An industry's nightmare

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

The proposed ban scares the leather industry, which employs some 2.5 million people across the country and earns from export above $1.8 billion annually.

AT over 500 million, India's concentration of livestock (all farm animals) is the largest in the world, accounting for half of the world's buffaloes (over 200 million) and 15 per cent of the world's cattle (over 85 million cows, steers, bulls and oxen). The country's over 400 million acres (160 million hectares) of farmland is ploughed with some 40 million traditional ploughs pulled by bullocks. Accounting for all requirements - milk, ploughing, transportation and so on - the country still has more animals than it needs. Aging cattle become very expensive to maintain for subsistence farmers and landless labourers, who constitute over two-thirds of the families owning livestock. Subsistence farmers, almost always, sell only old animals - mostly over 14 years; West Bengal has a Cow Slaughter Control Act, which prohibits the killing of animals less than 14 years old - that become too expensive to maintain, and these animals eventually find their way to slaughterhouses.

According to official data, between 1980 and 2000 the number of cows and buffaloes slaughtered for meat went up from 1.56 crores to 2.43 crores; 80 per cent of the beef market is cow meat and the rest buffalo.

As the killing of cows is prohibited in most States, much of the slaughtering takes place in Kerala and West Bengal, where there is no ban; cattle from the southern and western States are smuggled into Kerala and those from the northern and eastern States into West Bengal. Millions of animals are transported in appalling conditions to the slaughterhouses of Kerala and West Bengal. However, illegal slaughtering goes on in the States where it is banned. Against the 3,600 legal slaughterhouses, there are 32,000 unlicensed ones in the country.

According to People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), there are laws pertaining to cruelty to animals, and the transport and slaughter of animals, but these are weak and are hardly implemented. Transported in cramped lorries that are driven recklessly, many animals die before they reach the slaughterhouses. It is also illegal to injure animals. Yet, traders routinely beat them, smear chilli seeds or tobacco into their eyes, and break their tail. PETA says the Central government, instead of enforcing these laws, is trying to make it a political issue by banning cow slaughter.

While the meat is usually sent back to the States from where the animals were brought or is exported, agents take raw hide to centres such as Erode in Tamil Nadu and Kolkata, to be de-fleshed and de-haired into `wet-blue' hide for supply to the leather industry. Such semi-finished hide is processed in the tanneries of Ambur, Vaniyambadi and Ranipet in Tamil Nadu, and in eastern Kolkata.

With a ban planned on cow slaughter, leather exporters are a worried lot. According to M. Rafeeque Ahmed, president of the Federation of Indian Exports Organisation and chairman of the Chennai-based Farida group, the leather industry is against cruelty to animals. But instead of implementing the existing laws, the government has come out with a Bill that would deal a severe blow to the leather industry, he says.

Nearly 4,000 tanneries and lakhs of marginal, small and medium leather and leather goods factory workers depend on the industry for livelihood. The leather industry is estimated to employ over 2.5 million people, nearly a third of them women. Said Mohammed Hashim of the Council for Leather Exports: "We buy skins from slaughterhouses and request all members to buy only from those that treat and kill animals humanely." A countrywide ban on cow slaughter, he says, will only lead to a sharp increase in illegal, backstreet slaughterhouses, as it is a multimillion dollar business. While 60 per cent of the raw hide for the leather industry comes from slaughtered animals, 30 per cent is got from `fallen animals' and 10 per cent from imports.

According to S.S. Kumar, chairman of the Council for Leather Exports and managing director of the Kolkata-based Titan Leather Private Limited, the ban can choke about 15 per cent of the leather industry's supply of raw hide and skin. This gap must be met by imports and with or without increased imports leather prices would escalate sharply.

Estimating the production capacity at 65 million pieces of hide and 170 million pieces of skin, the Council for Leather Exports (CLE) puts the country's current availability of hide and skin at about 25 million pieces of cow hide, 22 million pieces of buffalo hide, 88 million pieces of goat skin and 33 million pieces of sheep skin. The total contribution of cow hide is higher, considering that the size of a cow hide piece is about 25 square feet, compared to about 4 sq.ft. for goat or sheep skin. Thus, cattle accounts for over 30 per cent of the leather industry's primary raw material - half of it from slaughtered cows and bulls.

According to Rafeeque Ahmed, a cow slaughter ban would hit exports especially hard; the leather industry earned $1,814.18 million in 2002-03. According to CLE, India's leather industry, with the capacity to export 776 million pairs of footwear, 18 million pieces of garments, 60 million pieces of goods and 52 million pieces of industrial gloves, is all set to make an export earning of $2 billion, over 60 per cent of it coming from the small and cottage sectors.

According to Rafeeque Ahmed, Indian leather is preferred globally as the animals are small and the grains finer and smoother compared to leather of Latin American or European origin. He claimed that the quality of hide of slaughtered cattle is superior to that of `fallen' cattle because the hide retrieved from carcasses retain little natural moisture. Besides, the `fallen' animals are usually diseased or infected, and this would affect the quality of hide. According to Ani S. Das, managing director, Meat Products India, the cow slaughter ban was proposed at a time when beef exports, particularly to West Asia, was picking up.

ECONOMISTS are concerned about the fallout of the ban on cow slaughter on the economy. "A ban on cow slaughter will affect everyone who owns a cow," says Dr. S.K. Thorat, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He argues that a cow is sent to a slaughterhouse at the end of its productive years. For instance, the West Bengal Cow Slaughter Control Act allows the slaughter of cows that are over 14 years old only, making sure that they are unproductive and a major drain on those who own them, mostly subsistence farmers.

Experts stress the fact that most local Indian breeds are economically non-viable for farmers and dairy owners. "The milk output of a cow does not meet the cost of feed and fodder," said Smita Sirohi, a senior scientist at the National Dairy Research Institute in Karnal, Haryana. A cow gives very little or even negative returns, she pointed out.

Sirohi argues that a ban on cow slaughter will not only lead to a sharp increase in the cow population, but also trigger a hike in the price of fodder, putting it beyond the reach of subsistence farmers. She also predicted that the number of stray cows on the streets would increase sharply.

Sirohi stressed that the pathetic condition of stray cows - which lived on the streets and survived on garbage - was a cause of concern to animal lovers and environmentalists. According to a recent report of the Lucknow Corporation, more than 100 cows die every day in the city after consuming plastics in the garbage.

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