Dharavi Leather Industry: Nagnath Leather Processing Workshop
Director: Richa Hushing
Duration: 00:22:34; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 28.955; Saturation: 0.057; Lightness: 0.216; Volume: 0.102; Cuts per Minute: 6.823; Words per Minute: 65.749
Summary: The leather industry in Dharavi, which is popularly known by the generic name tannery, started around 1950s. Though it was started mainly by the Tamil migrants, later some Maharashtrians and UP migrants too got into the trade. The leather business ceased to be lucrative since the 90s. The reasons behind the decline are many: a) government cracked down on many workshops on account of public health and environmental issues. It was claimed that the tanning activity (making rough leather out of the animal hide) was hazardous to public health. b) Another issue was that the tanning activities was polluting the water in the Dharavi creek and severely affecting the fishing trade of the Koli community. c) It was popularly believed that much under world activities and smuggling was being conducted under the cover of the tanneries. d) Since 1984 many schemes were launched in different phases to develop the land in Dharavi for more gentrified neighbourhood. As a result the land price in Dharavi sky rocketed and many tannery owners found it more profitable to sell the land to the builders. The first three issues made the govt. ban the tanning activities and regulate the trade with more vigilance. The tanning activities then got shifted to Chennai (where a large leather industry has been in existence even before the Dharavi industry started) or small towns in Maharashtra. That obviously has increased the cost of production and has reduced employment opportunity. Even if there is some clandestine tanning activity still taking place in Dharavi, the production of it cannot be voluminous.
Still many units survived as the workshops that worked on the later phases of the procedure. After the tanning in the far away places the rough leather would be sent to Dharavi, then it would be treated to make finer leather, coloured iand dried and then exported / sold or stitched into consumers’ goods and exported / sold. So though the situation got worse since the ‘90s a part of the industry was still functioning and even expanding. But in last few years two major issues have developed. The government has launched a scheme to develop the whole of Dharavi simultaneously into high rise colonies. It is proposed that each legal structure in the present Dharavi would be rehabilitated within the skyscrapers. But the economic activities in Dharavi, which are also core livelihood activities, such as pottery, leather works etc. need ground space and open roof tops and cannot be accommodated in the linear multi-storied buildings. Moreover, the area of space that would be allotted to these workshops is much less than the present establishments. In practical terms the scheme means either eviction for these workshops or relocation in far away places. The second development is the collapse of the international economy and sharp decrease in the export order. The situation got aggravated by the introduction of new rule of quality control in consumers’ leather goods. Currently the big market brands, who are the main clients of the industry, are insisting on expensive quality control proof. This has proved to be the proverbial last straw for the people who supply goods to the export market.
Under this circumstance we visited the Nagnath leather processing unit in Dharavi.
Shot of a leather workshop. Sheets of buffalo leather are being coloured. (Even when it is calf leather the leather industry people tend to claim it to be of buffalo. This is done in order to avoid attacks from the militant Hindu outfits who oppose cow slaughtering on the pretext of religious belief) Track shot of coloured leather sheets being dried from the ceiling. After that the sheets will be spread on the terrace for permanent drying. The role of terrace is pivotal in the livelihood practices of Dharavi. It survival of pottery and leather workshops, the two important industries in the settlement, depend heavily on the terrace space for drying.
Three women are seen doing menial work.
protection of cow
Nagnath, the owner of the workshop is being interviewed. He has inherited the tannery from his father. His family is the traditional artisans in leather. Their community is Chamars from Sholapur. Due to the gory practices of slaughtering, processing animal hide etc. associated with the occupation the Chamars are traditionally much looked down upon by the upper caste people. In some pockets they are still considered as untouchables. Though generally in the city the severeness of such stigma is much less effective.
This is the only tannery which also openly works with pig hide. Pig leather is supposed to be the sturdiest one and used for low end products. It could be because most of the tanneries are owned by the Muslims and they consider pig as a religious taboo. Hence even if they work on pig hide they are likely to hide it from the public.
