Mohammad Shahin has been exporting leather for 35 years but has never faced acrisis like this. The businessman is a community leader in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, owing largely to the 60 people he employs at his factory, one of 400-odd units in Kolkata’s Leather Complex.
But now, a government crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses coupled with a central rule that makes it virtually impossible to procure cattle for culling has dealt him a body blow. Orders have fallen by half, crimped both by a supply crunch and fears that harder times are on their way. In the middle of this crisis, Shahin is battling a dilemma: How to sack his all-Muslim staff.
“It is the holy month of Ramzan and these workers have been here for decades. The lord’s wrath would singe us if I remove them,” he rues, sitting in his sparse ground floor office. “Jab se yeh sarkar aayi hai, hamare industry ka baarah baj gaya.”
On the floor above him, stacks of leather sheets touch the high ceiling, but there are few workers around the giant whirring machines treating and drying leather. Shahin says he’s had to cut back on monthly pay, from an average of Rs 8-10,000 to just around Rs 4,000 now.
Shahin is one of tens of thousands of people dependent on bovine hide on the southern fringes of Kolkata. Most of the workers in the complex are backward Muslims and scheduled castes, who live in ramshackle quarters or cheek-by-jowl hutments.
But life is increasingly difficult. The rates of leather sheets have fallen from Rs 50 a feet in 2014 to Rs 22 a feet now. Orders are down 60%, hurt also by a collapsing market in Europe and China.
“The message has gone out in the international market that the Indian political climate is not favourable for the leather industry. We used to get most of our material from Uttar Pradesh. The cattle market ban has made it difficult,” says Tauheed Alam. He thinks the Uttar Pradesh elections, where the BJP cruised to an emphatic victory, was a “big factor”.
Such tales abound in the complex, one of Asia’s largest that is still one of the best hopes for the industry – after all leather and allied industries employs about a million people in the state and account for 25% of India’s leather exports.
Last month, representatives of tanneries in Uttar Pradesh’sKanpur met Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra, asking to be allotted land near Kolkata. Local workers are also buoyed by chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s fierce opposition to the cattle market order. “We hope for the best from the state government…we know the Centre cannot do this,” says Mohammad Ishaque, who runs his own factory.
The crisis has hurt a host of ancillary small-scale industries – many of them micro units that make handbags, belts, small purses and wallets in hundreds of shops and makeshift warehouses that dot the outer fringes of Kolkata. These make their way to the many footpath stalls in Esplanade, Padmapukur and other more genteel neighbourhoods, and often end up as the blink-and-you-miss Gucci fakes.
“Getting hold of raw materials is slowly becoming more difficult. We had 55 workers making moneybags. Now there are 30,” says Rafikul Islam, who runs a unit near the leather complex.
The leather industry zoomed over the past decade on the back of cheap raw materials, making India the world’s second-largest producer and putting cash in the hands of the country’s poorest communities, who mostly cured hides in small home units.
But now, in BJP-run Uttar Pradesh, successive state government decrees since Yogi Adityanath’sascent to power have left behind a trail of distress. In the bustling back alleys of Agra that houses a centuries-old footwear industry, Dalits and Muslims are the worst hit by the diktat.