This Shoe Pinches

The world class hub of the footwear industry has hit the dust with thousands on the verge of despair. But the Mayawati regime and the centre cares two hoots

Samarth Pathak Agra, Hardnews

The city of the Taj in western UP is not just famous for the historic monument of love. It is also a hub of the legendary footwear industry of Agra. It is a major centre for footwear in India which dates back to the Mughal era when small artisans and cobblers made crafted mojris and chappals for the royalty and the masses. That art of shoe-making has passed from generation to generation and is preserved in the plethora of cottage units operating from the busy markets of the city.

But faced with the economic slump, these units are now fighting a losing battle for existence. The year 2008 spelt doom for the industry. Many small scale footwear units have shut down, others are on the brink of following suit as the demand for shoes have hit rock bottom and no aid is forthcoming from the government. Recession has hit the industry hard and labourers and small scale units are the worst affected.

Operating mainly from damp, dark, dingy rooms in sub-human working conditions, these ‘sweatshop' units (some in one room workshops) supply nearly 70 per cent of the shoes in India's domestic market. Most of them are owned by families who have been in the business for generations. But rising costs of production and low demands are squeezing them dry, thereby putting the age old art of shoe-making in danger. The situation is so bad that many workers are now changing professions and opting to work as rickshaw-pullers or bonded labourers at construction sites.

"I shut my karkhana (workshop) two months ago because of the recession. It had been operational for nearly 60 years. We were incurring heavy losses, and there was virtually no demand. The recession has wreaked havoc on small firms like ours. We were working at just a quarter of our capacity for four months, and it spelt doom for us. Now I have shut shop and my sons are working in a general store. It is a bad time for the shoe industry," says Om Prakash, owner of a shoe-making unit in Agra.

Facing heavy losses due to the meltdown, the small scale industries have suffered the final blow with the emergence of bigger companies in their markets. Earlier, these larger firms engaged primarily in exports to international markets. Pinched by recession, they have shifted focus to domestic markets, which have pushed the smaller firms to a dead-end.

An official from the Agra Footwear Manufacturers and Exporters Chamber (AFMEC) said, "We have not yet incurred heavy losses. But yes, our profits have significantly reduced. Many in the export businesses are hence considering entering the local markets. This would improve the quality of footwear floating in the markets and also bring in orders for the bigger firms." But the smaller units are crying foul, "This is murder of the footwear cottage industry."

 A small scale footwear firm comprises of a group of seven to fifteen members (usually from the same family). These factories take orders from traders across India and manufacture shoes accordingly. Those working in these units are usually paid on the basis of their work and profit in the business. They do not have fixed wages. Most belong to rural areas near Agra. The workers have to often support large families on meager earnings. Child labour is widespread. Organised exploitation is rampant.

Till a few months ago, busy markets of Agra, like Heeng ki Mandi, Langre ki Chowki, Chakki Pat and Jagadishpura boasted of several footwear manufacturing units. Today, the feeling of gloom is palpable in the air. Chaman Lal, a shoe trader at Heeng ki Mandi in Agra, explained the situation: "People are not spending on shoes now. We have stocks but they are not getting off the shelves. That is why we are not giving orders to the manufacturers either. It is like a vicious circle of loss for everyone." 

What is further fuelling the ire of the cottage units is the lack of will and support from the government. Dharmendra Soni, secretary of the Agra Juta Laghu Udyog Utpadak Samiti, says, "Almost three lakh labourers work in the Agra shoe industry, day and night. We manufacture handmade shoes which require unimaginable expertise. It is an art in its own right. It is the responsibility of the government to bail us out and give incentives to boost production."

Blaming the government for doing little to ease their crisis-ridden situation, he laments, "No steps have been taken as yet. Mayawati had announced a tax waiver on shoes costing up to Rs 300 but the real benefit of this has gone to the big firms, not the cottage units. Whenever any aid is given to the footwear industry, the small firms are invariably left out and all the benefits go to the bigger units. The cottage footwear industry is dying, and nothing is being done about it."

Soni is also the owner of Easy Rider Shoes, a small scale footwear production unit which is hit by the slump. The firm has cut production by nearly 50 per cent. This essentially means that workers, the lowest in the economic hierarchy, are out of jobs. Chhedi Lal is one of them. "When there is no work we return to our villages, or take up small jobs in the city. There are no government schemes available for us, so it is every man for himself. Some return to their villages and work in the agricultural fields of landlords because they are landless. Some pull rickshaws. And those who are lucky go to the bigger firms and work there. There is no platform where we can voice our grievances. There is no aid," he says.

Hardnews also traveled to Naripura, a village on the outskirts of Agra, famous for its old linkage with the footwear industry since centuries. Most labourers working in the shoe industry come from this village and nearly all households are involved in the production of shoes. Despair and hopelessness stalks the landscape. The karkhana owners are on the verge of emotional and economic breakdown. Shutters are down on most firms. Those which are functioning are incurring heavy losses.

Says Arun Goyal, a local entrepreneur: "Our handmade footwear has been very popular with the tourists and elite in the metros. But today, the demand is practically zero. Since there are no machines involved, we can produce only about a hundred pairs of shoes. Now we are making just about 25 pairs because of the meltdown. The money we make is spent on paying for the electricity and in the procurement of raw material. We are facing huge losses. In Naripura, around 300 households have closed their units. We are now dependent on small loans taken from friends and relatives."

They laugh (with scathing sarcasm) when asked about the government's schemes. "Mayawati ka haath sirf bade maliko ke upar hai. Hum bhookhe mar rahe hain aur woh janamdin mana rahi hain."(Mayawati patronises only the big business groups. We are starving here, and she is throwing her birthday bash.)

Says Dharmendra Soni, "It's time the government must focus its attention on small scale units. Subsidies must be given to the shoe manufactures working in cottage units and the needs of the labourers must be addressed. Today, owners of the cottage units are forced to work as labourers in big firms, simply because their voices are not heard. This is really sad. Agra's handmade footwear is popular worldwide for the skill it involves, and it is the responsibility of the authorities to protect its legacy."