This is the full version of an article I co-authored with Ambika Hiranandani and Roland Miller McCall which was first published in this month’s New Internationalist
It is said that the cow is the mother of all civilisation. Of all the images of India, few are more enduring or endearing than that of the cow, revered by Hindus for its life-giving milk, roaming free in the city streets. But this postcard picture belies a darker truth. India is one of the world’s largest exporters of leather. And whilst the killing of cows is banned in all but two states, we find that in the world of the illegal leather trade, animal rights abuses and environmental degradation are rife as the country cashes in on its most sacred symbol to meet the Western desire for leather.
“According to many local council laws, slaughter houses need to be licensed,” says Nilesh Bhanage, head of the Plants and Animals Welfare Society. “Many of the other slaughter houses don’t have licences.” Despite stringent laws in place to protect the rights of animals, illegal slaughter houses remain unmonitored and unregulated. A source from one of India’s leading exporters of leather handbags to the UK, who wishes to remain anonymous, informs us that illegal leather is commonly used. “It is often cheaper that way,” they tell us. “It is not a transparent industry. There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to cut costs and make ends meet. Animal rights are greatly compromised.” A leading leather technologist, who also wishes to remain anonymous, estimates that as much as 75% of all Indian leather could be from illegal sources.
The slaughter of cattle is permitted only in West Bengal and Kerala and it is illegal to transport cows for slaughter across state borders. Neither boasts a significant cow population and yet hundreds of thousands of cows are taken to these states from all over India to be killed. “Traders bribe officials to look the other way as they pack the cows into vehicles in such high numbers that their bones break, they suffocate and many die en route to slaughter,” explains Poorva Joshipura, director of PETA Europe. “Thousands of others are made to walk – often without food or water. If they collapse from exhaustion, herders break their tailbones or smear chilli pepper and tobacco in their eyes to make them walk again.”
Animal cruelty in India, however, runs much deeper than the illegal trade. “The treatment of animals in both licensed and unlicensed slaughterhouses is the same,” Joshipura tells us. “In both cases, basic animal protection laws are totally ignored. Animals are dragged into slaughterhouses before they are cut open – often with dirty, blunt knives and in full view of one another – on floors that are covered with faeces, blood, guts and urine.” Some animals, she says, are even skinned and dismembered whilst still conscious.
Operating, as they do, in clear contravention of the law, it is unsurprising that India’s slaughterhouse workers are an infamously reticent bunch. We visited a slaughterhouse near Mumbai in an attempt to see for ourselves the conditions in which animals are killed. “Go away,” they told us. “We will not talk to you.”
Undeterred, we took our concerns to Ali Ahmed Khan, Executive Director of India’s Council for Leather Exports. “On behalf of the Indian leather industry, I would like to reiterate that the industry is indeed concerned and is of the firm opinion that the treatment of animals should be humane,” he tells us. “Animals are slaughtered mainly for the meat and are not being killed for the sake of leather. Hides and skins are recovered as by-products of the meat industry. Thus there are other stakeholders involved in the process of slaughtering of animals.”
“This is a myth,” counters Maneka Gandhi, former Minister for Animal Welfare. As a member of the renowned Nehru-Gandhi family, she has a powerful political name to live up to, but she has made her own name as one of India’s leading animal rights activists. “India is the largest leather manufacturer in the world,” she tells us. “This business running into hundreds of thousands of skins daily is not going to wait for slaughterhouse skins alone.” Although the skins and hides of sheep, pigs and goats are a significant source of material for tanners, Gandhi explains that cattle hides and calf skins account for most footwear and leather goods. “In the Al Kabeer meat processing plant, the animal is skinned while it is still alive and hanging upside down,” she says.
The problems endemic to India’s leather industry go far beyond the slaughter of cattle. “The leather industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world,” says MC Mehta, a leading environmental lawyer who has won a number of landmark cases against India’s tanneries. “In India it is responsible for creating a lot of suffering in peoples lives, by damaging their health and polluting their drinking water.” Large quantities of dangerous chemicals such as chromium are routinely dumped into the rivers. “Many tanneries have closed down and shifted to other states where governments are less vigilant,” Mehta says. Indeed authorities, keen to attract tanneries, often lower pollution standards as a draw card. Special tannery zones have been created with common effluent treatment plants, but Mehta points out that in order to save money on electricity, many operators only turn the plants on during government inspections. Like the cow, the Ganges is sacred to Hindu culture. Like the cow, it is suffering at the hands of the leather industry.
The UK is the third largest importer of Indian leather. Despite the mounting evidence, leading British retailers continue to use Indian leather in their shoes, garments, handbags and furniture. We raised the issue of serious animal cruelty and severe environmental degradation with Harrods and asked them what they were doing to ensure illegal leather did not end up in their products. “Harrods would prefer not to comment on this,” replies Becky Smith, Senior Fashion Press Officer.
Not all British retailers are as tight-lipped about the ethical side of their trade. Marks and Spencer have led the way in trumpeting corporate social responsibility. “As a result of our concerns around the industry, we took a major stance over ten years ago when we became the first major retailer to ban the use of cow hides sourced from India,” the company’s Deputy Head of Corporate PR tells us. Some American retail giants, such as Kenneth Cole and Liz Claiborne, have followed suit by boycotting Indian leather entirely.
But the illegal devastation to the environment and the inhumane treatment of India’s once sacred cows will continue as long as there is a demand for leather. The unfortunate truth that as environmental conservation and animal welfare legislation has been enforced in the West, cruel and destructive practises have been exported to the developing world, means the responsibility is one we all share.
The answer for Maneka Gandhi is clear. “Don’t buy leather,” she says. “The best thing you can do to help these animals is to stop wearing them.”