Nagnath's tannery only work on the final part of the process – smoothening, colouring and packaging for export.
Q: What do you make with this leather?
Nagnath: We make shoes… sandals.
Q: what leather is this?
Nagnath: this is of sheep and that one is of pig. That one there is of buffalo. All the leather required for international market is made here. Pig hide which nobody else makes in Dharavi get made here. We work on all kinds of leather.
Q: What is the difference in all these leathers made of sheep, pig and buffalo?
Nagnath: Lot of difference… lot.
(speaks in Marathi with the workers)
Q: among your lathers which one is the best?
Nagnath: the best is of cow hide. Then the one made of sheep. The grains are less which make the texture of these very soft.
Q: So how many women work in your factory:
Nagnath: She is also working for a week only. I generally do not keep women employees. All my male workers have gone home (village) and have not been back yet.
Male employee: Sit here and then fold these.
Male employee – off frame (to another woman): they want to talk with you
The woman: What is there to talk?
Male employee – off frame: Just … what work you do… how…
The woman: What I do – can't they see that?
Male employee-off frame: Still you tell them… your work, what your husband does…
(work related conversations)
Women are mostly invisible in the leather industry. Though traditionally, where it is a community occupation, women may have participated in the production process. But in the city where the work is organized within a small scale industry women have never been employed as worker. But only recently with the slump in the market and the resulted economic crisis, the tannery owners have started looking for cheaper labour in women. These women do not come with any traditional skill or community based background. Hence they become individual unskilled wage labourers. As they come as individuals workers there is no language or caste / community affiliation work among them. In this tannery all the workers belong to different language group.
Q: How much do you get?
Woman: Rs.2000. (less that 50 US$)
(women speak among themselves as they continue to work)
Q: What are you talking about?
Woman: Can't speak in Hindi… What to say?
Q: Yes, that is actually my problem.
A male co-worker: They are asking how you feel working with men…
Woman: … this employer gives one month's salary at the end.
Man: somebody pays after the month, some after fifteen days. If somebody is a wage labourer and has no money to survive then they are paid everyday. According to the need it is adjusted. Workers are like that. If you ask them they will talk about their household problems. Leaders will talk about politics. The Nagnaths will talk about the situation in business.
Woman: now see, isn't our time up now? It is 10 minutes to six now (and we are still here).
The women feel self conscious to give interview due to the unfamiliarity with the language and also because they find it difficult to believe that somebody is interested in their testimonies. It generally needs much more rapport building exercise to actually make women speak to the camera. Whereas their male co-worker is too eager to appear on camera. The difference is in the comfort level with public life.
The Man: The people who live on rent are in most difficult situation.
Q: What were you saying?
Woman (in Tamil accent): People who have homes are okay people who live on rent are in great poverty. If they work then only they would get some money, no work no money, no food to eat.
Another woman: The landlords ask for rent…
The man: Does your husband drink?
The woman: No.
Another woman: We earn Rs.2000. How much to spend on the household, how much to eat and how much to spend on alcohol? If he spends on alcohol then where will the basic food come from… if he keeps sitting in pubs?
The woman: We have no money. Our men do not drink or do other things.
The man: Does you husband drink or not:
The woman: No he does not. Do you drink… hey Sriram.
The man: No, I don't. If I drink what would my children eat?
The woman: That is everybody's issue… poverty…
(work related conversation)
The male worker talks about the plight of the migrant people who live on rent in Dharavi. Currently almost 50% of the population in Dharavi settlement lives on rent. On one hand large numbers of recently migrant wage workers have no other choice than live on rent. Also some middle class people come to Dharavi to avail housing on cheaper rent. On the other hand with the decline of the local economy more and more people are renting out a part of their houses. Many shanties have erected tiny attics for the purpose of renting out. Another interesting thing is that though the rent for those tiny attics are as poultry as Rs.500/- per month, the one time deposit (security money) for the same could be as much as Rs.100,000/- to Rs. 200,000/-. But the issue is that in the present redevelopment scheme there has been no provision made for these people who live on rent. They will be the worst affected under this scheme.
