Tanners in a lather over India’s myopic leather policy

Business Capstone Taluk

Traditional Indian tanneries are at the brim of extinction due to loss of markets and government’s sloppy approach towards the leather industry.

In the suburbs of Athani city that is famous for its Kolhapuri chappals, lives Yuvraj Kadam, a lone warrior fighting an existential battle against Athani’s dying leather industry. A 16 per cent of Athani’s population is the Scheduled Caste with varying hierarchies. Yuvraj is the only surviving tanner in the Dhor community, belonging to the Scheduled Caste, that predominantly deals with animal hides and tanning.          

The Dhor community—of about 40-50 houses—lives in the suburbs of Athani, in a region called ‘Pargavgalli’—that finds no place on Google Maps, just as the said community that finds no place in the modern leather industry.

The last remaining tannery at Pargavgalli, Athani

Tapashe, an elderly man who occasionally helps Yuvraj cried, “About five years ago we sold the hides at Rs. 500. Today no one buys for even Rs. 10.” The old man has difficulty in sitting for long hours due to years of tanning that has given him a chronic back pain. “Gone are the days when we sold to the Saudagars, only some locals buy the leather from us and even delay the payment. We make profit of not more than Rs. 200-300,” he said.

The Saudagars are the footwear makers that are above the Dhors in hierarchy. Despite a physical segregation of the two communities, the village eco-system ensured steady supply of leather by the Dhor community to the local footwear making community. “Since the Madras leather industry began supplying the cheaper ‘Kurum’—a machine made white and softer leather—the chappal makers stopped buying our leather,” said Yuvraj as he soaked the hides into the lime-water.

To promote the traditional skill of leather footwear making that is endangered by the synthetic product, Babu Jagjivan Ram Leather Industries Corporation Ltd. (LIDKAR) extended a helping hand to the footwear makers. But the workers were not satisfied with the profit they made. In 2006 under United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) aid, LIDKAR was offered managerial services by an NGO called Toe Hold. Mahadevi, operation manager of Toe Hold at Athani said, “We bring leather from Tamil Nadu and distribute among the locals based on their skill. The finished product is transported to Bangalore and further sold in Indian markets but most of it is exported.”

Loss of this market has been a death knell to the local tanneries. “I bring 50-60 hides together as the transport itself costs me about Rs. 2000,” said Yuvraj while scrubbing the fat off a calf’s hide. He now has to make do with slaughterhouse waste and calf hides from the local illegal slaughterhouses that sell skins at cheaper rates. Although he continues to buy raw hides from Bijapur, the price of skin sold from Miraj and Sangli has increased due to supply shortage in the recent years.

R.C. Chougala, Health Inspector at Athani Municipality said, “Athani does not have slaughterhouses that are licensed to kill the bovine. The raw hides are brought from Sangli, Maharashtra and sold in the Sunday Market.” But the locals admit that even cows are slaughtered secretly. One such slaughterhouse that slaughters bulls lies in administerial Athani, skirting the Charmalaya slum.

“This poor son of mine emptied 10-12 bags of raw buffalo hides in the drain because there is no market,” said Tapashe gloomed by the state of affairs, yet very proud of Yuvraj. Tapashe’s own son on the other hand mocks Yuvaraj’s fingers that have swollen up due to the tannery work. “It is shameful to go out with such fingers, we have to tell people that he dyes clothes or does mehendi work but people can tell our caste by looking at our fingers.”

The village-based tanners face double exploitation in India. Yet, despite all the odds, Yuvraj and Tapashe bravely fight their daily battles against the dying tanneries of Athani.

“Earlier we had people for these two different jobs, now it is just me and Tapashe and we both do everything,” he said glaring at his swollen finger nails. He remembers having to fight for a place to sit down to scrub the hides. Now only six of the 23 tanks remain in use.

The community has moved on to farming, construction work and other options but Yuvraj wants to continue tanning as treating hides is his passion. But the interests within the community clash. Tapashe’s son wants to build a ceremony hall for their community on the tannery site. He believes the tannery will close due to loss of market and legal notices from the Athani Municipality for making the neighborhood “Dirty and smelly.”

The Health Inspector at Athani Municipality said that a tannery in residential area could have hazardous implications. “There are no functioning tanneries in Athani except for one in Budhwar Peth which is under litigation. We do not have a Sewage Treatment Plant to treat the water.”

