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Importance and Challenges of the Leather Industry

Leather industry holds an important position in India. The industry being tradition-bound provides employment to a large section of people. As you might be aware, the leather work was done in India by a specific caste. With the industrialization of leatherwork, no modernization of leather industry was undertaken.

Even there were no skill development upgrade programs for traditional leather workers so they could be better equipped to deal with the challenges of 20th and 21st centuries. As a result the industry has been slowly but surely declining. Moreover, there has been no new research and development (R & D) in the industry.

With no innovation, the Indian leather industry is not able to provide trendy modern products. It is leading to gradual shrinkage. The declined is clear from the export figures. During 2014-15, leather exports from India totaled USD 6.2 billion. In the year 2019-20, our exports had decreased to USD 4.8 billion. The data shows that the graph of leather exports has been continuously shrinking over the years. In the pandemic the exports touched a low of USD 1.5billion.

Situation of Indian leather industry

Leather industry in India has not progressed with the times even it has been an old manufacturing industry. And, it employs around 3 million people but no real effort has been made to make it competitive. As mentioned above, no real R & D has been done in the country for its improvement.

However, India makes for an ideal investment destination in the leather industry. The country has huge cattle population. There is abundance of raw materials considering the large cattle population. India is home to 21% of the world’s cattle and buffalo population and also contributes 11% of sheep and goat population.

The industry can also benefit from cheap supply of skilled labor, the latest technology and environment-friendly policies. The supporting industries are present to supply the essential materials for manufacturing of leather products.

Presently, it is primarily driven by the unorganized sector —mainly traditional artisans with little to no modern training and skills. The cottage or informal sector makes up around 75% of the total leather output in India. It is one of the oldest industries in India but modern modes of production were introduced by the British and the French.

Traditional leather workers produced hides and skins. Cottage industry also makes finished products as well. These products include leather shoes, leather belts, wallets, bags, travel cases, etc. Even though India has started exporting finished products since the 70s but it has not been able to capture a significant part of the market.

Kanpur —the leather city of India

Kanpur is the main industrial city of Uttar Pradesh. During the British times, it was a major economic hub and was known as the Manchester of the East. It contributed significantly to the national exchequer. The city was home to various vibrant industries but most of them declined post-Independence.

This city is also known as the leather business center. As a major leather making center, there are many tanneries that manufacture high quality leather products for domestic and international market. Tanneries started coming up in the city during 19th century with British forces making garrisons in the city.

With the arrival of British troops, the demand for leather goods such as saddles, harness and boots grew rapidly. The development gave rise to the establishment of leather industry in the city. At that time there were two well known companies providing leather goods to British troops.

There are other cities as well that are known for manufacturing leather goods which include Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Agra, Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, Trichy, Chennai, Dindigul, etc.

Major Challenges Facing the Leather Industry –

Religious stigma

Working with leather is not promoted for religious reasons. Coming in touch with leather is said to cause ritualistic pollution. This stops many people with skilled in modern techniques not entering the industry. It has immense potential for growth and employment generation provided the sector receives significant investments and infusion of modern techniques.

However, the times are changing with the advancement of science and technology. Old attitudes and views are gradually changing. Innovative techniques are coming in the industry for tanning. In the future, the industry can grow at an excellent pace if it receives good investment and gets support from the government.

Lack of R & D and skill development

There is no doubt about the growth potential of the industry but for years it remained stagnant or else is shrinking every year. The companies engaged in the industry are not keen to invest part of their earnings in the R & D. Footwear and leather goods are in high demand all over the globe but the Indian industry is no able to take advantage.

Our products cannot compete with that of international companies as we don’t measure up to their standards. Our market share in the global leather industry is declining but we are not showing any urgency in improving the condition of the industry. The government has announced many measures for incentivizing investment in R & D.

It also suffers from poor level of skill development. There is a huge traditional work force available in the industry but their skills are not up to the market standards. There is a need for sustained training of the work force to equip them with modern tools and leather making techniques.

Environmental problems and solutions

The Government of India and numerous non-governmental organizations consider the leather industry a major source of pollution. Processing of leather produces solid waste and industrial sewage at different stages of its preparation. Wastage from tanneries includes chromium and other hazardous products which are dangerous for health and environment.
The wastage goes into water systems causing respiratory disorders, infections, birth defects and infertility. It is also likely to result in diseases including cancer. There is urgency of introducing new techniques for leather processing for sustainability.

It is imperative that there is provision of attaching waste water treatment facilities to the tanneries for achieving sustainability. CSIR has developed a waterless chrome tanning technology to make leather processing sustainable. The technology can aid in reducing pollutions due to chromium.

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