Nagnath (the owner): …What to say about development. Since childhood we have been hearing about it… now I don't know. Earlier schemes are all cancelled. If it comes through then I may do some planning in Chennai. I am preparing for it.
Q: So the plan is to shift the entire set up to Chennai?
Nagnath: Yes. .. Chennai – Ranipet Visharam … Dharavi is definitely going to close down. Still there is no other plan. I have set up such a big machine… just recently, one or one and a half years back
Q: I am wondering in the present circumstances what your strategy is… despite of recession, leather market is down… still your business seems to be in good shape. How are you surviving?
Nagnath: Business is now in the low. There are various problems. I do export business. I have no relation with the local market. I work with European countries. We don't directly export but deal with the exporters in Bombay. Till now… whatever goods I made… there was no problem as such. Whatever leather was made got sold. Now they ask for testing (quality certification)… they say it gives skin infections. Now a new group has come – chromium 6, C 6… they say it causes stomach cancer. I had never heard of such things. Now it has become very strict. We have to use some chemicals for Chromium 6. Otherwise we don't get good rate in international market. The chemical is so expensive that it affects the quality of the leather. So the business has gone down.
Q: But you have started the business with so much courage… I am sure you are not going to let it go. What is your strategy… you are daring?
Nagnath: Don't yet have any concrete plan. This generation of ours will go like this only. The work will easily run till that time. Otherwise there is Chennai… can set up my own infrastructure or may get some works from outside.
Primitive man hunted wild animals for food; he removed the hides and
skins from the dead animal carcass and used them as crude tents, clothing and footwear. The earliest record of the use of leather dates from the Palaeolithic period, cave paintings discovered in caves near Lerida in Spain depict the use of leather clothing.
Excavation of palaeolithic sites has yielded bone tools used for scraping hides and skins to remove hair. The skins rapidly putrefied and became useless, so a method of preservation was needed. The earliest method was to stretch the hides and skins on the ground to dry, rubbing them with fats and
animals brains while they dried. This had a limited preserving and softening action. It seems likely that man first discovered how to make leather when he found that animal skins left lying on a wet forest floor became tanned naturally by chemicals released by
decaying leaves and vegetation. Much later the use of earth salts containing alum as a tanning agent to produce soft white leather was discovered. Through the centuries leather manufacture expanded steadily and by mediaeval times most towns and villages had a tannery, situated on the local stream or river, which they used as a source of water for
processing. With the discovery and introduction of basic chemicals like lime and sulphuric acid, tanners gradually abandoned their traditional methods and leather production slowly became a chemically based
series of processes.
Currently Chromium is used to tan the leather. A major international environmental campaign is launched recently against the use of chromium in footwear and other personal commodities as it is believed to hazardouse for health. The leather industry in Dharavi exports for big international brand such as Gucci, Versace etc. Hence presently they are under pressure to conduct more tests and use more chemicals to reduce the contaminating Chromium component in the leather. Obviously the process of leather making has become very expensive.
Nagnath's father was an employee in the organized sector of automobile manufacturing. His shift from the organized sector to the unorganized sector of small scale leather industry portrays an often repeated movement pattern of the migrant work force in the city. They came from the jinterland of Maharshtra. Though tannery is their community occupation, Nagnath is the only non-Muslim Marathi owner of a leather workshop in Dharavi. The tanneries in Chennai and Kanpur precede the existence of Dharavi tanneries. The proximity to the metropolis helped the Dharavi industry in developing a market both abroad and India. But under the pressure from the development schemes and environmental lobbies, the people of Dharavi industry are contemplating to shift to Kanpur or Chennai. The industry as manufacturing unit may survive through this shift, but the huge number of work force who work as casual labours in the industry will be rendered jobless. The redevelopment scheme is completely oblivious to this consequence.
