Pollution in the leather industry is a thing of the past, says FIEO chief

Leather goods exports from India is poised to cross the target of $4.2 billion in fiscal 2011-12 as estimated export proceed is likely to be $4.5 billion, thanks to the revival of demand for leather garments. Indian leather is now a lifestyle choice for the world's leading brands, while the industry is pilloried for pollution in terms of chemicals widely used and the concomitant effluents it engenders that contaminate the ground water tables. Be that as it may, at a recent global seminar the industry said its primary focus in the Twelfth Five Year Plan is for balanced and sustainable growth, ensuring economic viability and efficiency through competitive strengths, enabling social compatibility through inclusive development and developing environmental sustainability through latest technologies.

In order to get clarity on the raft of multi-faceted objectives that broadly converge on making leather industry eco-friendly, rural-friendly and women-friendly in terms of providing livelihoods, The Hindu spoke to a veteran leather industry leader Mr. M.Rafeeqaue Ahmed. He is also currently President of the Federation of Indian Export Organisation. Heading a leather product firm that exports shoes to the developed markets worth Rs 600 crore annually, Mr. Ahmed candidly conceded the pollution charge against the industry did exist a few years ago but no longer. He said the European Union is coming out with strict standards on chemical usage in leather goods but Indian chemical industry is already REACH-complaint. With cost of production in a competitor country like China going up and Indian leather availability being good and vastly improved in quality of finished leather, “India will have advantage in the export markets of Japan, Asean and Africa in the next three years”. He said Rs.13 crore would be invested to train one million people as skilled artisans. The industry today employs 65 to 70 per cent women in making leather products. Excerpts:

With concerns over global warming increasing, how do you respond to the allegation that the leather product industry is polluting?

The opinion that the domestic leather industry is very polluting was right some five years ago, but not now. What has changed is that in many of the tanning centres, especially in the South and also in Kanpur and Kolkata, most modern effluent treatment plants have been introduced. In fact, the South has gone one step ahead by ensuring upto zero liquid discharge, thereby ensuring recycling of the effluents upto 80 per cent back into the production and 20 per cent has to be evaporated and solidified and the salts can be used for other purposes. So there is not a drop of water that goes down the drain. In Kanpur too, the units are setting up common effluent plants by introducing the reverse osmosis system, funded by the Ganga River Conservation Scheme.

The Union Government has provided in the 11 Plan 60 per cent of the cost of common effluent plant and State government another 15 per cent with the stakeholders' contributing 25 per cent. Under this scheme, five projects have already been started in the South and one in Kolkata is functioning with most of them now complete to ensure Zero Liquid discharge. The rejects are also solidified and efforts are on to sell the salts to the alkali industry. I think the old school of thought that leather industry means pollution, destroys ground water and harms agriculture is all things of the past. Almost Rs 600 crore has been invested in huge effluent plants in the last three or four years

What is the role mega leather clusters are set to play in promoting modern technology to minimise pollution?

We have a target of increasing our leather goods exports from $4.5 billion in 2011-12 to $14 billion by 2015-16, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20-23 per cent constantly. Luckily we had a good growth of 27 per cent in the just-ended fiscal over 2010-11. In order to keep this scorching pace of growth we need capacity addition. With value addition we can reach a maximum of $8 billion and the extra $6 billion has to come from additional capacity. That is why the concept of Mega Leather Cluster came into being in the 2011-12 Budget and it took almost a year to notify the scheme in Mach 2012 with Rs 600 crore allocation of different size clusters of 40 acres, 60 acres and 100 acres. Here the Centre gives a subsidy of 70 per cent for integrated effluent treatment plant including developing land, social infrastructure, power and sewage. Of the seven clusters proposed, five or six will not be tanning clusters and the objective is to have only one or two clusters where tanneries will come up. Rest of the clusters are product sectors which have no effluent.