This year, as one of the largest and most anticipated sports events culminate in Brazil, we as Pakistanis certainly have a reason to rejoice and celebrate. We couldn’t send a Pakistani football team to the FIFA World Cup 2014, but we did manage to send Pakistani manufactured footballs — the Adidas ‘Brazuca’ as the official World Cup football is called.
Forward Sports, a firm based in the country’s and perhaps the world’s leading football manufacturing hub, Sialkot, was given the contract by Adidas to supply the official footballs for the FIFA World Cup. And this I believe is a strong enough reason for us to celebrate.
It seems like an interesting and fortunate coincidence that right when I, along with two other team members, was about to wrap up our research on Sialkot, Forward Sports received the contract for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. What started off as a research project on Sialkot’s industrial clusters and private collective action in January this year, inevitably led to a fascinating glimpse into the football manufacturing industries in the city. This was hardly surprising: sports goods in general and footballs in particular have after all come to define Sialkot and its status as Pakistan’s export hub.
Few cities in Pakistan can claim to contribute as intensively to the country’s export revenues, industrial growth and global reputation as the city which today has popularly come to be known as the ‘City of Exporters’. A city of immense economic and strategic importance to Pakistan as the third largest export centre after Karachi and Lahore, Sialkot has a substantial share of Pakistan’s total export revenue.
A city which is so important for Pakistan’s international trade growth is also crucial for employment generation and GNP growth by virtue of its labour-intensive, crafts-oriented industries and industrial clustering which have led to extensive agglomeration of economies. These economies have substantially augmented the productivity of the city’s industries and their ability to compete effectively in the international market.
Sialkot is a unique and fascinating dynamic city: it is one of the most prosperous cities in Pakistan with per capita income of around $2800 in 2012 and has gained global prominence for a highly diverse range of products ranging from sports goods, surgical instruments, leather goods and gloves to musical instruments like bagpipes.
So what makes Sialkot so unique, so special? This was the question we were trying to answer when we ventured into the world of Sialkot’s diverse crafts-oriented industries. ‘Sialkoti mitti’ ( Sialkot’s soil) was the first and most immediate response we got. We interviewed industrialists, workers and journalists in the city and perhaps what brought them all together, despite radical differences in their worldviews otherwise, was an ebullient admiration for the Sialkoti soil and people. For them, Sialkotis were inherently dynamic, innovative and conscious of collective welfare even if it meant making small sacrifices on individual gains.
The patriotism and glorification of Sialkot was palpable in almost everyone we spoke to, remarkably refreshing at a time when the country is being gripped by cynicism as a response to the plethora of challenges we currently face.
Mindful of the need to take the “inherently unique soil” argument with a pinch of salt, we chose to delve deeper and look beyond the cultural context. State policy emerged as a powerful factor in shedding light on why Sialkot was so different from other cities in Pakistan. Our interview respondents were quite unanimous in believing that state neglect, particularly with regard to investment in public infrastructure, was the reason why Sialkot’s business community manifested such a high level of ‘bhai chara’ (brotherhood) and collective action.
The most conspicuous example of this is the Sialkot International Airport (SIAL), one of the first private sector airports to be constructed in South Asia. The airport, which started functioning in 2007, was established with the joint financial cooperation of 85 investors, all prominent Sialkoti businessmen who sought to gain from the commercial benefits which the airport promised, with an initial contribution of Rs5 million each. The SIAL Board now has around 365 directors.
The airport facilitates passengers as well and not just cargo shipment, as one would have expected from an airport set up by private industrialists. Such a colossal private sector investment in public infrastructure is unparalleled in Pakistan and perhaps beyond Pakistan as well. It is certainly an indication of how a lack of state support prompted the private sector into action, a community of businessmen who were far-sighted enough to go ahead with such an unprecedented initiative.
Finally, Sialkot’s industries, by virtue of their export orientation, illustrate a staunch commitment to comply with international quality and production standards. In Sialkot, reputation is everything. And this makes perfect sense as well. The football industries, for example, are part of global value chains at the top of which sit sports goods giants like Adidas and Nike. Sialkot’s industries face international quality assurance pressures like no other industrial hub in Pakistan.
The way the football manufacturing cluster, through the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industries, dealt with the child labour issue in the 1990s is laudable. There was a concerted effort to install mechanisms in place to implement the terms of the Atlanta Agreement of 1997, which categorically prohibited the use of child labour in football stitching centres. This, coupled with the markedly high level of technological adaptation exhibited by Sialkot’s football industries, makes for an export cluster which is well-equipped to compete in the international market.
Sialkot is unique, perhaps for more than just one reason. The way Forward Sports was able to meet Adidas’s requirements for the FIFA World Cup this year at an exceedingly short notice says a lot about the adaptability, dynamism and capacity of Sialkot’s industries. I was reminded of a recent Pakistani movie, “Main Shahid Afridi Hoon” which dealt with the cricket euphoria prevalent in Sialkot and recounted the story of a group of young and passionate cricket players who achieve success even in the face of considerable adversity.