As one drives through the Kanpur suburb of Jajmau in central Uttar Pradesh (UP), the deafening silence takes one by surprise. The industrial area along the Ganga has been home to 400 tanneries, but it now wears a deserted look—most units have either been shut down, or make do with small repair work.
“There were flourishing businesses here. But it’s been almost four months since the tanneries were asked to shut down. This has led to almost 100,000 people being displaced. The work being done now is not enough to employ many people. The lack of employment opportunities is our biggest issue," Chander Prakash, a contractor in one of the tanneries in Jajmau, said.
Prakash highlighted the impact of rising unemployment, which is a key issue in the forthcoming general elections. Voters across the central UP constituency of Kanpur said that while there has been development, lack of jobs, rising prices and the hasty roll-out of the goods and services tax (GST) has led to a slowdown, which is impacting small businesses and traders. The industrial hub of UP has a sizable voter base.
The Kanpur constituency is set to witness a fierce contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress on Monday.
It has been a high profile seat for the BJP. Senior party leader Murli Manohar Joshi had won the Kanpur Lok Sabha constituency by defeating former Union minister and Congress’ Sriprakash Jaiswal by 222,946 votes in 2014. However, this time the BJP decided to field the sitting member of the legislative assembly (MLA) and state minister Satyadev Pachauri.
Congress has nominated Jaiswal, who has represented the seat thrice. Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate Shree Ram Kumar is also contesting the election from this seat.
The leather industry was once a key source of employment in Kanpur and the neighbouring area of Unnao. But the BJP-led state government ordered the closure of the tanneries in December. The directive, issued ahead of the Kumbh mela, was in line with the central government’s mission to clean Ganga.
“The tanneries were the main source of income. Each tannery employed 100-150 people who have now been left without jobs. The owners are looking to move to other states such as West Bengal where the rules are not as stringent. Our machines have been shut for months now. In such a situation, we want a change in government who can help us," said Ashraf Karim, who runs a leather tanning workshop in the region.
The opposition parties are trying to make the most of the situation. Addressing a public meeting after her roadshow in Kanpur’s Badda Chauraha, Congress’ general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, highlighted the concerns of the people who lost their jobs after the tanneries were shut down.
“Twenty years ago, when my husband got an order to export leather shoes, the first place we came to was Kanpur. Today, all the tanneries have been forced to shut shop and there are no jobs. It was one of the key promises of the government that has been in power and they have failed the people," Vadra said.
According to the Press Trust of India, the leather business in Kanpur was worth ₹12,000 crore. And now, tertiary businesses are also getting affected.
“Before the shut down, we used to work six days a week to make leather shoes. That has now been reduced to four days because the leather supply has reduced," Miraj Khan, a labourer at a shoemaking factory in Sisamau in the Kanpur constituency, said.
For Ravi Gaur, 28, a trader from Kidwai Nagar in Kanpur, the implementation of GST and the impact of demonetization has affected him. “Traders have been very worried. Though GST may have made the process smooth, increasing costs have led to a sharp decline in sales. When demonetization was implemented, it was a good step, but it is beginning to impact the market now," he added.