Mumbai’s schoolchildren can teach China a lesson – that is what an association of school principals in the city believes. On Monday, July 10, it called for a boycott of Chinese goods in light of continuing tension between India and China in Sikkim, where a face-off between soldiers from both sides over the construction of a road on the Doklam plateau has been on for more than a month.

“With the Chinese government using its military might against India, as citizens, we should ensure that we do not help the Chinese economy to grow,” said Prashant Redij, secretary of the Mumbai Schools Principals Association. The association – which has around 1,900 principals as members and governs numerous schools in the city – has decided to appeal to students and heads of schools to stop using stationery and other articles made in the East Asian country, in a bid to inculcate patriotism. “If parents consciously decide to buy local products, it will boost our own economy instead of contributing to the Chinese economy,” Redij added.

Adding to the boycott chorus, an Andheri-based non-governmental organisation has announced protests against Chinese imports to send “a message of patriotism among masses”. Such protests are not new in India. In October, a social media campaign to boycott Chinese products had followed China’s decision to back Pakistan by vetoing India’s plea to the United Nations to name Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

But what is the plausibility of such a boycott in a city as sprawling as Mumbai? Most shopkeepers on Bazaar Road, a market in the western suburb of Bandra, at least, seemed unconvinced that they could get their customers to switch from the cheaper and more popular Chinese imports to Indian products.

Cheap and cheerful

Bazaar Road is chock full of stationery, apparel and toy stores selling brightly coloured plastic bags, pencil boxes and clothes emblazoned with cartoon characters. “Chinese products come in various forms into the Indian market and they are very cheap,” said Aslam of Al Burhan Collections, one such shop. “Even if we do advertise the Indian branded ones to the customers, they do not go for it.”

From affordability to novelty, shopkeepers here are unanimously on the same page about the foreign products’ undeniable presence in every shop. “Almost 99% of my shop is filled with China-made articles,” said the shopkeeper at Popular Stores, also on Bazaar Road. “The making charges for Chinese-made products is much less, which makes their buying price also very cheap.”

Raju Agowane, the owner of a hole-in-the-wall shoe store in Bandra, held up two pairs of slippers, one made in China and the other in India, to explain the difference between the two. With its shiny plastic, the black pair evidently stands out as a Chinese item and costs Rs 100. The pink footwear, on the other hand, is priced at Rs 140 and is made in India.

The China-made black plastic shoes come for Rs 100, Rs 40 less than the pink India-made slippers, at Raju Agowane's shop.

In the 1970s, China introduced economic reforms that stepped up its manufacturing capacity. Decades later, it exports cheaply produced goods to many countries in Asia and Africa, including India. But affordability is not the only reason why its products reign over Indian markets. “Be it a pen or a pouch, children like them to be different and colourful,” Aslam said. “The Chinese products give them just that. It is that simple.”

Farooq Sheikh, who sells clothes, agreed. Holding up a pair of cotton pyjamas in a dull shade against striking synthetic ones plastered with images of Cinderella and Princess Jasmine, he asked, “With both the pyjamas priced at Rs 150, why would a child go for the cotton one when she gets to show off her favourite cartoons for the same price?”

Chinese pyjamas with images of Cinderella and Princess Jasmine (left) and India-made pyjamas at Farooq Sheikh's store.

It is the same story with the lunch bags sold in Mohammad Ansari’s store. Both cost Rs 150, but one features Disney stars while the other is a printed jute bag.

Mohammad Ansar says the Chinese lunch bag (with characters from the film Frozen) are a hit compared to the Indian jute bag.

With affordability, however, comes a fall in the product’s durability. But that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

“There is no use for products like rain shoes or baby strollers once the need passes,” Aslam said. Another retailer added that while most Indian goods come with guarantees, customers prefer use-and-throw articles to running around in circles to get their products fixed.

Also, while there are abundant Indian versions of Chinese products, available at a slightly higher cost, there are a few products that are exclusively made-in-China, the shopkeepers said. Mosquito racquets and remote-controlled toys, for instance. “Their robotic technology enables them to produce even the most intricate things,” said Huzaifa of Saifee Stores and Stationery. “When India starts manufacturing goods like the mosquito bat, which is a necessary household item, maybe then people will stop buying China-made imports.”

Patriotism versus trade

On a street in this neighbourhood, a woman in her early 60s dug through a pile of frocks and shirts for children. She was picking out clothes for her grandson. “Change is not new under the Modi government,” said Neeta Modi, laughingly pronouncing her last name. Mistaking the boycott call for an advisory from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she added, “Look at how many changes have been thrown at us. If we can accept demonetisation and GST [the goods and services tax], we can lay off the Chinese products too for some time.”

Rukaiya, another grandmother keenly eyeing onesies and nightwear for her grandchildren at a store in Bandra’s Elco shopping arcade, declared that she does not purchase Chinese goods but is nevertheless shocked by the call for a boycott. “Patriotism and trade are two different things,” she said. “These two must never be mixed up since the profit made is mutual between both countries.”

A street-side apparel store in Bandra.

Ramesh, the shopkeeper at Gemini Stationery, admitted, “If the boycott does happen, our businesses will definitely be hit because more than half our products are China-made.” Notebooks and paper, however, are mostly manufactured in India, he added.

Many among the market’s smaller retailers echoed Ramesh’s view and affirmed that a boycott of Chinese goods would lead to losses.

But the locality’s bigger shops do not think the same. “If the government helps us do it, then why not?” asked Bharat of Twinkle Gifts. “There is no case of loss as it is an advantage for India only.”

But Iqbal, the owner of a toy shop, pointed out that Indian manufacturers would have to up their game if they were to seriously compete with China. “We will be more than happy to sell it [Indian products], but for that to happen, we need to make more in India,” he explained.

The question that remains is: will this latest boycott call in any way boost the “make in India” campaign, as the association of school principals believes?

As Iqbal summed it up: “People are so used to Chinese goods. All of this is good to hear, but I am not sure if a complete boycott is possible.”