Influx of low cost Chinese shoes have added to the woes of the footwear karkhanas of Faizabad

While dozens of small and large establishments incurred devastating losses in the recent violence in Faizabad during Durga Puja, the curfew imposed thereafter did what it does best: hit hard at the belly of the daily-wage earner.

What it also did was further dent the morale of hundreds of workers engaged in the city's failing traditional footwear industry, which was generally given a lease of life during the festive season.

The quiet by-lanes of one such footwear-making locality in central Faizabad, reflect the disenchantment. Karkhanas (workshops) with tightly latched or chained doors are a common sight. The few unemployed labourers standing outside are too embittered to discuss their livelihood crisis.

Many others have migrated. Those who stayed back, mostly aged men, are compelled to live in the trade even if the returns are paltry. Their lack of means has with time metamorphised into a lack of will to venture into something new.

“It doesn't matter if we earn just enough to eat our stomach's full. What's the guarantee that the new work we start will not fail? The fear of losing the little we have is haunting,” says the grey-haired and spectacled Mohammed Sayyid.

The door is stretched wide; he sits facing the incoming sunlight, his fingers working deftly to spread the adhesive on the fresh stock of sandals piled around him.

“You must be wondering about the gents' footwear? You will not find them here”. He takes another pause to explain. “Even if I work non-stop, I can only make 20-25 gents slippers per day. The ladies sandals easily cross 35.”

The women's footwear items survive on cheaper costs and less intensive labour, assuring some form of consolation, but the death of production of the gent's footwear defines the crisis.

The influx of branded shoes and their low cost and attractive replicas, most of which are Chinese made, has over the decade added to the price woes and inter-competition faced by the karkhanas.

The karkhanas, which are cramped single-room spaces converted into workshops, run on makeshift electric connection and minimal levels of hygiene. A substantial number are rented rooms. The tenants bear much higher costs, naturally.

"Yeh kaam nahi, mazdoori hai. (We don't call it trade; it's labour)," Sayyid continues. Although he has spent a few decades designing footwear, his margins each month hardly cross a couple of thousand rupees.

Emanulla explains further: "With one metre of material, we can make 42 pairs of sandal straps. Add to that the cost of the sole and base; the minimum cost of one sandal comes to about Rs 52-55. This does not include the cost of electricity and rent. The customers are not willing to pay more than Rs 60."

Major production centres such as Kanpur and Agra have a latent role to play in that. Raw materials are cost-effective and readily available in these cities, making the average final market output cheaper than what it is in Faizabad.

This creates a hitch when customers demand the same rate as other cities, meaning you either lose the customer or sell at a loss. Nevertheless, with growing population, unrelenting poverty, seasonal unemployment, low educational levels and lack of other skills, there are limited occupational options elsewhere.

Abdul Amir is one of the most experienced and finest artisans here. Things were not so bad earlier, he says, the shoes and slippers made here were even sent to different parts of the state.

But now, "Business is normally mediocre or little better during the four months of festivity; this crawls for another two months and comes to a pit stop and stays like that until the next season."

During this long hiatus, these artisans take up jobs as cleaners, doorkeepers, wage-labourers, rickshaw pullers, or run tea-stalls.

As costs of normal labour are high, profits are dwindling and migration is common, child labour is also rampant, most of which goes unabated indoors under the supervision of contractors.

"What's the use of wasting time on study when at the end of the day we have to do this," a little boy justifies his work in the Karkhana.

However, this does not alleviate him and many other children, from the risks of constant exposure to poor illumination, industrial adhesives and cramped surroundings with little ventilation.

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