Ganga & Gau destroyed Kanpur's leather industry. Will BJP pay the price?
“We have died three deaths in the last couple of years,” says Manoj, a tannery worker employed at one of the tanneries in the Jajmau area on the suburbs of Kanpur. “The beef ban, factory ban (crackdown by pollution control authorities) and note ban, have devastated us,” he says.
In a touch of dark humour, he clarifies, “the note ban didn't affect us (tannery workers) as much, as we had already been destroyed by the other two”.
Once supposedly home to half a million tannery workers, Jajmau is now desolate. Several tanneries have shut down. Locals say, thousands of workers have lost their jobs. Most of them are Dalits, in addition to some Muslims. Many hide sellers – mostly Muslims – have also gone out of business.
“Production in the leather sector is down by over half, employment is down by over 70%,” says Mohammad Nuqail, who owns a shop selling leather dyes in Jajamau..
Ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power in the Centre, it has emboldened Gau Rakshaks who have often attacked trucks transporting cow and buffalo hides.
Dalits as well as Qureshis who deal in hides, live in constant fear of attacks by vigilantes.
“They form small bands and suddenly pounce upon any vehicle transporting hides, even if they are of buffaloes and not cows. This atmosphere of insecurity has been bad for business,” says Aijaz Qureshi, a hide dealer
The real killer for Kanpur's leather industry, however, has been the crackdown on polluting factories by the National Green Tribunal and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board.
According to reports, over 30% of the tanneries have shut down after the NGT gave its order to shut down tanneries for discharging pollutants into the Ganga river. Most of them are small units, which were unable to adjust to the NGT's norms.
“The rules weren't implemented in a uniform manner. The tanneries which were controlled by influential people were let off. Some may even have paid bribes to the authorities,” says Hanifuddin, a managerial level employee in one of the bigger tanneries in Kanpur.
Regarding the note ban, Hanifuddin says that the problems faced by tanneries were no different from other industries as it caused delays in payment of wages, purchase of raw materials and made it difficult to deal with operational expenditure.
It was the trader community which had to bear the brunt of the note ban. “Our business is entirely cash based. We pay our taxes, this is not black money. It is just that some payments have to be made in cash. The demonetisation policy brought business to a standstill,” says Santosh Jaiswal, a wholesale merchant.
How will this affect the elections?
The political impact of these policies is likely to be felt in the Assembly elections. Even though the leather economy's influence is spread across Kanpur, it's impact will be felt more acutely in constituencies like Maharajpur, Kanpur Cantonment and Arya Nagar. Most tanneries and hide shops are located in these constituencies. All the three seats are presently held by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The communities dependent on the leather industry – Muslims and Dalits – are not part of the BJP's support base and they are likely to vote against it this time as well. The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance is a natural choice for the Muslims in Kanpur's urban seats. The SP MLA from Sishamau, Haji Irfan Solanki, is himself in the leather business.
There is speculation that those involved in the leather trade will vote strategically to defeat the BJP, irrespective of their community
The note ban seems to have alienated sections among the BJP's traditional supporters in the Vaish (trader) community.
“I voted for BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. I intended to vote for the party until the note ban happened. Now there is no way I will vote for the BJP,” says Ram Lal Jaiswal a voter in the Sishamau constituency.
Jaiswal now plans to vote for the SP's Irfan Solanki.
Another trader, Sunder Lal Gupta, says “What did the note ban achieve? Absolutely nothing. It victimised honest traders and benefitted the rich businessmen”.
Gupta is a voter in the Kidwai Nagar constituency and plans to vote for the Congress' Ajay Kapoor.
Doing well in Kanpur is essential to the BJP's aim of coming to power in Uttar Pradesh. It hopes to win at least 7 out the 10 seats in Kanpur Nagar. However, the anger among sections of the leather industry and the trading community can prove to be an obstacle for the party.