Bright dreams of leather industry in Make India, but skinners denied their due

Donning a leather jacket and shoes may sound fancy, but those that carry out the dirty job of skinning the hides to provide for the raw material, seldom get their due.

Leather industry is among the twenty-five core sectors taken up as a priority in the 'Make In India,'initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the other hand, those that supply raw material to fuel the sector are facing the brunt of the establishment and self-proclaimed cow-vigilantes alike.According to figures obtained from Leather Skill Sector Council of government of India, the country is the second largest producer of leather footwear and garments, making up 10 per cent of world's leather production. The current turnover of the leather industry in India is nearly Rs 79, 392crores. However, the big numbers hardly translate into any profits for the community of skinners.

According to Arpita Paul, executive director, Indian Leather Products Association, cow hides are relatively more in demand over buffalo or sheep hides by manufacturers of best quality leather footwear. With the recent wave of protests following flogging of Dalits in Gujarat for skinning dead cows and a sentiment of unrest simmering in the community that has refused to pick dead cow carcasses or skin them, it remains to be seen whether this will have a cascading effect on leather industry.

Moreover, India missed it's leather export targets for the financial year 2015 - 16. While last year, India had exported leather goods worth $6.58 billion to countries like US, Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Hong Kong and Spain, this year it recorded a 10.11 % negative growth by exporting goods worth $5.92 billion. 60% of India's leather is exported and experts said that it is facing tough competition from Portugal, Slovakia and Romania when it comes to lower costs of leather and it's products.

Persons at the bottom of the rung are hit the most due to this. The community of skinners are unhappy with the prices the cattle skins fetch them at present. Two years ago, they say they acquired a rate of

Rs1,200 by selling one cattle hide. The leather industry is seeing a slump, they feel. Currently, one good quality cattle hide does not fetch more than Rs 200 or 500, depending upon the quality of retrieved hide. "The hides are sold to traders who supply them to tanneries in Kanpur, Kolkata and Madras. Many tanneries in Kanpur have been shut by the government. Inorganic tanneries that involve processing of leather through chemicals are polluting rivers. Up to 50% of tanneries in Kanpur have been shut due to threat of increasing pollution of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in the past few years," said Suresh Rathod (35), a cattle skinner in Chamariya Para of Rajkot, Gujarat.

Up to two decades back, Kalabhai Sagathiya (70) recounts, the hides that were skinned were tanned locally. The Central Model Tannery in Rajkot was run under Khadi Gramodyog by the government. The very idea of setting up the tannery was to promote non-violent production of leather products.

"In those days, we supplied the hides locally and fetched a good price. The leather was tanned organically by using plant dyes. There was no pollution. After the advent of inorganic process of tanning, the Rajkot tannery closed down. This is because hides processed with chemicals acquire more sheen and look glitzy. They are preferred by urban customers. After the Rajkot tannery shut down, we have had to supply raw hides outside of the city. Thus, the prices it fetches, are no longer under our control," says Kalabhai.

Each part of the dead cattle has a price attached to it, says Hirabhai Parmar (60), a Dalit who employs up to twenty-five workers to skin cattle and collect their bones. His godown located in Wadhwan village of Surendranagar, a town three hours away from Rajkot, unfolds an eerie sight. It stocks close to 2,000 cattle hides. Behind the godown, is an incineration pit made up of red bricks containing close to eight tonnes of cattle bones. "It is monsoon, and so the process of incineration of bones is on a temporary halt. When the pit accumulates close to ten to fifteen tonnes of bones, we will set it to blaze by using a barrel of kerosene," says Parmar.

The labourers in Parmar's godown earn barely Rs200 a day for skinning and incinerating cattle bones. "We are hardly making any profit. We make Rs 1,000 behind incinerating powder obtained out of one tonne of cow bone. An annual sale of from twenty tonnes fetches us only Rs 20,000 a year," he said.

The bones are reduced to hollow white pieces that are packed in sacks and stacked in the godown. The sacks find their way to Morbi in Gujarat and other places that utilise the powder of burnt bones to make bone china crockery.

Outside Parmar's godown, lay a heap of cattle horns. "The horns are used to make buttons of apparel; most dealers come from New Delhi to pick up the horns. We have not heard from them this year. So these lay unattended here, raising a stink," Parmar says.

The hooves and burnt bone are used in manufacturing fertilizers. The hides, particularly that of cow, after undergoing the process of tanning are used in making boots, chappals and jackets. Cow hides from Rajkot are picked up by traders to be supplied to leather factories in Kanpur, Madras and Kolkata. While bones are burnt in Surendranagar's plant, in Kadikalol town near Ahmedabad, they are chemically processed to make bone powder, further used in various industrial processes. "From manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs to polishing of white sugar granules, or processing tea leaves to make tea powder and manufacturing of tooth paste, cattle bone powder is an essential raw material," explains Parmar.

Navinbhai's home in Chamariya Para is full of chatter. Women gossip as they clink utensils to cook food, children who have just returned from school run around the house in glee. Women and children of the skinning households are never allowed near the gory sites of the dumping grounds or the godowns where the skins are stocked. Men of the community have consciously decided that they want to keep their family away from the trauma that they face in going about their tough jobs every single day.

"I have been working in the skinning profession since I was fifteen. I will not subject my children to this drudgery. Our business has never been recognised or regularised. So, I want my children to take up professional job," says Navinbhai. Dharmishtha, his daughter has appeared for twelfth grade examinations and secured 82 per cent. "I want to pursue nursing as a profession in future and touch people's lives," she confidently says.

Kalabhai has been dealing in the skinning business since the past fifty years. He says, "My grandson Aman studies in an English medium school. I will make him an engineer when he grows up. He will not enter the dirty business of skinning."

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