While the days of leather tanning are more or less over in Dharavi, finished leather goods have taken over as the main leather-based business. As you come to the end of 90 Feet Road and turn onto the Sion-Mahim link road, you see gleaming leather showrooms with names like Jazz, Leather craft, Step-in and Ideal Leather on either side of the road. Behind their plate glass windows are displayed the latest designs in leather handbags as well as briefcases and suitcases.
Within their air-conditioned confines you find wallets, belts, photo-frames and all manner of leather goods. Many of these are new products made for retail or surplus or rejected from export orders placed with leather goods manufacturers in Dharavi. They sell these goods at half of what you would pay in similar shops in south Mumbai. Bargaining is the norm. Everyone works on narrow margins and is willing to sell the same product for a marginally lower price.
This is the famous leather street that has made Dharavi a name even the rich of Mumbai now know. While the finished goods sit in air-conditioned splendour, the men who labour over these products have none of these comforts. They sit instead in cramped lofts or workrooms and work in bad light, poor ventilation and in stifling heat to produce the most beautifully finished and crafted leather goods.
Officially, all the tanneries of Dharavi have been relocated to Deonar. In the past, when tanneries dotted Dharavi’s landscape, the first thing that hit you was the stench. Ask anyone what they thought of Dharavi during the 1950s and 1960s and they will tell you that it stank. There were parts of the settlement that were covered with wool fluff from the hides after they were cleaned.
Even today, there are few lanes in Dharavi that are carpeted with wool from the sheep and goat skins drying in the sun. A small breeze can blow the lighter fluff onto the low rooftops and beyond. Although twenty-seven out of the thirty-nine tanneries that operated in Dharavi were given alternative land in Deonar, only the larger ones shifted. In the old days, those who worked in the tanneries also lived there.
The work was incredibly dirty and only men of the lowest castes were employed for the job. The raw hides would arrive from the abattoir at night. They first had to be washed as they would be full of blood. The next stage was to apply salt (sodium sulphide) and leave them for four hours. Then they would be salted one more time. Most of the hides would be sent off at this stage to other tanners. But in some places, the hides were treated further. They were soaked in lime pits or in drums for four days. This would condition the leather to absorb the chemicals that would be applied later. After this, the hides were shaved—manually at that time, now by machine—to remove the wool and remaining flesh and fat.
The next step was to soak the hides in ammonium chloride, the deliming process. This fixes the leather and also removes any last remnants of hair. The hide becomes almost white at this stage. Next came the chemical stage where the leather is processed over eight hours in chromium sulphate. It is left aside for one day before fat liquor is applied to the hide to soften it. Only after this process is it dried. The last stage is the dyeing and colouring. Now that most of the tanneries have moved out of Dharavi; only the first stages of treatment are done in Deonar. The semi-processed hides are shipped off to Chennai for the final treatment. The processed hides now come to Dharavi mostly from Chennai and Kolkata to be crafted into finished products.
Most of those dealing in leather are either UP Muslims, or Muslims and Hindus from Tirunelveli district. Estimates suggest that the annual turnover in the raw leather business in Dharavi is around Rs 60 crore, over Rs 50 crore in sheep and goat hides and the rest in buffalo and cow hides.
Foundries: Dharavi also has very few primitive foundries which make brass buckles for leather belts and bags. Even though it is a hazardous industry, the workers want to live for today so that they can find a better alternative tomorrow. Most of them have however shifted to suburbs as it is considered a polluting industry and no longer allowed to stay in the heart of the city.
(Source: Compiled from Kalpana Sharma’s book ‘Rediscovering Dharavi’, Penguin Books, 2000)