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‘Have no choice but to borrow’: Kanpur leather industry owners reel under second Covid wave

The nationwide lockdown imposed last year to check the spread of Covid had already dealt a blow to Kanpur's leather industry. The second wave has made things only worse.

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Kanpur: Ranvijay Singh, in his thirties, was eagerly looking forward to the sultry months of April and May this year. He expected a brisk footfall at Singh Footwears, his footwear shop in Jajmau, as Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramzan. But little did he know it’ll be a struggle to stay afloat.

The nationwide lockdown imposed last year to check the spread of Covid pandemic had already dealt a blow to his business. Buyers started returning to his retail shop, though in small numbers, from November last year. But now, the lethal second wave of Covid-19 has thrown businesses completely out of gear in Jajmau, Kanpur’s biggest leather retail market.

“In January last year, before the corona missile hit us the first time, my shop saw sales of around Rs 1 lakh in a month. Today, the sales have dipped to Rs 20,000 per month. I had two employees in my shop, whose services I discontinued because I could not pay their salary,” Singh said.

Ranvijay Singh, owner of Singh Footwear, outside his shop at KDA market in Kanpur | Moushumi Das Gupta | ThePrint

Singh’s mother and aunt now sit in the shop to help him. “Just tell me, how am I supposed to make ends meet with Rs 20,000 sales and provide for my family of five,” he said.

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‘People afraid to step out’

Kanpur is one of the biggest hubs of leather trade, both retail and exports, not only in Uttar Pradesh but in the country. The city contributes approximately 30% to the leather trade in India. The Jajmau area in the city houses between 250-300 tanneries, where leather is processed from raw hides to finished products that are mostly exported. Kanpur accounts for roughly Rs 6,000 crore of leather exports from India.

But now, the bustling streets of Kanpur Development Authority (KDA) market in Jajmau have once again fallen silent. Rows and rows of footwear and leather accessories shops in the area wear a deserted look, though the market is open on weekdays when there is no lockdown.

Many retailers in the area are now thinking of shutting shop and shifting to some other business.

“It’s for the first time in the last 8 years since I opened my shop that I have to borrow money to meet my daily expenses,” said Shakhawat Hussain, owner of Ringstar Shoe Company at KDA market.

His shop has seen business drop by 70 per cent compared to the corresponding period last year. “My per day sale before Covid was around Rs 15,000. Now, I will consider myself lucky if I manage to do business of even Rs 6,000 in a day,” he said.

Kanpur shoe market
Shakhawat Hussain (in blue), owner of a footwear shop in KDA market, says he had to borrow money to meet his daily expenses | Moushumi Das Gupta | ThePrint

Hussain has eight employees in his shop. ”Every month, I shell out Rs 50,000 on their salaries and other expenses like energy bills. I don’t have a choice but to borrow from friends and acquaintances to meet the day-to-day expenses.”

Owners of retail footwear shops said that even though there is no lockdown in Uttar Pradesh on weekdays, the high number of cases and deaths has resulted in a fear psychosis. “People are afraid to step out. We don’t blame them. If you see what is happening around, how people are dying outside hospitals waiting for bed and oxygen, people’s fear is not unfounded,” said Sachin Mishra, another owner of a leather shoe shop at the KDA market.

Also read: ‘There’s no govt here’: At Kanpur crematorium, fixed rates for ‘free’ facilities, hours-long wait

Double whammy for leather exporters

If the retail shopkeepers are seeing business drop, the owners of big leather tanneries in Jajmau, who export finished leather goods and accessories, have witnessed a double blow.

The stringent environment norms put in place by the government to check pollution of river Ganga had already started hitting business since the last three to four years. “And then corona (virus) came. Factories here are now working to 50% of their capacity. Export figures are down by 50%,” said Nafees Azmat, director of Allied Leather Finishers Private Limited.

Azmat’s factory units in Kanpur’s Jajmau and nearby Unnao district manufacture safety shoes and industrial shoes for export to Middle East, France, Malaysia and Indonesia.

“In 2014-15, our company’s annual turnover was around Rs 58 crore. Now, it has come down to about Rs 26-Rs 27 crore. That’s how bad the leather business has been hit,” he told ThePrint.

Azmat said it is the government’s job to check pollution caused by the tanneries, but there has to be a balance.

“Most of the big tanneries installed new technology and machines to check pollution and treat the effluents discharged from the tanneries before they flow into the river. But the pollution control authorities have been arbitrary, sealing and shutting down plants. It becomes very difficult for businesses to work in such an ecosystem,” he said.

Kanpur tanneries
The tanneries in Kanpur’s Jajmau area are working at 50% of their capacity | Moushumi Das Gupta | ThePrint

The Central Pollution Control Board has identified the Kanpur stretch of the Ganga as one of the most polluted stretches, owing to tanneries releasing untreated waste into the river.

Asad K Iraqi, General Secretary, Leather Industries Welfare Association, said it’s not only Uttar Pradesh, the overall decline in export of leather and leather goods from India has been to the tune of 31 per cent.

“Between April 2020 to February 2021, India’s export figure for leather and leather goods was 3,300 million US $ as against 4,800 million US $ between April 2019 to February 2020. The major dip has been in three areas — footwear, finished leather and leather goods,” Iraqui said.

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