03 July 2017 07:24:31 IST

Dindigul lock-makers no longer hold the key to their destiny

The famed craft was already dying; now, 18% GST may deal it a mortal blow

Bare-chested, clad in a pair of khaki-coloured shorts that has seen better days and drenched in sweat, Doraisamy is bent over his work bench, making sure that the iron sheets he had beaten into shape are of the right dimensions, and checking if the many levers in the lock are fitting into their slots.

Next to him is Rajakumar, who is laboriously filing sheets that have been riveted together till they are so smooth that you will not believe that they have been filed by hand.

No more a legacy

Doraisamy, 58, is one of the handful of workers still making the Dindigul locks, which made this town about 65 km north of Madurai, famous. The locks with their distinct shape, which give them their name ‘mango locks’, and finish last a lifetime. Well, almost.

Till 15-20 years ago, there were 300-400 workers producing these locks. No longer. It is hard, tiring work, with the workers often at their workbench in a thatched shed by as early as 6 o’clock in the morning. Barring short breaks for a cup of tea and a quick lunch, they continue working, ending most days at 7 pm. They had learnt the skill from their forefathers, but their children are not keen on this drudgery.

Without taking a break from what he is doing, Doraisamy says one of his sons is a construction worker and the other earns a living by fixing flat tyres. His sons start their day late and end it, if not earlier, at almost the same time as Doraisamy. And, they earn much more than the ₹250-300 the locksmith takes home each day.

Just down the street, Pichai is working all by himself. Wearing a sweat-stained shirt with buttons undone, Pichai says he can make about five locks a day. Ask him his age and he replies he was studying in the first standard the year Gandhiji died. That puts his age at about 75, while others in the locks business say he is over 80 years old. He learnt this trade quite by chance and says he can do no other work now.

Will he pass on his skills to his children? They are not interested, he says. It is too much of hard work. One son, says Pichai, drives an autorickshaw and has a much easier lifestyle — he earns more than Pichai does and works shorter hours. Another son makes a living as a vegetable vendor.

Cheaper alternatives

It is the same story across Dindigul. Lock-making is a dying skill mainly because of the hard manual labour involved and also because machine-made locks – which those making Dindigul locks call “Aligarh locks” – are much cheaper.

Just to give an idea, says Pradeep Kumar, Proprietor, Dindigul ANS Locks, if a machine-made Aligarh lock costs around ₹100, a similar sized hand-made Dindigul lock will cost about ₹200. Pradeep Kumar, the third generation in his family in this business, sells all brands of locks, but he is proud of the Dindigul locks his firm makes.

His family was earlier in a much smaller shop selling only their own locks but had to move out as the landlord wanted to pull down the building. He decided to stock other branded machine locks too as he did not want customers to go back empty-handed.

At his shop, the Dindugul locks are now coated with nickel and chromium because of popular demand. After a few years, when the plating wears off, the locks will turn to its natural colour, black.

This does not mean they are rusted, says Pradeep Kumar and recalls a Tamil proverb, which goes ‘a black-shirted guy is good for security,’ referring to the strength of the locks.

Innovation is the key

He takes out a dozen varieties of locks — seven and nine levers — and passionately explains their features. One is a simple lock with two keys. Then, there is another for which there are two different sets of keys; you have to lock and open using both the keys. Yet another variety has three different sets of keys – one to lock, another to open and a third one that can perform both functions.

Then, there is the key-hole plate lock, in which an iron plate is used to cover the key hole. The beauty of this lock, says Pradeep Kumar, is that the lock can be locked or opened only when the plate is kept in a particular position. You change the position of the plate, the keys won’t work. Something like a number-combination lock. “Those locks came much later,” he said.

As we are discussing, Rajendra Kumar, a watchman in a government school in nearby Vedasandur, walks into the shop asking for a Dindigul lock. The school has a Dindigul lock that he had bought nearly 30 years back and is still working fine, but a new headmaster wanted to have a new lock so that he could also have a key. The cheapest lock, he is told, costs around ₹600, which is more than what the school can afford to pay. But Kumar offers a practical and much cheaper solution: he tells the watchman to bring the old lock to have a fresh set of keys made for just ₹50-100.

The Dindigul lock makers have a never-ending bag of tricks as they constantly innovate. Ravi Kannan, Proprietor, Ravi Locks, shows a lock with two key holes.

If anyone tries to open the lock with a duplicate key, the key will get stuck in the keyhole and you will need to use the master key in the second keyhole and only then can the duplicate key be removed.

His business has been around for nearly 50 years, mostly in the wholesale trade. The locks are available in Rasappa Chetty Street in Chennai’s George Town area.

The problem with the wholesale business now, says Kannan, is that the retailers pay for the locks only when they sell them. Till then, there is no money coming in.

The customer profile

Who buys these locks? Both Pradeep Kumar and Ravi Kannan say the Dindigul locks are bought predominantly by government offices, especially the treasury offices and all the proprietary, family-owned businesses that have godowns and where the family patriarch is still in control of matters. The bigger locks, especially those weighing around 2.5 kg, are bought by temples, for the huge main doors.

Adapting to changing tastes, Dindigul lock-makers also produce door locks made of brass. There are a number of machine-made parts in these locks, even though it is still labour-intensive.

Pradeep Kumar shows off one such door lock — weighing nearly 18 kg, a little over 30 cm high and 36 cm wide — which are used by large temples.

The GST threat

Even as the Dindigul lock-makers are fighting to stay in business against mass-produced machine-made locks, there is another threat to their business – the Goods and Services Tax that came into effect on July 1.

In 2012, the former Tamil Nadu government exempted hand-made locks from value-added tax.

Now, the lock-makers fear they could fall in the 18 per cent tax bracket, which could completely wipe them out of business. They have approached the State government through the Dindigul Chamber of Commerce and hope there will be some action on this front.