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Bengaluru tanneries on their last legs

Tough laws and changing markets were driving workers out work, and then came the pandemic
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 08:16 IST
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 08:16 IST
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 08:16 IST
Last Updated : 17 August 2021, 08:16 IST

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K R Mustaf believes he is one of the last leather workers in Bengaluru. He predicts that the city’s tanneries will disappear in two years and it’s not hard to see why.

The big blow came last year. The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Cattle Law, 2020 banned the slaughter of cows except for buffalos over the age of 13. Then the city’s landscape is changing. The construction of the Gottigere-Nagawara metro line and the opening of furniture shops on Tannery Road has usurped the place where tanneries once thrived singularly. Add to this equation the pandemic and how it disrupted the supply chain (see box).

Take the case of 50-year-old Bommi. The intermittent lockdowns affected sourcing and transporting of the skins and this meant Bommi had lesser work to do and lesser to earn. She is paid a rupee for curing a large expanse of skin, so her earnings depend on whether she has the skins to work on or not. This fetches her Rs 100 or Rs 150 a day, which she uses to educate her two grandchildren as she is the only breadwinner in the family.

Left in lurch

The leather workers are wary of the metro. “It will bring rich people (to the Tannery Road) and they won’t like the smell of this work,” Mustaf rues. And, also of the new competition. “People from Modi Road have opened shops on our road and are making profits while our leather business is facing losses,” Aslam Pasha, a curing unit manager who also does odd jobs, comments on the furniture shops that are mushrooming inside the abandoned tannery buildings.

This could have been avoided had the government and their employers supported them, Mustaf feels. Karnataka State Dalit and Minorities president AJ Khan echoes the sentiment, “Till today, the people who have been elected have not represented the area, which remains a slum. The Dalit and Muslims here are used for vote bank politics.”

Mustaf says that workers in the area have a specific skill set that is not easy to teach. “We have not been able to find labourers to work in this slowly dying industry”. Suhail Ahmed, an owner of a letter mandi (unit) that cures goat and sheep skins, is also bitter about the government apathy. “The government keeps talking about Make In India but if we ban or decrease exports what we sell will have no value,” said Ahmed. Incidentally, the export of leather and leather products between 2019-20 and 2020-21 has declined by 27.39%.

The tanneries in the city have another snag. There aren’t enough hands to pull off this job that requires years to master. This downfall, according to Sindraj, a shoe seller who grew up in the area, started when the government halted tannery operations 20 years ago due to pollution issues. During that period, most workers returned to Tamil Nadu where they had come from when the British began leather trade in Bangalore Cantonment in 1914. “A decade ago, 300 labourers worked here. Now about 30-40 workers, mostly from SC families, work on pre-tanning operations,” he says.

Life of neglect

Tanning falls under industries involving hazardous activities in The Indian Factories Act, 1948. Yet none of the workers have been given gloves and protective equipment or even medical insurance, these interviewees told Metrolife.

Given the nature of their work, which involves soaking the skins in the water, the workers face the constant threat of malaria and dengue. “People in this work die easily, they get cancer,” says C Pasha, who goes around the city collecting skins for the curing units that make use of toxic liquids.

The entire neighbourhood is reeling under neglect. It lacks a proper drainage system, basic public health centres, water facilities and opportunities for education. In DJ Halli, a stretch on the Tannery Road where slaughterhouses are located, families live in half BHKs and children struggle with malnutrition. “Each household that we contact has people with mental health issues or cerebral palsy,” comments Narasimhappa TV, a researcher at Alternative Law Forum.

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Published 23 July 2021, 17:33 IST

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