Watch: The Kolhapuri Chappal industry in danger of losing its sole
In March 2015, Maharashtra banned the sale of cattle for slaughter. The ban on cow slaughter already existed in the state, but the new ban added bulls, bullocks and calves to the list.
The following months saw a rise in rhetoric around beef and cattle, soon spreading nationwide.
But the debate over beef didn’t often include the impact of the ban on the livelihood of people working in the leather industry, made up dominantly of people from the 'lower' castes.
In Maharashtra's Kolhapur, the production of the famed Kolhapuri Chappal too has suffered under the ban and increased cow vigilantism. Although the chappals are usually made of buffalo or bull hide, the ban led to the shutting down of all tanneries in the city. The Maharashtra Pollution Control Board had already shut down several units for violating green norms, but the remaining tanneries were shut down after they stopped receiving hides, which was largely due to the fear of cow vigilantes.
As a result, the traditional way of processing the leather ‘bag tanning’ is no longer used. The month-long process involved soaking the hides in a mixture of limestone and salt, then the skin was stitched into a (sort of) bag and filled with water infused with hirda (myrobalan nuts), and then dried on a bed of hirda and babul. These herbs are believed to have given the Kolhapuri chappal its feel.
The leather now comes from Chennai and is chemically processed. Unsurprisingly, it is neither as durable nor as therapeutic as the traditional chappal is believed to be.
Like most handicraft industries in India, the Kolhapuri too has been struggling for survival. With limited profits, little to no government support, and none of the sheen of fast fashion, children of the craftspeople are increasingly turning away from the family trade.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court stayed the ban on sale of cattle for slaughter nationwide, but the fear of cow vigilantes remains rife. The Goods and Services Tax has added to the woes of the dying industry. While handicrafts are exempt from GST, leather goods are not, and the chappal falls somewhere in the middle.