Q: You are saying that your main market is in Europe… but Europe itself is in…
Nagnath: … Well its running… according to their ways. We don't know anything about the international market. We take orders from the people in Bombay and deliver to them.
Q: How do you import all these material?
Nagnath: We don't import?
Q: I mean how do you get all these raw material?
Nagnath: Chennai… Ranipet… Visharam…big industry is there… in the South. In Kanpur too there is a big industry, but we do not have contact there. .We brings material from Chennai only. It is not import… it is also got from India only.
Q: Since how many years have you been in this business?
The Nagnath: My father is in this for 60 years… me for 10 years. My brother has been here for last 15 years. This is our ancestoral trade. Leather work is our caste occupation. We are from Dhor caste.
Q: Which caste?
Nagnath: Dhore. In our community for generations we have been doing this leather work. We just took that work forward.
Q: Where are you originally from?
Nagnath: From Sholapur.
Q: How did you come to Dharavi? How did your father come?
Nagnath: In search of work… looking for work he ended up in this line… earlier he was…
Q: Where was he earlier?
Nagnath: Where they make Ambassador cars. Then there was some problem there… so he came to this line. Here he got good response and he could expand the business. But now there is no strength in this business. There is no work, the competition is stiff, it has become difficult to sell leather. Then this Chromium 6 and all that… these problems are also there…
small scale industry
Dharavi tanneries which started around early '50s came under storm first in the '80s. That is the time the reputation of the tanneries' association with the crime scene in the city came to its head. Around the same time the animal hide-ing procedure of the tannery came under scrutiny as health hazards. The tanneries were also blamed for polluting the water in Dharavi creek and thus affecting the fishing trade, the traditional livelihood of the Koli community. The government brought strict regulation to control the hiding procedure. The second blow came in 1991 under the scheme of SRA (slum rehabilitation authority). That is the time selling the land used for the tanneries became more profitable that running the tanneries.
Q: You must be aware…what is the history of leather in Dharavi? First the Tamil people started it but now the Muslims and the Marathis work in this trade…
Nagnath: In Dharavi the WIT tannery was of the Pandit people… Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi… their family used to own a tannery near the garden. There was another tannery near the tower. There some problems…some leather problem some labour problems – so they closed down.
Q: Could you stop the sound for two minutes? (in reference to the noise of the machine)
Nagnath: Yes. Carry on.
Q: Tell us about the history of leather in Dharavi. Your father, uncle all worked here… they must have told you
Nagnath: I have not really paid attention to it. There were WIT (Western India tannery) Tannery, Chattiyer Tannery, Wasim tannery… these were big tanneries. Mr. Gaitubde had a tannery. Because of the pollution department everybody had to close down. Govt. officials of the pollution dept. came and sealed those tanneries. Presently there is no work in Dharavi. You can't even see how leather is made... hiding... etc… nothing. My father can talk about history… what was there, what not. South Indian people were there in large number… Chatiyer etc. were also there. The tannery in the front, Vasant Tannery belonged to the Chatiyers. This much I know… since I came in the scene… what to do with the past.
That tannery… which was called WIT… it belonged to the Pandit family. It has closed down.
Nagnath: How and all that I don't know. I only know that it belonged to the family of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru… WIT –Western Indian Company. Rest I don't know.
Q: Since when this downslide has started?
Nagnath: since I have come the work has been reducing. For last 15 years I am in this trade… and it is steadily detoriating. For money we try our best to make fancy goods… so that the income grows.
western india tannery
Q: What about women? It is very interesting that three women are working here… how come?
Nagnath: It is a labour issue. It is dirty job, so no one wants to do it.
Women are mostly invisible in the leather industry. Though traditionally, where it is a community occupation, women may have participated in the production process. But in the city where the work is organized within a small scale industry women have never been employed as worker. But only recently with the slump in the market and the resulted economic crisis, the tannery owners have started looking for cheaper labour in women.