk of additional working books (cheda poth), I found the price of that particular book had been more than doubled due to paper shortage and printing costs. Fortunately, I had ordered the books and paid an advance a few months ago. Therefore, the books were bought for the older price,” she said.

Another teacher, who is in charge of primary grades, said there is a shortage in working textbooks.

“Some textbooks for primary grade students are designed in a way that students can write and draw on them. So, those types of books cannot be reused. We did not receive these books yet. In normal times, we could have managed by photocopying them. But now, one A4 sheet costs about Rs 15-20. The photocopy charges have increased by a large margin too. We cannot bear this cost,” he said.

Moreover, the parents also complain that the prices of exercise books have skyrocketed. Earlier, Sri Lankan book publishers warned that book publishing for school exercise books has dropped by 70 per cent, mainly due to banks not opening Letters of Credit to import paper.

Printing industry is collapsing

Sri Lanka’s printing industry is facing difficulties to continue operations due to the shortage of raw materials at the moment.

The Book Publishers’ Association recently pointed out that the prices of paper have risen by about 150 per cent amid the prevailing shortage of US dollars to import the paper required to meet the local demand.

The rate of paper imported to Sri Lanka is now gradually declining, compared to 120,000 tonnes of paper imported every month usually, a spokesperson for the National Paper Company Limited told the Media recently.

The printing press owners meanwhile pointed out that there is a shortage of ink and toners as well in the local market.

This situation has severely impacted printing presses and entrepreneurs.

“I have been in the printing industry for nearly two decades. Paper, ink, plates, chemicals, we have none of these now. This is like the death knell of the printing industry. When we tell the customers about the prices of photocopies and papers, they cancel the orders. I do not know what to do anymore,” a printing press owner said.

Impact on newspapers

National newspapers are continuing to print despite the shortage of imported newsprint.

Some newspapers have also cut down on the number of editions and pages. One even suspended publication on Saturday to continue printing its Sunday edition.

Future of books

“Our dreams have been shattered,” a budding author said.

“I was planning to publish my book this year. It was my childhood dream. But now the publishers have halted printing books,” she said.

“Last year, a ream of paper was sold for between Rs 3,400-3,700, but now it is priced between Rs 14,000-15,000. According to the importers, this is a result of difficulties in opening LCs. Now, the main paper importers increase their prices weekly. When the printing press owners order 100 paper reams, they only get 15-20. This has become a mafia now,” Kaveesha Nadun Kaggodaarachchi, an author and an owner of a book publishing house said.

“When the country runs out of paper, it will not be available for a lengthy period. We cannot fathom how to price books. A book which was priced at Rs 500 last year, will have to be priced at between Rs 2,000-2,500 in the present circumstances,” he pointed out.

“That is of course, if we could find enough paper to print the book. On the other hand, there is a cardboard shortage. So, printing book covers has been extremely difficult too. To put it simply, we will have to stop printing books if this situation continues. Earlier, we used to publish at least two books per month. Now, we cannot do that. We are forced to publish a book once in three months. Businesses have been crippled,” he stressed.

By Methmalie Dissanayake