At IIT Delhi's industrial design studio, for instance, the students have found India's very own answer to Spiderman and Superman. He is the Pandava brother Bhim, whose exploits are of epic proportions, and whose resonance is far-reaching in the Indian context. He is currently on the drawing board stage at IIT Delhi's design centre, the faint contours of Mahabharata's muscular warrior prince just beginning to acquire line and length. Once he takes definite shape, the toy Bhim will be marketed by the toy industry.
And Bhim won't be the only toy to emerge out of the IIT design studios. As part of a tripartite agreement between the Toy Association of India (TAI), the IITs in Delhi and Mumbai and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the students are conceptualising and designing a whole range of playthings, traditional and contemporary.
The games also have to be designed to entertain and educate. So, the traditional snakes and ladders gets a twist and is recast as a game that tracks the migratory habits of birds around the world. A wrong number means a spiral down the snake but the right number takes you up the step ladder towards migration. Says its creator Pradip Chaudhary: "I realised that while snakes and ladders was entertaining, there was nothing much to learn from the game. My version will help children learn not only about birds but about the paths they take to migrate around the world." TAI is looking at retailing this game at Rs 150, but Chaudhary, who passed out in industrial design this year from IIT Delhi, thinks it could be much cheaper.
To help the effort, the Centre, UNIDO and the toy industry have pooled in over Rs 1 crore for the project in IIT Mumbai. While toy manufacturers see this as a chance to stem the tide of Chinese toys, the IITs are looking at it as a constructive effort to practise what they are taught. As the head of the design department at IIT Delhi L.K. Das says, "This should have happened long ago."
Game’s up: An Indian exhibition of toys, but with a foreign look
Das talks of the immense potential Indian toys have, if designed and marketed well. "We have the manufacturing capacity," he says, "but not the wherewithal to utilise that capacity to full advantage." It is here that he thinks the IITs can step in and create toys that can not just entertain children but be intellectually stimulating as well.
Everyone is agreed on the potential of the market. TAI estimates Indian toys contribute less than 0.5 per cent of the trade which stands at $10 billion. "It's time we recognised the potential of the market and applied ourselves to it," says Sunil Nanda, vice president, TAI.
The effort seems to be bearing fruit, if one were to go by how Tangle is doing. Conceptualised by IIT Mumbai, it is a two-player game where a child has to pre-empt and block moves by his opponent, quite like chess, but not really the same. Priced at Rs 125, it was introduced recently and, according to Ravindra Porwal of Olympia Games and Toys in Mumbai, is doing well in the market. "With toys like these, we can go to the international market," he says.
Things hadn't looked up for the Indian toy industry ever since toys had been removed from the restricted list of imports in 2000 and customs duty reduced from 80 per cent to 35 per cent as per the wto agreement two years later. As a result, initially, professional importers started dumping the Indian market with cheap toys. Unable to keep up with the competition, 40 per cent of the small manufacturers had to shut shop.
When it realised the beating Indian exports—around $25 million crores for 2002—were taking as a result of its measures, the Indian government decided to undo some of the damage. It launched a National Programme for the Development of the Toy Industry in association with UNIDO and TAI in 2002. The project, however, has taken off only in recent days.
"For too long," says former IIT Mumbai lecturer Kiran Kulkarni, "have we imitated global markets and ignored our Indian manufacturers who made traditional toys. We have to shift the cultural focus of toys and look at our own capacity." Kulkarni has designed a game that encourages mountain climbing and teaches a thing or two about trekking in the hills. Another game—Discover India—acquaints the player with the geography of India in engaging edutainment.
Toy manufacturers are upbeat about all this activity. The industry's present retail turnover is Rs 1,200 crore in the organised sector, and Rs 2,300 crore in the unorganised sector, with an annual growth rate of 12 per cent. And though China and Hong Kong retain the lion's share—around 60 per cent—in the global export of toys, which is estimated to be around $110 billion, the depreciation of the Chinese currency against the Indian rupee could be a setback for them and a bonus for us. Equally encouraging is the trend of American and European toymakers and traders seeking alternative manufacturing bases in Southeast Asia. And with the IITs playing their part, this is one toy story sure to have a happy ending.