Leather Industry

No skin in the game

Print edition : July 07, 2017

Tanned hide ready for dispatch at a tannery in Ambur, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Ravi Sharma

Raw skins being tanned using the "wet blue" process. Photo: Ravi Sharma

A cattle broker from Tirupattur tries to find buyers at the village fair close to Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Ravi Sharma

Another famished bullock that was sold for Rs.6,500. Photo: Ravi Sharma

The new rules banning the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets have taken a huge toll on the leather trade, which provides livelihood to lakhs of people and functions as a crucial component of the livestock ecosystem.

FARHAN QURESHI’S FAMILY HAS BEEN IN the business of trading in raw skins and hides for over three generations. Based out of a small town in southern Maharashtra, Farhan and his associates are in regular touch with butchers, slaughterhouses and smaller traders within his State and in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka—wherever there is substantial consumption of meat. Scouting for raw hides (skin of cattle) and skins (of sheep and goats), Farhan plays a crucial role in helping slaughterhouses get rid of hides and skins and supplies the leather industry with its chief raw material. His biggest customers are the 410-plus tanneries located in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, which account for over 40 per cent of India’s leather production.

The Vellore cluster of tanneries and leather industries, which are located primarily in five small towns in the district—Ambur, Ranipet, Vaniyambadi, Melvisharam and Pernambut—employs over 100,000 people directly and another 250,000 indirectly and clocks an annual sales turnover of around Rs.5,000 crore. Besides the tanneries, the five towns also house around 120 shoe factories, 25 jacket-producing units, 20 units manufacturing leather accessories such as handbags and suitcases, and 10 industrial, riding and fashion glove companies. At Pernambut, over 50 units use buffalo hide to produce shoe soles, the only ones to do so in the country.

The region exports leather products worth around Rs.2,800 crore annually and several major global brands, such as Clarks, Cole Haan, Florsheim, Guess, Hush Puppies, Tommy Hilfiger, and Timberland, have strong business links with factories in the region. But all that is set to change as uncertainty looms large over the sourcing of raw skins and hides.

Already stymied to a large extent by the enactment, in March 2015, of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, which broadened the ban on the slaughter of cows to include bulls and bullocks (which had been allowed earlier based on a fit-for-slaughter certificate), traders like Farhan have now been further hit after the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on May 23 notified the stringent Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, wherein, among other stiff regulations, the sale and purchase of cattle at animal markets for the purpose of slaughter are banned.

The new rules threaten to push the slaughtering of cattle for meat and the supply of the primary byproduct, raw hides, further underground. Traders like Farhan continue to source and deliver raw hides even from Maharashtra but have now been forced to negotiate with elements from a regional, jingoistic, right-wing political party.

Traders told this correspondent that they had to pay a certain amount of money (some say Rs.20,000) for “protection” for every truckload of hides and skins. Besides the goons of corrupt political outfits, overzealous animal lovers who want every domesticated animal taken to an animal shelter, corrupt officials and cow vigilantes pose additional problems for traders like Farhan. The vigilantes may publicly declare their love for animals and beat up hide/skin transporters, even occasionally setting on fire a fully laden truck or two, but they are more than willing to look the other way if the right deal is struck.

All this has meant uncertainty and irregularity of supply, higher landing costs, and loss of business for the $12 billion Indian leather industry. According to the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics, in 2016-17 the sector exported leather and leather products worth $5.66 billion and was among the top 10 foreign exchange earners.

Leather trade

According to the Council for Leather Exports (CLE), an autonomous non-profit body founded in 1984 that functions under the aegis of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the Indian leather industry is “bestowed with an affluence of raw materials” as India, with 20 per cent of the world’s cattle/buffalo population and 11 per cent of the goat/sheep population, produces around three billion square feet of leather annually, which accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s leather requirement. Raw hide traders are unable to procure material to supply to tanneries primarily because butchers are also feeling the heat of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017. With the new rules stating that cattle cannot be sold at animal markets, a sense of fear hangs over both meat markets and village cattle fairs.

When this correspondent visited a couple of weekly fairs at villages close to the town of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, the apprehension and uncertainty were all too evident. There were hardly any cattle. Although the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court had granted on May 30 a four-week interim stay on the implementation of the rules banning the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets, there was no denying the fact that most cattle traders and butchers were terrified to admit that animals were being bought or sold for slaughter.

