The Unmaking of Kanpur’s Leather Industry

Facing a multitude of problems including pollution regulations, ‘gau mata’ protectors and the scale economies of large mechanised slaughterhouses, Kanpur’s leather industry is facing a decline.

File photo of orkers at one of Kanpur's tanneries. Credit: Daniel Bachhuber/Flickr CC 2.0

File photo of workers at one of Kanpur’s tanneries. Credit: Daniel Bachhuber/Flickr CC 2.0

Kanpur: Although leather is one of the sectors recognised under the government’s Make in India programme, harsh times have befallen Kanpur, India’s largest centre of buffalo-based leather and a city where the industry thrived  – until recently.

In the centre of Kanpur’s old city is Pech Bagh, a street that was not so long ago lined with rows of raw hide godowns. According to the the local Hide Merchants’ Association (HMA), there were no less than 300 hide traders in the area. At each godown, at least four or five labourers were hired. While the merchants are mostly Muslim, the workers are primarily dalit.

Walking down Pech Bagh today, the smell of raw hide is still unmistakable. But it takes a while to figure out where exactly that smell is coming from. Of the 300 godowns that used to exist, only about a hundred remain; others have converted into garment shops. Even for these 100 warehouses, work is down to about 35% of what it used to be and they now hire only two or three workers each.

cow logo finalMuch of this decline is associated with the increasing number of large, mechanised slaughterhouses, according to Haji Afzal Ahmad, the head of the HMA. “Even though they charge more, people are willing to pay the slightly extra price because animal hides skinned by a machine never have holes. If you do it by hand, like we do here, you sometimes get a few holes,” he told The Wire.

“Even several local tanneries are no longer buying hide from us,” added Ashraf Kamal, general secretary of the HMA, adding, “This hide market is about 150 years old, but soon I think it will sell only readymade garments. Our demand has gone down to 20% of what it used to be.”

“And another problem has also increased, especially under the current Central government. If someone (usually a dalit) skins an animal and wants to transport the hide, RSS and BJP karyakartas (activists) will start shouting ‘cow’ even if they have no idea what they’re talking about. Also, nobody cares if the hide is from an animal which died naturally and was not slaughtered. They don’t want to listen,” said Faraz Hussain, an HMA member, while others nod in agreement.

“The government’s propaganda on cow slaughter means that people can’t do their work in peace. Only the big slaughterhouses can do as they please, since government officials and members from all big parties have a stake in them, and are heavily involved. Nobody stops them, even if they slaughter a much higher number of animals than their licence allows,” said Kamal.

A raw hide godown in Pech Bagh. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

A raw hide godown in Pech Bagh. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

“Orders are also down because clients are afraid we won’t be able to complete them,” added HMA member Anwar Kamal. “The Modi government has created an atmosphere where people think our business might close down at any moment, it is almost as though we are doing something illegal. So prices are low, and orders are reducing,” he adds

Others too have been impacted strongly by the change. “The Qureshi community, who used to skin animals by hand, have almost entirely lost their livelihood. Dalits too, who skin animals when they die naturally. Even the number of labourers in this area has gone down to about 10% of what it used to be,” said Ahmad.

Hide transporters are facing problems as well. Speaking to The Wire on condition of anonymity, two hide transporters said, “A lot of the time it is okay, we don’t have any trouble. But every now and then, we will get heckled by a mob, they will want to empty our truck to check for cow skins. They threaten us, push us around, and the police doesn’t help with this. We have heard of people being badly beaten in these situations in other parts of Uttar Pradesh. Our families are scared, but what do we do? This is our livelihood.”

The tanneries of Jajmau

Jajmau is an industrial suburb in Kanpur and it has some of the biggest leather tanneries in the country. There are also several small-scale industries that use the by-products of the tanneries, such as lower quality leather, as their raw materials. Many of these function in open public spaces.

The state-run common treatment plant in Jajmau. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Tannery by-products being prepared for use in Jajmau. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

Most tanneries in the area are family owned, hiring both migrant and local labour, and a large number of dalits work in the tanneries.

Of the 400 tanneries in the area, more than 150 have closed in the last five years. Most of those that shut down were smaller industries unable to keep up with environmental regulations after the National Green Tribunal and UP Pollution Board crackdown on pollutants flowing into the Ganga river. “Nobody is saying that pollution doesn’t need to be checked,” said Nihal Iqbal, whose tannery was closed down after the NGT order. “But the government isn’t doing its part. The common treatment plant run by the state is completely obsolete, the equipment hasn’t been updated in decades. The enforcement agencies have also not done their job fairly, tanneries that were willing to pay bribes were not shut down.”

Moin Lari, one of the owners of Northern Tannery, among the biggest in the area, agreed. “We have given the government a report on the obsolete treatment plant. But nothing is happening.”

According to Lari, small and micro/cottage industries in the area are the worst hit. They are also suffering because of the increasing costs of production in India. “Raw material prices, especially that of chemicals needed, is lower in other places. This is making it difficult for small producers here to compete in the global market; even large tanneries like this one are facing a big decline in exports. Combine all of this with the closing of tanneries, and I would estimate that more than 10,000 people, mostly labourers, have lost their jobs in Jajmau.”

Lari also said that some of his hide transporters had been bullied by Hindutva mobs, who are even more brazen under the current government. “The mobs will not get punished, they know the police will support them. So the transporters are scared and have no one to turn to. Since it happens only in 10% of cases, fortunately they are still continuing their deliveries. But the atmosphere is tense for them.”

The future of Kanpur’s leather

Concerns for the Ganga and the cow seem to have contributed to a two-pronged attack on Kanpur’s leather industry. In a scenario of declining profits, increasing costs and fear amongst workers, it is hard to say how long people will want to continue in this line of business. In light of recent events all over the country, including the killing of two cattle traders in Jharkhand, the atmosphere of fear amongst those working with animal hide is not hard to understand.

“It is definitely a tough time for the leather business. And the political atmosphere is not helping at all,” said Iqbal.

In Pech Bagh today, the first things that catch the eye are the readymade clothes stores. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

In Pech Bagh today, the first things that catch the eye are the readymade clothes stores. Credit: Jahnavi Sen

While some of the tanners whose units have been closed continue to try to stay in the business, Iqbal and his family have decided to move away from processing leather to manufacturing shoes.

While merchants and tannery owners are able to switch vocation, it has been harder for the workers, a majority of whom are dalits. “Many people we know have left the area because they could no longer find work here,” said a migrant worker from Bihar who works in a Jajmau tannery. “A lot of people in my neighbourhood lost their jobs, and since there is not much else to do around here they decided to leave. I hope my tannery does not close, I wouldn’t know where to go next,” he added.

The leather industry employs almost 2.5 million people in India, a vast majority of them from economically weaker and marginalised sections of society. If Kanpur’s leather industry continues to wither away, its ripples will be felt well beyond.