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Print edition : Sep 01, 2001 T+T-

The Indian leather industry suffers a severe jolt as international buyers threaten to stop importing its products on account of the cruel treatment of animals in India.

THE $2.5 billion Indian leather industry, employing over 2.5 million people, faces the threat of being shut out of world markets, with major importers banning Indian leather products on the grounds of cruelty against animals. For an industry just recovering from a severe indictment for pollution by tanneries, this has come as another major blow. According to estimates, the campaign against Indian leather products last year cost the industry close to $68 million.

European and American retail giants such as Marks and Spencer, Gap Inc., J. Crew, Clarks, Florsheim, Nordstrom and Wolverine, and Harley Davidson Footwear have stopped purchasing Indian products; some others have threatened to cancel orders if the handling of animals, particularly while transporting them to slaughterhouses and skinning them, did not improve.

In August, international retail giants Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, Timberland, Liz Claireborne, Casual Corner, Travel 2000 and Bader joined other retail chains to boycott Indian leather and leather products.

Between April 2000 and January 2001, India exported leather and leather products worth $1.3 billion, registering a 6.8 per cent drop over the corresponding period in the previous year. Germany, with a 19 per cent share, is the largest buyer of Indian leather products followed by the United Kingdom (17 per cent) and the United States (16 per cent). These and other major importers - Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Greece, Hong Kong and Canada - are now threatening to ban Indian leather products.

The Indian leather industry handles approximately 230 million metres of hides and skins annually. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 24,300,000 head of cattle, 46,700,000 goats and 16,000,000 pigs were killed last year in India. These figures pertain to the 3,600 legally operating abattoirs and do not include animals killed in the estimated 32,000 illegal or unlicensed ones.

The leather industry feels that it is being unfairly targeted. Says M.M. Hashim, chairman of the Council for Leather Exports (CLE) and a Chennai-based exporter: "While no doubt there is widespread violation of animal welfare laws during the transportation and slaughtering of animals, targeting the leather industry serves no purpose." According to the CLE, leather is only a by-product, accounting for barely one-tenth of the value of animals.

According to Hashim, although the CLE's initial reaction to the campaign was just to state that the leather industry was not directly involved in the transportation and slaughtering of animals, it soon took a lead role in urging governments to amend the laws to include proper treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and to book violators of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. In mid-2000, the CLE worked out a detailed action plan, covering every aspect of dealing with animals, including amendments to the legislation and action plans for specific places. This was adopted by 10 State governments in September 2000. The CLE has followed it up by urging the governments to implement the action plans.

According to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the international voluntary organisation that spearheads the campaign in India, all atrocities listed in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (beating, kicking, overloading and overcrowding animals during transit; depriving animals of food and water during transportation; selling abused or mutilated animals; and killing animals cruelly) are committed in the leather and meat industries. Animal transport laws specify that only six cows be transported in a lorry. But, according to PETA, four times as many animals are forced into a single vehicle.

Since 1998, various national and international voluntary groups working to prevent cruelty against animals have pressured the Indian government to implement animal protection laws. But, according to PETA, the government has failed to take action against any offenders. According to PETA's Indian representative, James Baker, his organisation was invited by the Indian animal protection groups two years ago to draw international attention to the issue. PETA began sending out letters and meeting government officials, urging them to implement the laws.

Since all its attempts turned futile and animals continued to be treated cruelly, it urged international buyers to stop purchasing Indian leather. Says Baker: "Targeting exports, we felt, would have a major impact as leather and leather products are India's major export earners, valued 11 times more than its meat exports."

PETA has videographed animals being transported and slaughtered under appalling conditions in several States. Baker says: "In the last 21 years that we have been fighting animal abuse the world over, we find India's treatment of cows and cattle to be among the cruellest in the world."

PETA has been fighting animal abuse in China, another major leather exporter. Several international buyers have since stopped buying leather products from China.

The organisation's other major campaigns are against the killing of dogs in Taiwan and Turkey, bullfighting in Spain, capture of baby elephants in South Africa and breeding of bears for the preparation of exotic medicines in China. PETA also campaigns against McDonalds and Burger King for the cruel way in which they kill animals for meat.

Animals slaughtered for their meat and skin are most often transported in abysmal conditions. Most of them get injured, and many are trampled or gored to death as they are thrown about in the lorries that drive at breakneck speed. Also, animals are tied together with ropes running through their pierced noses and forced into "death marches" for hundreds of kilometres, illegally crossing State borders as several States have banned cow slaughter. The handlers force the pace of the animals by snapping their tails at each joint and rubbing tobacco, chilly powder or salt into their eyes. Thus, by the time the animals arrive at the slaughterhouses, many of them would be so sick that they have to be dragged inside. As for the method of slaughtering, fortunate are those whose throats are slit. Others have their legs hacked off or are skinned alive. The animals suffer from factory over-crowding, unanaesthetised castration, branding, tail-docking and dehorning. Since it is illegal to kill healthy young cattle, they are often maimed: their legs are broken or they are poisoned so that they can be declared fit for slaughter.

"Exotic" animals such as alligators are also factory farmed for their skins. According to PETA, ranched alligators, of over 600, are kept in small enclosures that reek of rancid meat, alligator waste and stagnant water. Although alligators may naturally live up to 60 years, on farms they are usually butchered before they are four years old. Snakes and lizards are often skinned alive because of the widespread belief that live flaying enhances the suppleness of the finished leather. Kids are boiled alive to make kid gloves, and the skin of aborted calves and lambs are used as they are considered especially "luxurious".

In May 2000, PETA put its campaign against Indian leather goods on hold for a year at the request of the industry which promised to urge the governments to implement the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and to convince traders not to buy from abattoirs that transport and slaughter animals cruelly.

PETA's investigation found that even after the moratorium period, things had not changed and the government had done little to improve the treatment of animals. So PETA resumed its campaign by circulating the video footage of cruelty against animals.

According to D.K. Mittal, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce, the Indian leather industry gets most of its raw materials from cows and buffaloes that have died naturally. According to him, most States, barring West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka and those in the northeastern region, have banned cow slaughter. There are laws governing the treatment and transportation of animals.

The leather industry points out that it is not viable to kill an animal for its hide alone. Says CLE's footwear panel chairman M.R. Ahmed: "If any animal is transported cruelly that will damage its skin and the value of the skin falls drastically." The difference in the value of good and bad skin is about 70 per cent.

Motil Lal Sethi, president of the Indian Leather Garments Association, says: "We built our factories to U.S. standards, we were upgrading our tanneries and putting our house in order, when this jolt came." But Maneka Gandhi, Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment and an animal rights activist, believes the leather industry has got what it deserves. According to her, the leather industry not only causes pollution but is responsible for the cruelty to animals.

While Alan Marks, vice-president, Corporate Communications, Gap Inc., which has stopped buying Indian leather and leather products, is unwilling to pass any judgment on the treatment of animals in India, his company does not plan to change its policy in the immediate future unless slaughterhouses and leather garment factories adhere to certain standards.

While the leather industry is the most affected, the implementation of the laws governing animal treatment is not its responsibility. The government, apart from strengthening the law, must monitor animal transportation and implement the slaughter norms strictly in order to save the labour-intensive industry.