Mohammed Ghausali, a cattle trader from nearby Jolarpettai, who bought two rather famished bullocks for Rs.10,500 after protracted bargaining, said the government’s rules were unfair and sounded the death knell for his livelihood. “I earn hardly Rs.200-300 when I strike a deal. Farmers only sell their cattle when they are in dire need of money and also when the animals are past their prime. How will a farmer look after an aged animal?” he said. Agriculturists who were looking to sell their bullocks echoed Ghausali’s views. S. Govindan from Mallapadi said: “It costs over Rs.100 a day to feed the animal. Water is also an issue. A tanker of water costs us Rs.800. Will the government compensate us for all this?”

Saleem Sheikh, a cattle trader from Ambur who has been sourcing cattle from animal fairs for over 30 years and who occasionally slaughters them for the meat and sells the hides, said: “How can I go to villages and directly buy cattle from the farmers? How will I know who wants to sell? It will be too time-consuming and impractical.” With reports of vigilantes forcefully freeing animals, many agents are also afraid of leaving with the cattle they have bought.

No slaughter means no hides and skins for Vellore’s tanneries and leather industry. The tanners are a worried lot. Hides and skins from animals slaughtered at abattoirs are bought by traders who cure them with salt for 10 to 14 days. The raw pelts are then dispatched to tanneries in lots either by piece or by weight, where they are tanned either with chemicals like ammonium sulphate, chrome tanning salts and sulphuric acid, or by the East India method, first popularised by the English East India Company in the early 1800s, where the tanning is accomplished using ingredients like lime, tanning bark from shrubs and trees like the pungam, avaram, konnam, velam, myrobalan, and vegetable oils like pungam oil. Once tanned, the semi-finished leather is processed further at finishing units before it becomes finished leather and sent to the leather factories to be made into shoes, jackets, bags, shoe uppers, gloves, and so on.

According to tanners and experts from the leather industry, the Union government’s decision will be counterproductive since it will push the trade underground and increase the price of raw hides and skins. A tanner who deals in hides said: “We generally used to avoid buying the hides of female cattle since the fibres in the pelt would have expanded and become loose owing to pregnancies. The hides of calves were also avoided since they are small. In any lot of, say, 10 hides [the average size of each piece being 18 to 20 sq ft], at the most you could find one piece that was small. Butchers had a choice of animals. There was an inbuilt safety mechanism. Today, without that choice, butchers will slaughter the first animal they get. And it is not that hides aren’t coming at all. They are coming from Kerala and West Bengal. And since there is no duty on finished leather, hides are being smuggled in from Bangladesh.”

On an average, around 5,000 skins (each costing under Rs.200) or 1,000 to 1,600 hides (average cost between Rs.600 and Rs.1,200 a piece depending on the size and quality) are loaded on to a truck. A raw hide can weigh anywhere between 10 to 30 kilograms. Once tanned, the semi-finished hide commands an average price of Rs.150 per sq ft, with the price varying depending on the quality and size. The bigger tanneries in Vellore are capable of processing 10 truckloads a day, but given the high risks of goons and inspections, transporters demand that they be paid even before the consignment lands at the tannery, and some are even refusing to ship raw hides and skins.

According to Ramesh Prasad, joint secretary of the South India Tanners and Dealers Association, the new rules have caused enormous suffering to the industry. “Fear of the new rules is preventing animals from being brought to the animal markets. While earlier we used to get 100 hides, we are now getting 10. Production over the last 30 days has halved. I am trying to balance the shortfall by using imported hides. But then importers have immediately hiked their price by $3 a kg,” he said.

Most of the associations and trade bodies have made a representation to the government to roll back some of the rules. Said Faiyaz Ahmed S. M., Secretary of the Ambur Tannery Association: “We have requested that the Central notification extending the restrictions on cow slaughter to buffaloes be relaxed. Buffaloes are not of religious significance to people of any particular faith. If this is not done, over 50 units that process hides for shoe soles will collapse.”

V. Sundar, general secretary of the North Arcot District Tannery Workers Union, said this “could become a law and order problem, since the micro-economy of the district will also collapse”. K.R. Vijayan, who runs a tannery at Ranipet, added: “The rules do not ban slaughter of cattle, but there are so many restrictions. And going to an animal market and buying an animal for slaughter is not possible. I have started working with imported leather from Brazil and Argentina. There is no alternative.”

Terming the newly notified rules as akin to “placing a wedge in the natural livestock ecological system”, N. Shafeeq Ahmed, chairman of the Indian Finished Leather Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said that farming, the meat industry and the leather trade were all part of the same ecosystem. He explained: “It depends from which part of the ecosystem you take the animal and for what purpose. Every part of the animal is used right across society, and up to the bones. If you stop or place a wedge in the system, it will fall apart, with disastrous consequences. There is no clarity on the new notification. The government is banning the sale of cattle in the animal markets. From where will butchers buy their animals? The practice has been for traders to buy the animals and then resell it to the butcher.”

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