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Dark horse

Home to a world-class auto parts firm and an animation start-up with international clients, Solapur is much more than a fading textile town, reports Sumana Ramanan.

india Updated: Oct 05, 2009 01:47 IST
Sumana Ramanan

In a massive yard resembling an indoor stadium sit rows of cartons headed for Brazil. They hold crucial auto parts that will power General Motors’ cars in South America.

This facility just outside Solapur belongs to Precision Camshafts, India’s largest maker of camshafts, which control how much fuel and water enter the engine and how much exhaust leaves it.

When he founded the company 15 years ago, Yatin Shah, a fifth-generation Solapur native descended from Gujarati grain traders, had a tough time convincing Indian firms to outsource the production of such a crucial part.

Known mainly for its declining textile industry and militant trade unions, Solapur was not the best address for a person undertaking such a task.

Today, all of Tata Motors’ and Hyundai’s vehicles in India run on Shah’s camshafts, as do thousands made by General Motors, Ford, Mercedes, BMW and Porsche.

“People have written this town off, but the reality is very different,” says Shah (48), a Sydenham College alumnus. “This town needs to showcase its strengths very professionally.”

Shah, whose firm is among a handful of the town’s modern enterprises, echoes the sentiments of Solapur’s elite that the town is being judged by its stagnant past, not by its potential.

Nothing major has come to take the place of the textile sector to generate employment and attract new talent. As a result, Solapur does not have a single mall, multiplex, Barista, Café Coffee Day or McDonalds — indicators of the population’s purchasing power.

For decades, Solapur’s textile sector, once famous for its bedsheets, and a smaller beedi industry were the main employers. But six years ago, competition from China forced several units to close, explains P. Gaddam, chairman of the Solapur Powerloom Industry Association.

Their old-fashioned Jacquard looms, little-changed from the Industrial Revolution, could not keep up with changing consumer tastes.

Yet this town of 10 lakh people has a lot going for it, say its entrepreneurs.

Strategically located near the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka borders, it can become a business hub, linking north and south. Land prices are astonishingly low, at Rs 6.5 lakh an acre in the industrial zone, compared with more than Rs 1 crore in Pune.

Six months ago, the city got its first air link, when Kingfisher Airlines began a service to and from Mumbai four times a week. A bigger airport is due to come up in about three years.

It takes only half as long to reach Pune after the railways doubled the tracks. A six-lane highway from Solapur to Pune is on the cards.

Crucially, Solapur has a rapidly growing cluster of good educational institutions, including several engineering and medical colleges.

”The town could become a medical hub, a mini-Vellore,” says Shirish Valsangkar (54), a UK-educated neurologist who runs a hospital serving patients from all over Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Despite being convinced of the town’s virtues, professionals like him are hardly optimistic about the town’s future.

“A lot of what Solapur has is because of Sushilkumar Shinde,” says one entrepreneur, referring to the union energy minister, a Solapur native. “But a lot of what it lacks is also because of him.”

Some feel that Shinde’s urbane daughter Praniti, a Congress candidate in the upcoming Assembly election, might be more dynamic.

Pradeep Aradhye (55), founder of Deca Animation, certainly has high hopes. He runs a production house serving studios from Mumbai to Malibu, but most of the work the firm does is now fairly basic.

He wants to pitch for more challenging projects from his clients in Canada, Germany and the US. In preparation, he plans to move to a building opposite Shah’s Precision Camshafts.

Built to house looms, the building was simply renamed ‘IT Park’ four years ago. But it has remained empty since.

Perhaps Aradhye’s move will help spark the change Solapur longs for.