The Slow Death of Kanpur’s Leather Economy and UP’s Job Crisis

With UP polls on, will the victor party pay heed to the issues of the youth and the once-booming leather industry?

5 min read

Shadab Hussain (Photo Courtesy: IndiaSpend)

Shadab Hussain, 23, dropped out of school at the age of 11 to work for a leather factory in Kanpur, the oldest and largest industrial city of India’s most populous state. To support his family, parents and four siblings, he worked eight-hour shifts everyday for a monthly salary of Rs 9,000.

Over eight years, he remained semi-literate, but he learned the fine art of creating new shoe designs from photos, making sure the shoes would fit, last and be comfortable. But his skills did not change his status as a casual worker with no medical or other benefits and no prospect of pension.

Shutting of Tanning Units

As Hussain came of age working with cow hides, Kanpur’s once booming leather economy began to shrink, pushed to the edge by falling global demand, environmental regulations and contemporary cow politics.

Three years ago, with no prospects of a better life or a pay hike, Hussain and five friends from his mohalla (neighbourhood) quit the only job they knew. He drives an autorickshaw now; the others run roadside snack stalls.

In the 1990s, Kanpur’s leather industry employed a million workers (there are no official data), according to IndiaSpend’s inquiries with the government and leather-industry representatives. With 176 of 400 leather tanning units shutting over 10 years, according to a joint secretary – who requested anonymity since he is not authorised to talk to the media – in UP’s industries department, that number has halved.

But earnings from the auto were irregular, from Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a month. So, Hussain is about to begin a job designing and fixing ‘uppers’ (the upper part of a shoe that contains the tongue) at a shoe factory in Noida, UP but an extension of the metropolitan region of Delhi, India’s richest province, by per capita income.

“They are giving me Rs 12,000 a month but the working conditions are good,” he said, describing how he would work in an air-conditioned workplace, be given a managerial task, monitoring the supply line, and stand a better chance to get married.

Kab tak auto chalaunga. Long-term mein thoda standard job chahiye na? (How long will I drive an auto to make a living? In the long term, I need a job of some standard, don’t I?)” said Hussain.

Hussain’s story is common enough in UP, a state with about 70 million unemployed young people, aged 15 to 34, comprising a fourth of jobless Indians. UP’s median age is 23, the least in India, and jobs – as the findings of a poll commissioned by IndiaSpend reported on 6 February 2017 – are this election’s leading issue.

Decline of UP’s Industrial Powerhouse Offer Clues to Its Future

To understand why UP – a state with 138 million voters – cannot offer gainful employment to young people like Hussain, we looked for answers in the decline of Kanpur’s leading industry, leather and leather products.

Kanpur’s financial well-being is important to UP. The district that houses the city and its industrial areas contributed Rs 19,000 crore – or 4 percent – to the state’s gross domestic product of Rs 4.6 lakh crore ($ 75 million) in 2013-14, according to the UP government data. This is the fourth-highest contribution by a single district – the differences between the top four are slender – along with Agra, Lucknow and Gautam Buddha Nagar (which includes Noida).

With 2 percent of UP’s population, Kanpur employs 6 percent of UP’s urban workforce, according to the sixth economic census, 2012-13. Only Noida generates more jobs – it employs about 10 percent of UP’s urban working population.

UP has 16 percent of India’s working youth (15-34), and 20 percent of its child population (5-14), which will join the job market over the next decade.

The future for these children is not good. Like Hussain, nine in every 100 students in UP leave school before completing Class IV, the highest primary school dropout rate among India’s large states, according to 2015-16 district information system of education data. It has one teacher per 39 school students, as IndiaSpend reported on 5 January, the worst in India, and the lowest enrolment rate among large states.

How Kanpur’s Leather Industry Lost Its Shine

Called ‘Cawnpore’ during the Raj, Kanpur was once among India’s leading cities. It ran its first electric tram in 1907, the same year as Bombay, and seven years after trams were first introduced in Kolkata.

The first textile company, Elgin Mills, was started here, five years after the revolt of 1857, paving way for nine textile companies before the start of the 20th century, making Kanpur northern India’s biggest industrial city.

Post-Independence, most large Kanpur industries hit a growth block. The textile mills went into decline after nationalisation in the 1970s. The other big Kanpur brand, Lal Imli blankets, set up by British India Corporation in 1876, also died a slow death post-nationalisation. It was leather that led the revival of Kanpur’s manufacturing sector in the 1980s.

The district is still the leading producer of leather and leather goods – predominantly footwear – with a quarter (268) of India’s footwear factories. Footwear exports form 40 percent of India’s leather exports and a third of India’s leather (and leather-product) exports go from Kanpur. Multiple regions in Tamil Nadu together contribute to 34 percent of these exports.

But Kanpur’s leather industry, as we said, is now in such a state of distress that large-scale migration is now evident, as the city’s population growth-rate drops.

Figures in %; Note: GBNagar = Gautam Buddha Nagar, includes NOIDASource: <a href="">Census of India</a>
Figures in %; Note: GBNagar = Gautam Buddha Nagar, includes NOIDASource: Census of India

UP’s population grew 20 percent over the decade ended 2011, and while other large and growing UP cities, such as Lucknow, Agra and Meerut stayed close to this number, Kanpur’s growth rate fell to 9 percent, after seven decades of a 20 percent increase. Noida grew at over 40 percent, indicating rapid urbanisation and development.

Cow Politics Now Impacts the Flow of Raw Material

Before 2014, about 1,000 cattle were brought to Kanpur’s largest abbatoir. Last year, after three years of political heat and emboldened Hindu vigilantism, this dropped to 500 and post-notebandi – as the scrapping of 86 percent of bank notes, by value, is termed colloquially – the number fell to less than 100, industry representatives told IndiaSpend on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitive nature of the issue. The numbers are now rising, slowly.

“Cattle, which are now become a liability to farmers, run about 10 industries,” said Taj Alam, vice president of Uttar Pradesh Leather Industries Association. These industries include pharmaceuticals where gelatin prepared from hoofs, horns and the insides of hides are used, soaps where animal fat is used, upholstery where hair is used.

No Place for the Small Entrepreneur

Worst impacted by the slowdown are small-scale leather shoemakers.

“Leather now represents the expensive segment in fashion merchandise,” said Mohammed Raees, a footwear maker in Begumganj, Kanpur’s traditional small-scale footwear hub. “Cheaper footwear and ladies’ purses can be produced using newly-developed polymers, which people can afford and prefer as well.”

Begumganj and adjoining Chamanganj housed at least 1,000 household leather factories, according to local residents. These small businessmen had to adapt with changing market preferences. “Indians now demand cheaper stuff for regular use,” said Ahmed. “We had to change too.”

Guddu Mohammad, 50, a shoe worker, and his four associates work as skilled artisans in the only surviving household shoe-making factory in Begumganj. “There were thousands of such shops in my childhood in Kanpur,” he recalled. “The large-industry revolution, which swallowed small shoemakers like us, could not accommodate all of us skilled workers.”

(This article was originally published by IndiaSpend and has been edited for length. The writer is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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