Leather Lackluster!

 Due to highest per capita consumption of mutton and beef, Kashmir is major exporter of raw material to leather industry in North India. But the lack of processing facilities back home remains the major obstacle in realizing its full potential in the state’s economy. Bilal Handoo profiles the industry and stakeholders involved in it.

Kashmir is major exporter of raw material to leather industry in North IndiaPic: Bilal Bahadur
Kashmir is major exporter of raw material to leather industry in North India                    Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Archaic shops in old Srinagar’s Chattabal area house scores of leather artisans. Their faces have a stark resemblance with weathered appearance of their shops. Over the years, mushrooming of new shops and concrete structures around the once famed leather market has apparently pushed artisans into obscurity with “drastic decline” in their customer baseline.

Among the gallery of these medieval shops, Showkat Bhat, 38, displays some outdated leather items in his shop. With hardly any customer turning up at his shop, he and his worker lazily run their hands on leather scratch. “There are not many takers of this trade now,” says Bhat, who learnt tricks of this trade from his late father. “We could have left the trade long ago, but lack of alternative is forcing us to stay.”

Adjacent to his shop, another leather artisan, Zubair Mir, 42, is silently drawing designs on second hand leather sheets. A few old leather items rest on the dusty shelves. “People are not interested in leather products anymore,” Mir says, “and one of the reasons could be the quality of leather we work on.”

Mir and others leather artisans mostly make leather products from C-grade leather, which is considered sub-standard owing to its quality. “A leather bag made of C-grade leather sells between Rs 200 and Rs 250, while the same bag made of A-grade leather is sold at Rs 2000 outside Kashmir,” he says.

Artisans engaged in making leather products in Kashmir have their share in woes over non existence of proper hides (animal skin) processing unit in valley. The finished quality raw materials coming from outside prove beyond their earning capacities. “Now burden of VAT (value added tax) imposed on the import of C-grade leather from Panipat in Haryana is further taking its toll on us,” Mir rues.

More than 10 thousands artisans are currently associated with the leather sector, making jackets, shoes, purses, belts and other accessories in Kashmir. However according to government figures there are only 350 registered families currently associated with this sector.

Nazir Ahmad Darzi, general secretary of All Kashmir Leather-Fur Manufacturers, Tanners and Dyers Association, says “Kashmir produces first grade raw material, but artisans making leather products only afford C and D grades, known as Suede.”

Darzi, who himself is an artisan from Nawa Kadal area in old Srinagar, says low quality leather mars the industry by feeding market with mediocre leather products. “Kashmir continues to reap minimal share in manufacturing sector, despite being bulk exporters of raw material for leather industry in India,” Darzi says.

With local demand diminishing, almost entire raw material at present is sent outside the state for processing and conversion into various leather products and high value added items. “Kashmir produces three million sheep hides a year, but barely two percent of it is being processed locally, while rest of it is being sold at throwaway costs outside the state as we don’t have tanneries here,” a senior official in ministry of Industry and Commerce, says. “Every hide that is sent outside the valley earns us about Rs 175, which after processing is sold back to us for Rs 700,” he added.

Lack of processing tanneries in Kashmir pushes up the production costs as well. Besides, local artisans and traders are forced to sell their products at a low price to traders outside the state. Environmentalists have always been against setting up of tanneries in Kashmir as it produces highly toxic effluents.

To boost the sector, State Industrial Development Corporation, (SIDCO), state’s premier industrial developer, has reserved 1500 kanals of land for the development of a Leather Park in its 5000 kanal huge industrial estate at Lassipora, Pulwama.

Of the four leather semi-processing units, there are only two units operational in Leather Park in Lassipora including the Reem Tanneries and the Rawanda Tanneries, which has an overall treating capacity of 600 hides per day.  Officials say five more units are in the pipeline but scale and scope of their capacity is very limited.

Sameer Azad whose Reem Tanneries is the major investment in the Leather Sector (it has 25 percent stakes with Panchkula based Drish Shoes) says that leather sector can generate revenue around Rs 500 crore and can employ around 15000 people.

“Mere production of raw materials in tonnes won’t uplift leather sector in Kashmir, public participation is needed to uplift this sector,” he says. “The leather produced here is best for making shoes, jackets, purse, fashion accessories and every other leather item,” feels Azad.

His Reem Tanneries, which consumes around eighty percent of the cow hides (25000 pieces a month), is converting raw hides into wet blue at his processing unit in Lassipora. Semi processed hides from Reem Tanneries are sent to places like Kanpur and Chennai for further processing.

Analysts believe Kashmir leather industry has a potential to generate revenue of around $ 1 billion for state economy annually. On an average 3.5 million sheep and goat skins plus 1.2 million cattle hides are available in the Kashmir market every year.

A leather artisian working in his shop. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
A leather artisian working in his shop.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

 “Manufacturing of leather products done in Kashmir is too insignificant and highly labour intensive,” Sheikh Manzoor, owner of Al-Karam Leathers in old city’s Aali Kadal area, says. “Lack of industrial infrastructure including storage facility is preventing people from taking up initiatives towards manufacturing sector.”

Big shots in leather industry say Kashmir’s climate provides one of the best environments for leather, since valley’s meat consumption is three times more than the national average. That leaves the state with abundance of raw material in shape of animal skins which, after some degree of refinement, are later sent to manufacturing concerns in different parts of India.

“If government will show a little concern in developing this sector in Kashmir, it will not only attract international investors but will also help in curbing  the prevailing unemployment problem in the state,” Manzoor, whose Al-Karam leathers has an annual turnover of  Rs 5 crore  through exporting animal skins, says.

At Jamalatta area in Srinagar’s old city, raw hide dealers are busy collecting hides of sheep, goat, and cattle mostly from abattoirs in Srinagar and also from villages. The workers are tanning raw hides with a coat of non-iodised salt and other materials at various storage points from where they are segregated and transported to various places outside Kashmir.

“Kashmiri hides fetch better prices compared to hide available in Delhi,” Mushtaq Ahmad, a rawhide dealer, says. “Animal hides produced in Kashmir are valued for their high quality.”

Around three million pieces of rawhide are transported to different tanneries and leather factories in Delhi, Kanpur, Agra and Chennai where various leather products like jackets, boots, wallets, purses and belts are designed and made.

“Voracious meat-eating habit of the people in the valley plays a key role in the regular supply of huge number of raw hides,” Mushtaq says.

Statistics and figures apart, lack of innovation in the sector is hampering Kashmir’s leather sector growth. Till some bold majors are taken by the government to help Kashmir’s leather industry shine again, artists can only hope for some miracles to happen to help them get out of the poverty.

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