Dharavi’s leather industry battles hard times

The business has always been mired in controversies due to the stench and pollution it causes
To reach the tannery in Dharavi is an achievement of sorts. One has to navigate through a maze of shanties, bear the overwhelming stench of goat, sheep and buffalo skins, and fight through the clouds of flies that are attracted by the exposed skin and the fluid dripping off it.

The workers in the business are quite reluctant to speak with strangers, and prevent photos from being clicked. The reason is simple. Their business has always been mired in controversy due to the stench and the pollution caused by it.

“There were 40 tanneries once upon a time in Dharavi but now there are only four left. The closure was due to pollution. Now the tannery business is shifting to Chennai, Kolkata and other places. The leather industry was the identity of Dharavi a few years ago as the area was away from the city and pollution didn’t matter then. commuters used to put handkerchiefs to their noises while passing by the area. But its leather bags and jackets have always been in demand,” says Ahmed M. Patel of Sufityan Exports, a successful businessman in the area.

Since a proper system of disposal is unavailable, the workers in the tannery simply throw the residue of animal skin fluids and other chemicals on to the lanes, thus increasing the stench and causing pollution.

Mr Patel further adds, “At present, the industry has a turnover of about Rs 200 crore in Dharavi alone and about 10,000 people are involved in the business. We just bring raw animal skin, salt it and send it to tanneries.”

Making leather goods is Mr Patel’s family business. It was started by his grandfather who was the first lawyer in Dhanduka village of Gujarat, he claims. After the Partition, his legal practice was not doing well and the family shifted to Dharavi and started the business in leather, says Mr Patel.
It was not just Mr Patel’s grandfather who started a tannery in Dharavi, the locals say that late Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s family members also owned a tannery in Dharavi years ago.
Leather goods are in demand but the industry at Dharavi has been going through a rough patch. The main competition is from China that uses cheap labour and to make bags, boots, jackets in a bulk that capture markets easily.

“Our only advantage is that is that they make leather goods from pig skin which some countries do not buy. We mostly use buffalo skin which is considered to be of good quality,” Mr Patel said.
He also rubbished controversy over using cow skin for making leather bags. “I have specifically mentioned on our contract papers with the buyers that we do not use cow skin. In India, the skin that is in demand is of buffalo followed by small animals like goat and sheep,” he added. Also, online shopping is eating into the markets of traditional leather shops. As a solution to the matter, Mr Patel has tied up with a few online sites and supplies them with the leather goods.

There were proposals in the past from the state government to shift the tanneries to far areas of like Ambernath, but they did not work out. The transportation cost would have been higher. “It is difficult to get labour for the industry to do the dirty work in the tannery. In the olden days, children were forced in it. Now very poor people are involved,” Mr Patel said.

Thousands of beautiful bags and jackets displayed on the shops on Dharavi’s main road entice many fashion-savvy people but the condition of these labourers and their toil is masked behind these fancy shops.
This is the second in a series on Dharavi and its businesses.

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