Walking tall for so long…

Synod Complex at Mawkhar is unlike a glitzy mall in the city. The dark corridors inside the old RCC structure are lined by shops which share the gloomy ambience of the building. Among the motley of shops are a few footwear outlets which sell locally made slippers, called slipar snieh (leather slippers) in Khasi. The shops with a distinct smell of leather and glue have an unpretentious look, a perfect setting for the product they sell.
The shoemakers are in business for more than two decades, making slippers which were quite popular among locals. With time, the popularity graph has gone down owning to multiple reasons but the shoe shops are still managing to thrive.

Klasterwell Kurbah’s shop is outside the building. Probably this is the reason why the small rectangular outlet is sans the sombre atmosphere. The owner is a soft-spoken 63-year-old man who believes in action more than words. So when a stranger enquires about his product and the shop, he insists that the individual visits his workshop in room 24 inside the building.
The owner was catering to two or three customers when the correspondent visited on a weekday.
Kurbah’s shop is among the oldest in the locality. He is a self-taught man and started his business from Jaiaw. He shifted his business to Mawkhar in 1980. “In the past, I would make the shoes alone and my workshop was in my home. Now, I have a workshop here where four men work,” says the shop owner. His face wears a pleasant smile when he speaks.
His 38-year-old son Orlando comes to the shop at times but he has chosen to stay away from the shoe business. As reason, he only smiles. But he is proud of his father and respects his struggle in establishing the business. “My father is lovingly called Bah Won and hence the name of the shop. Everyone in the market knows him by this name,” says the son.
Kurbah has many regular customers, some of whom are from Nepal. He says his shoes do not come with a guarantee period but he mends any wear and tear for free within a month of purchase.
“Similar looking slippers are being sold on footpaths but they are of inferior quality and low-priced. My slippers are priced around Rs 300-350 and they have longevity. Those who have used them know about the quality,” he assures.
Juniki Majaw, a middle-aged customer at Kurbah’s shop, agrees, saying she buys slippers only from his shop.
On the second floor of the building is Louis Mylliem Umlong’s shop. Unlike Kurbah’s shop, Umlong’s outlet was empty. Slippers of different designs and pump shoes were neatly displayed in glass showcases waiting for attention.
Umlong is also a self-taught shoemaker and has training from Khadi. “I started my business in the 1990s and at present, I have four helpers. You will find variety, like leather slippers, flats and heels, in my shop,” says the 53-year-old shoe trader.
Most of these small-time shoemakers get their raw materials from Kolkata as according to Arjun Ram, an employee at Kurbah’s workshop, “nothing is available in Shillong”.
Arjun, now 36, learned shoe-making in Kolkata and has been working for Kurbah for the last 22 years. He informs that mainly foam leather is used now as animal hide is expensive. Only flats are made of pure leather. The shop also uses compressed leather and rubber.
A worker at I Mawkhlieng Shoe Shop at Umsohsun says the cost of shoes will go up if pure leather is used and there will be less number of buyers.
Some shops buy raw materials from wholesalers in Shillong. James Syiemiong, a well-known shoemaker in the city whose name is in the Guinness Book of World Records, gets raw materials from across the country.
S Jana’s shop, Dahun Footwear, in the complex is over 20 years old. Before setting up his shop, Jana would work in others’ shops. Now, his 28-year-old son Donald Thangkhiew shares the business responsibility. There are workers to make shoes but the young businessman chooses to help in the task.
Though business is not as flourishing as before, Thangkhiew wants to run the shop and plans to improvise to keep up with time.

Remember the shoemaker in Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale who was helped by two elves in turning around a fledgling business? Unfortunately, the story of Shillong’s shoemakers is set in reality. As the market gets competitive, the going for the local shoemakers gets tougher. Many of them are already feeling the heat.
“My business was booming in the 2000s but it has gone down in the last couple of years,” informs Umlong.
Thangkhiew too paints a grim picture and blames poor quality of raw materials. “The leather we get is not authentic, so shoes do not last long. That is why less people buy local shoes,” he says.
A young buyer at the complex points out that these locally made slippers are inconvenient in the rainy season and “they become squishy”.
Umlong feels that the flooding of the local market with products from China has hit local shoemakers’ business. “Also, the training given to youths now is more of theory than practical. Most of the people are finding ways to start their own businesses creating a dearth of workforce. This too has added to the woes,” he explains.
There are other factors which have led to a slump in local shoe business. Online shopping facility, fancy shoes and foreign brands have done much harm to the market for locally made shoes. Youngsters today have ample of options and prefer new designs.
W Dkhar, who runs a shoe shop at Umsohsun, blames demonetisation and ban on coal mining for the dwindling market. “Our business has been hit after these. Besides, the cost of raw materials has gone up. Earlier, a rubber sheet would cost Rs 30 and you could get shoes for Rs 50. Now, rubber is Rs 350 a piece. The cost of other materials has also risen,” she says.
Syiemiong, who is the recipient of several state and national awards, says the main problem for small-time shoemakers here is the imposition of Goods and Services Tax.
“Another major problem is absence of a leather processing unit in Meghalaya. We have so much animal hide but it all goes outside the state for processing. As a result, the cost of raw material increases. The hides even go to Bangladesh and our state loses on revenue. I have taken up this issue with the government and given utmost priority to this. But it has been lying with the planning department for a decade now,” he complains.
Syiemiong plans to start a “comprehensive centre” for skill development training to prospective shoemakers and a processing unit. At present, he is waiting for the government to approve the proposal and he is hopeful that “with the help of the new and prolific chief minister”, his project will finally take off.
With a leather processing unit in the state, the input cost for shoemaking will come down and enable local businessmen to earn a decent profit. Also, there is an urgent need for shoemakers to innovate not only in designs but also in terms of market strategy. The road ahead is long and the walk is arduous. So those in the shoe business need to put the best foot forward.

~ NM

error: Content is protected !!