A story of struggle to obtain profit and recognition

Arts & Culture Athani Business Capstone

Despite getting GI tag, the chappal makers didn’t receive an authorised user certificate

With orange stains on his fingers, Bayaji Babu continued to paint the Kolhapuri chappals with vegetable colour using a piece of cloth. The leather smell in the cramped airless room never tires the family. They all sit together as a group and divide the job between themselves. Usually, the heavy works are given to men and the light to women. Since Bayaji’s wife was cooking; he took the work of colouring the chappal.

When the price of buffalo hide rose and the profits fell, Bayaji Babu, still preferred to make chappals as he knows nothing more than this. It is not just him; the whole village of Madabhavi is stuck to the concept of making the handmade traditional Kolhapuri chappal just because they are confined to the business for generations.

The Madabhavi village is located 18 km away from Athani town, and just five km from Maharashtra. Bayaji and his whole family divide the jobs between themselves starting from cutting the buffalo hide to colouring and finishing the piece. Everyone takes part in crafting. The whole house acts both as a manufacturing unit and godown for Kolhapuri chappals.

Bayaji remembered, “Twenty years back, when I completed PUC, if my father’s farming business was good enough to feed my whole family, I should’ve studied or obtained a job in some other sector.” Babu Dashrat, the father of the two Babu brothers and four sisters faced severe loss in Maize and Jawar cultivation due to unpredicted heavy rainfall and non-fertile land that followed. Dashrat, the breadwinner of the family was broke and needed his sons support.

Bayaji was not a traditional chappal maker. But still, he and his whole family moved to Madabhavi as a dealer was ready to give the job to him in the village. Bayaji was very happy. “It was a great aid to a falling family. I thought we will never survive this situation of starving for food and other basic facilities. But the Kolhapuri chappal dealer, who made his own chappals with some labourers in the village, asked me to join him. Back then the profit was high in the chappal industry. So was my salary.”

Soon, things turned out well for Bayaji. “I and my brother worked hard for the family. At a short notice, we were able to bring up our own business of making the chappals. My whole family helped me on the journey. All of my sisters were married in an affluent manner. I and my brother got married and our wives too helped us in the business.”

The business brought wealth and prospect to Bayaji family with every passing day. But, it all slowed at a certain time. Then it furthered, but backwards. The orders they got reduced, as people were no more interested in the traditional chappal pattern. He said, “I know, one day everything will change and people will want to wear something more fashionable. I know, one day they will all prefer heels rather than this flat old model chappal.”

Today, Bayaji gets a profit of Rs.20 per chappal. Sometimes, it falls to Rs.5 according to the need. “This is not enough to maintain a family. We live a budget crunched life and are stuck in this business. The worst-case happens in the months of July to October when the region gets rainfall. The chappal sale during the season is zero. Raw materials need to be put under sun for drying. Then, it gets conditioned and we can do work on it. Rain poses a threat to the whole business.”

What they do to sustain the family during the season is quite saddening. Bayaji takes loan from local lenders during the rainy season. Since various reasons stop him from getting loan from a bank, the 15 member family got Rs.1,50,000 as cash credit from Karnataka Vikas Grameena Bank in his village. “I struggle to repay the amount. We should work really hard for the next eight months to repay the loan and suddenly, it will start raining again and we will be forced to take loans again. This is like a cycle. This is our life cycle. Take loans from local lenders and bank and work hard to repay. Repeat mode.” The only bank in the village stopped lending money to chappal makers in the name of loan when they became willful defaulters. So they give it as cash credit to keep away the burden of non-repayment.

At least he got money from somewhere to aid his family. Siddhrai Shivaji Shinde, another Kolhapuri chappal maker in Madabhavi was shown the door when he approached a bank in Karnataka. “The manager told me to go and get loan from banks in Maharashtra. We do speak Marathi, but that doesn’t mean the state banks can ditch us like this. When I approached a bank in Maharashtra, they were clueless and redirected me to get loan from a bank in Karnataka. This is my whole story of going from Karnataka to Maharashtra in belief that I will get loan one day.”

Ahmed Khurshid, the bank manager of Karnataka Vikas Grameena Bank, told: “We don’t provide loans to the chappal makers without security because a lot of them don’t want to repay the amount even when they gain it in the next year’s chappal season. We name these kinds of people as wilful defaulters. They get loan up to Rs.2 lakh and never pays it back. We can’t run our bank by supporting such people.”

Karnataka Leather Industries Development Corporation Ltd (LIDKAR) established by Government of Karnataka in the year 1976 to improve the Leather Industry in Karnataka and up-liftment of Socio-economic conditions of Leather Artisans in the state once had an office in Athani town. Not anymore. The chappal makers said that the organisation is closed for almost a decade now. It did help the local chappal makers in the town before that.

