After outliving the Mughals and surviving the British, the leather industry in Uttar Pradesh has been losing artisans and market share since 1991, when the USSR, its last patron, disintegrated.
Agra, about 360 km west of state capital Lucknow, has been the centre of handmade shoes since emperor Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605, needed rugged footwear for his infantry.
Gradually, Agra’s handmade shoes became its second most famous brand ambassador — after, of course, the Taj.
“Handmade shoe is better than the ones made by machines, but the artisans operate on a small scale and need incentives to survive,” said Raj Kumar Sama, president of Shoe Factors Federation of Agra.
Sama couldn’t be more accurate. The artisans of Agra prefer to stay in leather business, but are shifting to other states for better prospects.
Kanpur, just 77 km west of Lucknow, lies in the beginning of a chain of activities that starts with tanneries preparing leather from raw hides. The city used to have about 500 tanneries even 30 years ago. The number is just about 100 now.
The reason is the several restrictions that the government imposed on Kanpur tanneries, as tanning operation is highly polluting.
Both Agra and Kanpur present a picture of decay. Both cities suffer from chronic power shortages that affect shoemaking.
They have alternative arrangements of power generator sets, which, in turn, push up the costs considerably.
The rising raw leather costs, besides others, confined footwear manufacturing only in the hands of big players. Also, there is the threat of the Chinese dragon. Cheap footwear from China has forced the owners of small units to manufacture footwear made of synthetic materials.
This also led to the exodus of a large number of traditional artisans, who specialised in handcrafting leather shoes, leaving only about 200,000 individuals solely dependent on this trade.
“Income has dipped as orders have dropped. We are living in increasingly tough conditions,” said Jagdish, an artisan of Ratanpura locality in Agra.
The economic slowdown has made the walk more painful. “The slowdown has eroded 25-30 per cent of the market, putting 2.5 lakh people in great difficulty,” regretted Mukhtarul Ameen, director of the Kanpur-based Super House group of tanneries.
The shoes of Agra came to share a fate similar to Indian tea. Like Indian tea, the former USSR emerged as the biggest consumer of handmade shoes of Agra over the years. But after its disintegration in 1991, the overseas buyer evaporated overnight, exposing the industry to competition.
“But even earlier, in 1974, Uttar Pradesh Leather Development and Marketing Corporation was launched to help small leather units, but it failed to take off,” recalled Devki Nandan Sone, secretary, UP Leather Promotion Committee.
The twin leather centres of Agra and Kanpur are trying to shake off poor infrastructure, shifting market demands, competition from machine-made products and economic slowdown.
Tomorrow: Textile industry in Sambalpur