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Saturday, January 22, 2022

On the nose: The rising stink in Kannauj

Perfume is said to flow down even the drains of Kannauj. But these days, the city is engulfed in a rising stink: of raids, politics, and pouring cash

Written by Manish Sahu |
Updated: January 2, 2022 11:29:09 am
The Bada Bazaar, heart of Kannauj’s perfume market. (Express Photo by Vishal Srivastav )

Kannauj is used to fame as “the perfume capital of India”; even some political attention as the constituency of former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. But this time, the fame and attention mean Kannauj is not exactly coming up smelling of roses — that major ingredient the attar makers of this Uttar Pradesh city, next to the Ganga, swear by.

In Bada Bazaar, the heart of the ‘Kannauji Attar’ market, the talk is all about “raids” and the “crores” tumbling out of cupboards, walls and basements. And a growing concern about what it may imply for an industry —going back at least 400 years — that has been on a growth path in recent years.

There have been at least three high-profile raids amidst the growing heat of the Assembly election. The one most curious was that by GST authorities on the Kanpur and Kannauj premises of a little-known perfume trader, Peeyush Jain, claiming recovery of over Rs 190 crore in cash alone. As doubts were raised about whether the wrong “P Jain”, with no political links, had been raided, Income Tax officials landed up at the Kannauj premises of a leading perfume businessman with links to the Samajwadi Party, Pushpraj Jain “Pampi”, as well as a Fauzan Malik. Both are leading perfume businessmen of the city.

In Bada Bazaar, no one believes that the money recovered from Peeyush Jain, who also supplies raw material to paan masala manufacturers, belongs to him. “If there were such profits to be made in perfume, then Kannauj would not be such a backward city,” says a local resident.

Adds Pawan Trivedi, president of the Attars and Perfumers Association of Kannauj: “People might think there is a huge margin in perfume business. We are getting calls from around the world to ask why government agencies are conducting raids.”

The association, which has called a meeting on Sunday to discuss the raids, and district administration put the value of the perfume business in Kannauj at over Rs 1,200 crore — not counting the outlets many run outside the city.

The perfumes are exported to international markets, especially in the Middle East.

Nearly 80% of the city’s population of over 10 lakh is directly or indirectly associated with the industry, from farmers who cultivate flowers, to manufacturers of attar bottles and those who make the stickers put on them.

The transition to online has boosted the market. “We earlier sold to those who came to our shops. Now, our business has a direction,” says a local businessman.

Shunning new techniques, Kannauj manufacturers still prefer the traditional steam-distillation method. This, they say, is what lends the Kannuaji Attar its unmatched fragrance. Says Nikhil Chaurasia: “Our manufacturing skills are passed down generation to generation. They are not shared with anyone.”

Apart from steam-distillation, they only use copper utensils in the preparation of perfumes, says another dealer at Bada Bazaar, Nishish Tiwari. “It is said that perfume flows down even the drains of Kannauj,” he says, adding that they have branched out into essential oils used to make products such as shampoo and incense sticks, as well as food.

Kannauj’s brush with the current political row is believed to have begun with Akhilesh launching in November a ‘Samajwadi Party Sugandh’, prepared by Pushpraj Jain, a party MLC.

A local resident who doesn’t want to be named says: “It was a political stunt. We don’t even know where those Samajwadi Party Sugandh bottles are now.”

However, there is only fondness for the SP, particularly the 300-km Agra-Lucknow Expressway, inaugurated by the Akhilesh government in November 2016, that has made travel to and from Kannauj both easier and “safer”. “Since the travel time from Lucknow and Agra has been cut down, many traders have set up outlets in the two cities while their workshops are still in Kannauj,” says a shopkeeper.

If returned to power, Akhilesh has promised to complete an International Perfume Park Project, whose foundation stone was laid by him in 2016 (a year before the Assembly elections), as well as a perfume museum.

The SP has always seen Kannauj district as its bastion, with Mulayam Singh Yadav, son Akhilesh and daughter-in-law Dimple winning the Lok Sabha and Assembly constituencies among themselves for many years. In the 2019 parliamentary election, amidst a Modi wave, Dimple lost to the BJP’s Subrat Pathak, but by a close margin.

Since the BJP came to power, a trader says, crime is down. “Under the SP, a group of people would regularly target the business community and harass them.”

But there are other expectations which remain unfulfilled, the foremost being for a gas pipeline in Kannuaj. “We earlier used wood for burning. Now, wood is not available easily,” says a local unit owner. Dealers also complain of earnings coming down to half since the Covid lockdown.

Both Pushpraj Jain and Malik live and run their outlets from Jain Street, at Mandai, not very far from each other and from where Peeyush Jain is said to also reside. A local dealer says Malik runs one of the oldest perfume businesses in the city. “It is said in Kannauj that almost all perfume businessmen have been directly or directly, at some period, been associated with Malik and his family.”

Like Peeyush Jain, the raid on him has Kannauj perplexed. “I have never heard or seen Fauzan and his family attending any political function,” says Trivedi.

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