Sadly, independent traditional tanners can no longer carry out this occupation bestowed upon them by their caste, within the brackets of environmental norms. A former tanner in the neighborhood said, “Our community doesn’t have unity like the Saudagars and hence we fail. Dalits get various benefits in this country due to Ambedkar but we are the lowest among the Dalits.”

Out of the total 2.5 Million people involved in India’s leather sector, a million—about 40 per cent—are self-employed. A mere four per cent of the leather workers are organised tanners.

Also, states with a bigger number of leather worker community have an advantage as they can organize themselves. Tamil Nadu’s leather workers that constitute 42 per cent of the total in India, while Karnataka constitutes a small two per cent of the total leather workers in India.

Tamil Nadu has been a hub of leather manufacturing for export since the colonial times. By 1880-81 India was exporting about Rs. 3.5 million worth processed leather. Hence it is easy for an established industry to prey on small tanners. Recently, in a news report, Aqueel Ahmed, Chairman of Council for Leather Exports said that new clusters for leather production are proposed in Tamil Nadu, which are likely to bring an investment of about $50-100 million and about 100,000 jobs. Recently a Taiwanese footwear company invested about Rs. 710 Crore for a unit in Tamil Nadu.

But availability of a market is not the only solution to the woes of the small tanners. Manjula Pol is another tanner residing across a major drain in Charmalaya that segregates the footwear makers from the tanners. Charmalaya is the biggest slum of Athani with population of 1650 people and 330 huts. Leather chappal making is the predominant and traditional occupation of the people living here.

She was the last surviving tanner of Charmalaya, until recently when the leather prices crashed to Rs. 400, which compelled her to shut down tanning. “This price is very little,” says Manjula who spends about Rs.2,500 to Rs. 3000 to process one hide. The cost is higher than Yuvraj’s leather because Manjula sells her products to a Chennai based leather company, from where it goes to markets in Mumbai. “There are about 300 hides in here, each worth Rs. 1000-1,500. This will now go a waste,” she cried.

Adjacent to the pile was a heap of dog chew-sticks on which she earns her subsistence. Fall in leather price has compelled her to ask the workers to leave. Manjula has now resorted to the sell seasonal items.  “This is used for the festival of ‘Shimga’ when kids dance around bonfire, she said waving a Dafli. “One set costs Rs. 5000, a set of dafali has five pieces of varying sizes. We can make a profit of Rs. 200-250 per set if all the items are sold.”

“There is nothing but only loss left in tanning,” she cried. We started selling leather outside the local market as LIDKAR stopped buying,” she said. Earlier the local footwear makers bought our leather for Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 5000, but we sell to the Chennai based company for Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 2000 per hide. In the last few years the price has gone below thousand. Last year the price fell up to Rs. 200 per hide. In August it was Rs. 700, now it is Rs. 400.”

Alongside absence of the local market and workforce Manjula cites shutting down of the Kanpur leather tanneries as a reason to falling prices. “Whenever the Kanpur leather factories have a problem our prices fall,” she said.

Kanpur tanneries constitute 30 per cent of India’s leather market. Uttar Pradesh government shut down Kanpur tanneries between December 15 to March 15 before the Kumbh Mela. President of Uttar Pradesh Leather Industries Association in a news report is quoted saying, “Under earlier governments, the tannery owners used to voluntarily stop work for three days prior to each nahaan (holy dip) of the Kumbh, because the water takes three days’ time to reach Allahabad from here, despite the fact that it is treated water.” Yet following the Kumbh Mela a slew of environmental sanctions have rained down on the Kanpur tanneries leaving them shut for an indefinite period. Kanpur’s Regional Pollution Control Board has asked 248 of Kanpur’s tanneries to remain shut until further notice due to its environmental impact. 

This lockdown has caused a slump in India’s finished leather exports by nearly 29 per cent in April-August 2019 against the previous fiscal year. Reduction in export hasn’t only slashed the leather prices home but India’s international leather market has also become vulnerable as it is moving to its competitors in Bangladesh.

The beef ban has also affected the cost of production. The supply of skin has dwindled causing prices to incease. The Deonar slaughterhouses have thus experienced a blow to its sale, as it is a major supplier of raw hides to Tamil Nadu, Kanpur and Kolkata, the major leather industries. The number of bullocks Deonar receives has plunged from 450 bullocks to 200 bullocks.

Effects of the plunge in production must thus be anticipated. On a micro level, the impact on small tanners like Yuvraj and Manjula go unrealized. Perhaps only when the leather exports, which constitute about 46 per cent of the total production make a more visible impact on the GDP of the country, the organized tanners will get their dues. But what about the small Indian tanner?


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