Long before ‘Make in India’ became a catch phrase for a modern, entrepreneurial India, the busy town of Kolhapur was the hub of many forms of indigenous commerce and enterprise. Famous as much for its fiery cuisine as for its superbly crafted jewellery, it also lent its name to the well-known Kolhapuri chappal, which became both a style statement and a comfortable accessory.
Now, in the dusty bylanes of Kolhapur, makers of the footwear are bracing themselves for the industry’s decline – if not demise. The problems have been building up over the years, but the final nail in the coffin, as it were, is the scarcity of the basic raw material-leather. The state government’s enthusiasm in enforcing its law against beef has had a downstream effect which is systematically decimating this industry.
Since Kolhapuri chappals were known more for being all-leather items – even their stitching and embellishments were always in leather – the scarcity of the raw material is a death blow. Pavan Vasantrao Powar, Chairman of the Charmakar Samaj Audyogik Sahakari Mandali Ltd., the co-operative of manufacturers candidly says, “We were never consulted in any manner before the government brought in this Gau Sanrakshan law in Maharashtra. This was a law that had failed to find acceptance so many years ago when Manohar Joshi was the chief minister. Why why did they have to bring it back now? It has made the trade and manufacture of chappals extremely difficult for us.”
Kolhapuri chappals are made from leather that is cured and tanned using only natural ingredients, without any chemicals. They are also completely handmade. This makes the chappals suitable for all types of wearers. They turn soft and comfortable after contact with the body heat and sweat of the person wearing them. Many retailers in Kolhapur claim medicinal properties for them for these very reasons.
Difficult to sell old cattle
After the ban on slaughter – and consumption — of all members of the cow family, that is, cows, bulls and calves, farmers find it difficult to sell their old cattle; while this ensures that no beef comes in the market, it also has meant that leather, which came from oxen, has disappeared.
The very first major act of the Devendra Fadnavis led BJP-Shiv Sena government after coming to power in November 2014 was to send the Maharashtra Animal Protection Act (1995) for the President’s approval with amendments which meant that the ban on slaughtering cows was extended to cover bulls and calves as well. With this initiative, the government seemed to be spelling out its priorities in no uncertain manner – cows and the religious sentiments of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were extremely important. In March 2015, when the President’s signature was obtained, a happy Fadnavis had said “our dream of a ban on cow slaughter becomes a reality now.”
But, while the VHP and other organisations may have been happy, for farmers and others it has been a nightmare. In many districts of Maharashtra, facing what would be three straight years of drought, farmers have been left wondering what to do with cattle they could neither feed nor sell.
The BJP’s own MLA from drought hit Ashti in Beed district, Bhimrao Dhonde, fully aware of what his constituents were going through, raised a question recently in the Assembly criticizing the impact of this law on farmers’ lives. The cycle of farming-slaughter-tanning-leather goods production has been seriously disrupted.
Among the worst affected are manufacturers of Kolhapuri chappals and the bitter irony is that their cousins in the next state, Karnataka, are thriving. “In the days when Kolhapur was a kingdom, the boundaries stretched to Nipani and Belgaum, and many of our community settled there as well. Today, they can source leather cheaply from Karnataka, and they continue to make chappals. We just cannot compete with them on price.” Material costs have become prohibitive. Leather now costs 250 to 300 rupees a square foot as opposed to Rs. 70 to Rs. 80 earlier. There used to be a local market for leather in Kolhapur, but now we have to go elsewhere to source the leather.”
This has drastically affected the price of this type of footwear. The lowest grade chappal, which was earlier sold for Rs. 150/- now sells for a mimimum of Rs. 330/- The better quality ones, which are referred to as ‘antique’, for their traditional designs and good quality leather, cost at least Rs. 2500/- and sometimes even more that. Besides, a huge market of cheaper chappals made with non-leather materials like vinyl and embellished with artificial zari or string is also being palmed off on customers seeking Kolhapuris.
In the busy Shivaji market area around the famous Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur town, young advocate Nishant Mahajan, who comes from a chappal making family, says that the industry was as it is suffering due to changing fashions. “Tastes in footwear have been heavily influenced by globalization,” he told me. “Young buyers would much rather buy branded shoes and footwear than wear Kolhapuri chappals. They want something soft on their feet, and like to keep up with their peers in terms of brand names.”
Younger family members have been moving away from the traditional occuplation. “Even among the labour who come to work at our factory or workshops, there are just older workers now.”
At the co-operative headed by Powar, a seasoned craftsman, Pandurang Chavan who still makes the chappal at home along with his wife. He brings in a beautiful pair, which costs a pricey Rs 6000; the tiny braids used to embellish the upper part of the chappal were all done by his wife. These kind of artisanal slippers are not for the mass market; each pair takes a week to make. He is proud of them, but soon turns bitter about not getting much assistance from the government—“banks put a thousand conditions and this makes it difficult to get loans, he says.
Arun Krishnarao Satpute, founder and chairman of the Kolhapuri Chappal Audyogik Samook says the craft is dying-the number of craftsmen is dwindling and the cow protection law will finish it off. Pointing to the ten or twelve workers in his workshop, Satpute says bitterly, “Each of these men has debts of a lakh or two on his head. How are they to survive when the costs of living also keep going up?” Satpute has been involved in many efforts to keep the Kolhapuri chappal tradition alive. From trying to get a GI registration for Kolhapuri chappals to trying to have an ITI or University course designed to teach the craft, he is trying pursuing different avenues to keep the business active. But with the cost of raw material going up, it is going to be a tough task.
Scharada Dubey is the Pune-based author of The Toymakers: Light from India’s Urban Poor