Covid-19 crisis leaves Agra shoemakers in lurch

a group of people in a room

Agra is known for the Taj Mahal but apart from that, it is also famous for its handmade leather shoes. The Covid-19 crisis has left Agra’s footwear industry in shambles. In a way, the lockdown has pushed this industry decades back.

In 2021, the industry had hoped that the pandemic will recede and there will be some recovery of lost business, but with the second Covid-19 wave gaining momentum, the industry has again come to a grinding halt.

Businessmen associated with the footwear industry told that exports to Europe and the United States have dropped to 40 per cent of the pre-pandemic figures.

It is difficult to complete even the winter orders as the prices of raw materials have also gone up by 35 per cent. In the factories too, there is a state of uncertainty and labourers are scared of working in large groups.

With high hopes that the government will offer some way out of this situation, the Council for Leather Exports (CLE) leaders met the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and requested the repeal of 10 per cent duty imposed on leather imports. They also requested that the export incentives should be reinstated for the industry. But the finance ministry is yet to take a decision on this matter.

CLE chairman P Akeel Ahmed and Northern Region Chairman Puran Dawar told that the footwear industry is facing great difficulties due to the 10 per cent duty on leather imports and the ending of import licensing.

“During such difficult times when the pandemic has already trashed the economy, instead of relief, the government has struck a double blow on the industry through the import duty. The raw material has become expensive and the 5 per cent rebate that the industry got through import licensing has also ended. The end result of this is that the input costs in manufacturing footwear have increased and consequently, the Indian shoes will become expensive compared to the international market rates,” he added.

Footwear exporter Nazeer Ahmed said that the entire footwear industry is jittery due to the imminent pandemic control measures like night curfews and lockdowns. The uncertainty needs to be ended as the industry is facing difficulty in completing the existing orders. There is a fear that the shipment could get stuck midway if a lockdown is announced.

AFMEC vice-chairman Shahru Mohsin told that the prices of chemicals used in the manufacture of footwear have risen by 40 per cent and the raw material costs have risen by up to 70 per cent. In such conditions, the manufacturing cost of shoes has increased and the industry is going through a really bad phase.

‘Joota Utpadak Samiti’ President Dharmendra Soni said that the industry had received domestic supply orders from Maharashtra, Gujarat, and other states. But with the second Covid-19 wave, there is no surety about the safety of the shipment and whether it will reach in time.

“If the shipment gets stuck due to lockdown and curfew, the domestic footwear manufacturers will go bankrupt,” said Soni.

Mohd. Sharif Kale, who is also a part of Agra’s footwear industry said that the city has a 65 per cent share in the domestic footwear production of India and 27 per cent of footwear exports are done through its 200 odd export units.

“Over 7,500 domestic footwear units are employing nearly 3.5 lakh people. The export figures from Agra are to the tune of Rs 5,000 crores a year. In such conditions, if the second wave of the pandemic forces the closure of the factories again, the footwear industry of Agra will not get a chance to stand up again,” he said.

Over 40 per cent of export orders to Europe and the US have been cancelled. The effect of this cancellation is showing on the daily-wage workers who are finding it hard to find gainful employment in the export units. Most units are looking at reducing their operational expenses to remain in business. The labourers are the worst-hit as they are being asked to work for lesser days per week now.

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