Leather & Footwear

Prevalent economic exploitation and caste stigma faced by leather workers of India


India has huge animal population that exceeds nearly 240 million animals of the bovine species alone. But the animals are forced to live in a highly decentralized manner across different states. Death of these bovines also takes places in spread locations. Barely one or two families in every village use the resources in terms of carcasses these dead animals.
The leather workers engaged in work on animal residues are usually an oppressed lot across the entire country. Several different social and economic developments have been affecting them adversely. During the 70’s, for instance, there was a strong movement towards sanskritisation in the group. The Caste Panchayat took the conclusion that since their occupation of flaying the skins off dead animals was responsible for low social status they should refrain from doing so.
This led the group to experience livelihood stress on the one hand, and environmental distress due to decaying animals on the other hand. The policies, ranging from development of co-operatives to compulsory licensing for processing the carcass, created more complex situations. Also, some of those workers who dealt with bones shifted to skin work. In such distressed situation it became very difficult for the leather workers to sustain and continue with their present profession.
Another development that worsens their situations, was the appearance of synthetic materials as a substitute for making products that was up till now made out of leather. The considerable invasion of synthetic footwear in the rural and urban economy had affected footwear makers (cobblers).
Pointed out by a sector expert, the Central and State Government policies for this particular sector tend to be dominated mainly by commercial interests. As a result the commercial interests of exporters and tanneries are put forth and thereby neglecting the interests of the voiceless leather workers. They are caught in a triple grinding wheel of a strong and constant social stigma due to nature of their occupation, economic exploitation by the hands of the middlemen and economic stress due to incursion of synthetics, all these factors make the leather workers remain a neglected and a sunken lot.

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