Business Today

Hell for Leather

Old Agra’s once-famed footwear makers seem to be caught in a time warp from which they are finding it difficult to escape.

By Kapil Bajaj | Print Edition: October 7, 2007

In Jagdishpura in the old quarters of Agra, Ankur Bansal, 26, sits in his poky, top-floor home-cum-workshop, wearing a vest and wrapped at the waist in a towel, supervising a team of seven kaarigars or workers making sneakers with their hands and tools. Once the ordered pairs are made, they are given finishing touches in an adjacent room, labelled, put in boxes and dispatched to Hing Ki Mandi, the local wholesale market for footwear.

In the nearby Khataina neighbourhood of Loha Mandi, 29-year-old Mohammad Balo’s small house doubles up as his kaarkhana or workshop; of the handful of kaarigars he employs to make ladies’ sandals, many are his relatives. They make 48 pairs a day.

Business is brisk, but that’s because the season has just started for Bansal and Balo and thousands of others like them in the two-kilometre stretch between Jagdishpura and Loha Mandi and elsewhere in the city famed for its leather industry.

But the season will soon be over. “In the last 10 years, we have regular work only during the 3-4 months of the festival season (September-December). The rest of the year, we do not have regular business. We produce 40 pairs a day, which is more than what we produced earlier, but that is not as good as having a regular business,” says Bansal, some of whose kaarigars are family members or kin.

Balo sounds grim. “The work lasts for only few months; payments are made in installments and invariably delayed. It’s no longer a business, just a way of scraping through,” he says. Balo and Bansal’s experiences just about sum up the sad plight of the small footwear units located almost entirely in Prem Nagar, Nai Ki Mandi, Dholi Khar, Mantola, Qazi Para, Sundar Para and Dhanauli areas of the city, besides Jagdishpura and Loha Mandi.

Cut to another side of the footwear business in the city—the organised and mechanised part of the industry—-and the grim tales from the old quarters give way to stories of success and growth exemplified by such names as Virola International, Tej Shoe, Super House, Metro & Metro Ascot, and Dawar Footwear, which cater to some of the most evolved markets in Europe and the US.

Hopelessly Backward

Agra’s footwear industry is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it boasts of being the nation’s footwear supplier as it meets nearly two-thirds (60-65 per cent) of the domestic demand, a thriving industry that overall produces 3.5 lakh pairs of footwear a day (these are unofficial figures in the absence of official data) and earns Rs 1,400 crore every year from exports alone, according to Agra Footwear Manufacturers and Exporters Chamber (AFMEC).

On the other hand, the industry’s underbelly holds grim tales of struggle, deprivation and indebtedness for many of the estimated 100,000 footwear artisans in Agra district, who represent the entire gamut of skills in the shoe production process. On an average, these workers earn Rs 2,765 per month and have a debt of Rs 36,031, according to a survey by Aadhar, an NGO that participates in government-funded and private projects supporting the local footwear industry.

Says Abhinay Prasad, Secretary, Aadhar: “The survey confirms that Agra’s unorganised footwear industry is increasingly getting edged out in the modern world. Everything here is caught in ageold practices, from designing and manufacturing to marketing.” While a general lack of mechanisation is hurting efficiencies in most units (some of the units such as Bansal’s use sewing machines for stitching uppers and hand-operated pneumatic machines for attaching soles), the absence of quality control means most of the output from small units can go only to the lower end of the domestic market; exports remain out of bounds. Moreover, educational backwardness and computer illiteracy have meant that computer-aided design (CAD) has not caught on.

Vicious Cycle

The industry is trapped in a cycle of self-perpetuating backwardness that feeds on archaic business practices, lack of institutional support of any kind, and a workforce that has failed to modernise in the absence of training. For instance, a substantial part of the payments made by wholesalers to producers is based on parchas, handwritten IOUs that also act as negotiable instruments. A parcha can be encashed immediately or used for buying raw material if the parcha-holder is prepared to incur a cut of 2-3 per cent in the receivable amount. While credit is hard to come by, producers have to keep bearing small losses like these on a daily basis. The trading model is outmoded, too. “There are small producers in Agra who still carry their shoes on dalias (bamboo
baskets) to sell in weekly auctions at the wholesale market—an indication of the unbranded, commoditised nature of a large part of the output,” says Prasad.

Munnabhai, who does designing, grading (replicating an approved design in different sizes) and styling for local producers, apart from training youngsters from his workplace in Jagdishpura, blames the non-availability of credit for the backwardness of these footwear units. “Small producers never get payments from traders on time, and when they need credit no one gives them loans,” he says

Changing Markets

Much of the woes of the small units in Agra and elsewhere are also blamed on cheap Chinese imports. Says Mukhtarul Amin, Chairman, Council for Leather Exports (CLE), which represents India's footwear and other leather product exporters: "Even though import duties on footwear add up to 35 per cent, large numbers of footwear from China are entering India through legal and illegal channels." According to government data, footwear imports from China grew from $39.96 million (Rs xxx) in 2005-06 to $41.90 million in the first nine months of 2006-07.

C. Chandramouli, a scientist of the Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI), Chennai, who also studies footwear industry economics, says: "There has long been an unauthorised inflow of Chinese footwear from many border points in the Northeast -- mainly in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya." Param Garg, a wholesaler in Agra's Hing ki Mandi, corroborates Chandramouli's fears when he says: "The Northeastern market used to be a large buyer of Agra's footwear. Today, I don't have any buyer in that region."

Amin, who's also Managing Director of Superhouse, a Kanpurbased footwear exporter that also has a factory in Agra, says that many small units in Agra and Kanpur, which mainly catered to the domestic market, have shut shop because their businesses had become unviable in the face of cheap Chinese imports.

Changing markets have already forced many shifts. A majority of small units in Agra now work with non-leather materials (which account for 65.86 per cent of all footwear produced in Agra), mostly imported from China, Taiwan, and Thailand. The leather footwear (34.14 per cent) from Agra is now almost the exclusive domain of the city¡¯s 70-75 footwear exporters.

These exporters run mechanised factories that not only draw its workforce from the same pool of kaarigars but also often farm out part of their work to the small, manual or semi-mechanised units. There are some among these exporters who dismiss the idea that Agra's small footwear producers are dying. Says Ajit Kalsi, owner of Metro & Metro, which caters to brands like Germany's Hush Puppies, Deichmann and Salamander, Austria's Stiefel Konig, Australia's Florshiem, and the US'Rack Room Shoes: "India's huge shoe market will continue to support all kinds of manufacturers, including small and manual ones."

Training kaarigars in modern methods of production, then, is the key to a revival. But all official efforts so far have failed to produce the desired results. Says Aadhar's Prasad: "The government's programmes have made a lot of progress in creating databases of artisans and advancing training in modern ways of production, but they have only created supervisors, not shop-floor workers."

Aadhar is currently training kaarigars in computer skills and computer-aided design under a Microsoft-sponsored project. Other than training, people like Amin advocate tighter control over illegal imports as well as lowering of excise duties on footwear so that larger units (that pay excise) can cut costs and give more business to smaller players. What is clear is that Agra's small footwear producers can indeed be helped but only if they have the will to help themselves.

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