When LIDKAR was active in the town, the organisation used to buy chappals from these local chappal makers at a good price and sent it to the head office in Bengaluru. They gained good profit during that period. But since the chappals profit hewed badly, the local chappal makers in Athani town switched to second quality materials.

Amar Uttam Kare, a local Kolhapuri chappal maker in Athani town no more buys buffalo hide from Chennai. It is not just him; the whole community of 2000 chappal makers buy white (or) synthetic leather. “The buffalo hide is costly and we can’t bear the expense. Even after buying synthetic leather, we barely get Rs.20 per chappal. As all other artisans, I too took a loan of Rs.30,000, this rainy season and should repay it now.”

Amar once sold Kolhapuri chappals through LIDKAR. “Back then, the profit was high and sustainable when LIDKAR worked as a mediator. But there is no hope for us now as LIDKAR has been closed for almost 10 years now.”

Kolhapuri chappals got a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in June 2019. The native chappal makers in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, don’t want to share it with any other Kolhapuri chappal makers in Maharashtra and North Karnataka. Bhupal Shete, director of Kolhapuri chappal cluster, said that they are going to petition in Bombay High Court limiting the GI tag only to them. Maharashtra government has aided Kolhapuri chappal makers in Kolhapur to improve their business, whereas Karnataka chappal makers are left with no hope.

This is another problem for the Kolhapuri chappal makers in Karnataka. They are being shadowed by the Maharashtra Kolhapuri chappal makers. The chappal makers complain that when wholesalers want to buy chappal in large number, they choose Maharashtra to Karnataka. Due to this, the chappal makers in Athani are unable to sell large number of Kolhapuri chappals to anyone.

Leather Industries Development Corporation of Karnataka (LIDKAR) established by Government of Karnataka in the year 1976 with the main objective to develop the Leather Industry in Karnataka and up-lift the Socio-economic conditions of Leather Artisans in the state has a say on the issue. K Thippeswamy, Deputy general manager of LIDKAR said that the organization can’t do anything to support the chappal makers as the demand for the Kolhapuri chappal has gone down drastically in the recent years. “Earlier, the people showed a lot of interest in buying Kolhapuri chappals. Especially in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai, the chappal sale was very high. But now, the trend has changed. We don’t have any exports currently happening in the organization. Still we are giving our best and extend help whenever possible.”

He was happy that the organization played an important role in getting GI tag for the Kolhapuri chappal. “Even when it doesn’t help them financially, the GI tag is something prestigious and it stands as an identity to the chappal makers. LIDKAR is working on sensitizing people about the heritage of the Kolhapuri chappals to make them buy it. We along with Visvesvaraya trade promotion centre are looking into the applications (approximately 600) we have received from the chappal makers in Athani who wants to pursue the GI authorized certificate.”

When asked about the LIDKAR office being shut in the taluk, Thippeswamy replied, “The taluk is far from the district capital Belgaum. The district coordinator was unable to maintain the branch as he couldn’t travel to the taluk every time there is something to do. He is the one supposed to look after it. We can only guide them to do so.”

The Leather Sector Skill Council (LSSC) officials are also working on field in the taluk to give the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) certificate. The local chappal makers told that the LSSC official have collected the zerox copy of the Aadhaar cards and bank passbook. While clarifying with Baba Hussain, Operating Manager (West), LSSC who visited the taluk to acquire the essentials from the people said, “RPL certificate will help them in many ways. We will put Rs.500 in their bank accounts once the process is complete. They will get an insurance of Rs.2 lakh if they face loss due to any commodities in future.” LSSC is a non-profit organisation dedicated to meet the demand for skilled workforce in the leather industry in India.

ToeHold, the only NGO working in the taluk to help the chappal makers buy goods from Sunday market in Athani. Mahadevi More, manager of ToeHold, said: “We don’t purchase chappals from local chappal makers or the nearby villages. We get them from Sunday market in Athani town where the chappal makers crowd the road with handmade Kolhapuri chappals and export it to countries like UK, Japan, Dubai and Germany. We only do the work of packing and sending the bundles. We get the order from head office and proceed with it. We don’t buy chappals from local chappal makers because they use cheap leather to finish their work economically. Our product undergoes various stages of checking.”

Tired by the continuous work, Bayaji said he has severe back, shoulder and hand pain. He is been going through this for years now. “There are no remedies for this back pain as we sit almost 12 hours a day doing the same work. This is how we survive this life. Sometimes, when the pain gets worse, we reach out to the Primary Health Centre (PHC) in Madabhavi. If we are lucky, the PHC will be open and we will get an injection to get through the pain.”

He concluded, “I’m educating my children well. Doesn’t matter how much I spend on that. I’m even willing to sell all my properties to fund them and give them good education. I don’t want to do the same my father did to me. I don’t want them to have no other option than this. Let them study well and move further in their lives. Unlike me and the business.”

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