Bhumika Sharma was flicking the pages of her academic book in her study while sipping lemon tea when she received notification on her Smartphone that Atlas Cycle (Haryana) Ltd is closing its operations on June 3.
Rush of memories associated with the Atlas cycle started flashing before her eyes as to how she would paddle 10km from her village to Sonipat city for education from class 6th till her higher education.
“I am a lecturer in Sonipat’s GVM College today. Girls like me cannot imagine their dream fulfilled today of having made a respectable position for themselves without the enabling factor that the iconic Atlas cycle made for us”, claimed Bhumika.
Early morning, girls would leave in batches from rural areas coming to Sonipat city on Atlas cycle as transportation facilities were not so reliable those days and parents would permit girls to make to and fro movement on cycles.
It was a cheaper mode of transportation, considered to be safer as traffic would not be a major issue then and parents used to believe that cycling would also give their daughters better height apart from other health benefits.
Getting nostalgic of old days, she said that the Atlas cycle which was bought for nearly 1400; it was like a companion that always held her head high during teenagers cycling competitions while coming back from school.
“Closing down of Atlas news comes as an album of my childhood memories is being wiped out and unfortunately I can do little”, she added.
Bhumika is not only the one who is going to miss-the iconic brand from the roads, in the parking lot, outside college libraries but people those who grew between 1960 to 2000 especially have a special bond with Atlas brand.
But all this is now going down in memory lanes after Atlas Cycles (Haryana) Ltd announced to lay off its employees from its most successful Sahibabad plant on June 3coinciding with the World Cycle Day.
To the utter shock of its employees, a notice found pasted on the factory’s gate that read “the company had been passing through financial crises for several years and had depleted all its funds to keep the factory afloat. But now, there are no funds left. We are facing difficulty in arranging funds for our day-to-day operations. We are also unable to buy raw materials. In these conditions, the management is not in a position to operate the factory”.
Despite lots of hue and cry by employees unions and protests by political parties in support of working people, the management of Atlas Cycles Haryana Ltd remained non-committal citing their financial condition.
The Management Issues
There is no one ready to speak at the Sonipat bicycle plant on this matter. The gates remained closed mostly with only some selected employees permitted to enter.
NP Singh Rana, spokesperson of Atlas Cycles from Sahibabad factory claimed that 420 employees have been laid off but they would get 50% of their wages. For that they are to come to the company’s premises for marking attendance daily on working days.
On the way out of this crisis, Rana the matter is subjudice in the National Company Law Tribunal and to pay off the debts of the suppliers/vendors of raw material, a permission to sell a part of the company’s land pool has been requested.
He said that the financial crunch is being faced by the company but suppliers/vendors would be made their due payment running in several crores. To meet this challenge, a call to close down the plant on a temporary basis has been made and hopeful the problem would be fixed to reopen it again.
Atlas Cycles Haryana Ltd was set up by its founder Jankidas Kapoor in 1951, one and half decades before the Haryana state came into being on November 1, 1966 by separating from Punjab.
Despite making a modest beginning under a tin-shed, the business acumen of Jankidass grew it into factory sprawling in 25 acres in Sonipat to become the official supplier of bicycles in the 1982 Asian Games held in Delhi.
In later years, his sons spread iconic brand business to two other states. One plant was set up in Mallanpur (Madhya Pradesh) and then in Sahibabad (Uttar Pradesh).
Narender Solanki (name changed) who got recruited as draftsman in 1989 in Sonipat’s bicycle plant and rose to the post of manager remembers the last thirty years in Atlas Company from its best years to the worst days.
“When I started it was a company that used to take care of its employees like a mother. Apart from salaries and perks for showing dedication in the work, it used to have highly subsidized food canteen for its employees, education facilities for children. Needy employees would be given loans, gifts, clothes on special occasions”, said Solanki who gave his thirty one years to Atlas.
He said that he saw the time when companies would get orders in lakhs from country and abroad because of its brand value and there used to be competitions to have an association with Atlas.
But after 2004, things started drifting towards the south after factories started witnessing loss due to tough competition outside to the fancy cycles and partially to the mismanagement of the owners.
“All three bicycle plants had maintained one balance sheet which means loss at one plant would drain the funds of other two plants. First, Malanpur plant was shut down due to losses then Sonipat plant and finally notice was served to the employees of Sahibabad plant “, he added.
Father of three children, Solanki said that he is on the verge of retirement with the responsibility of their education, marriage is standing on his head and at this juncture the company has turned its back on him.
“I gave my sweat and blood to Atlas for three long decades so that I can afford quality education, career and life for my children but all is gone”, he rued. He said that he started for paltry Rs. 1100 and now had a salary of Rs. 30,000 per month.
On the reasons, he said that the Atlas brand is not gone obsolete but is still popular in public and even vendors/suppliers based in Ludhiana are ready to support even by going the extra mile to save the iconic brand but management seem to be less enthusiastic on giving it a new lease of life.
Bicycle and cycle parts industry is mostly concentrated in Ludhiana of Punjab where nearly 4500 manufacturing units are present.
Not only Atlas brand, but the cheap imports of Chinese have ruined the business of local manufacturers, ancillary units in past some years.
Even many bicycle manufacturers have turned their business model to suppliers of Chinese goods to thrive and sustain.
Indian cycle industry is worth a Rs 6000 crore business per year.
Experts said that import of Chinese cycle parts including pedals, chains, brakes, frame, spokes and seats among others have increased dramatically since 2011.
Low steel price in China is considered to be one reason for their cheap goods manufacturing that has weakened the Indian cycle industry.
Misuse of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) has also been described as one of the reasons for the growing influence of cheap Chinese cycle parts in India.
Cycle parts manufacturers in Ludhiana have developed deep connections with the Chinese producers due to which the local industry has been hit hard including the brand Atlas.
Experts find that due to lack of infrastructure and weak technology here, Chinese high-end bicycles are beating local bicycles on their own turf. The high-end shiny bicycles are dominating the minds of youngsters like Atlas would do before 2000.
Despite the sturdiness, durability, brands like Atlas are losing to Chinese products due to expensive raw-materials which latter have the advantage of cheap raw material and labour.
On their association with Atlas bicycle-Lalit Aggarwal from Bhiwani who is Chartered Accountant by profession from Bhiwani recalls that he was bought an Atlas bicycle by his father for education purposes.
“Later, we used the bicycle for transportation of buffalo milk to colonies to support the family expenses. I owe my education and struggle time to the brand Atlas”, added Aggarwal.
Dayanand Poonia, a farmer leader, remembers that earlier gifting Atlas cycle, HMT watch and Phillips radio was a matter of prestige in marriages in Haryana and every Haryanvi men above 40 years hold a special connection with a cycle popularly called ‘Kala Ghoda’.
Deepak Singh Dhillon, a cycle enthusiast said that when he was a child he would dream of owning an Atlas bicycle one day but now the priorities have been shifted to a gear-cycle like Firefox etc…