It is said that the cow is the mother of all civilization. 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 the world’s largest exporter of leather. And whilst the killing of cows is banned in all but two states, in the world of the illegal leather trade, animal rights abuses 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, slaughterhouses need to be licensed,’ says Nilesh Bhanage, head of the Plants and Animals Welfare Society. ‘But many of the slaughterhouses don’t have licences.’ Despite stringent laws in place to protect the rights of animals, illegal slaughterhouses remain unmonitored and unregulated. A source from one of India’s leading exporters of leather handbags to Britain, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed that illegal leather is commonly used. ‘It is often cheaper that way. 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.’ One leading leather technologist has estimated that as much as 75 per cent of all Indian leather could come 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 state boasts a significant cow population, yet hundreds of thousands of cows are brought there 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 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (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.’
‘The treatment of animals in both licensed and unlicensed slaughterhouses is the same,’ Joshipura continues. ‘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.
Britain is the third largest importer of Indian leather. Despite the mounting evidence of ill-treatment of cows, leading British retailers continue to use Indian leather in their shoes, garments, handbags and furniture. While upmarket department store Harrods refused to comment when asked what it was doing to ensure illegal leather did not end up in its products, Marks & Spencer 10 years ago became ‘the first major retailer to ban the use of cow hides sourced from India,’ according to its deputy head of corporate PR. Some US retail giants, such as Kenneth Cole and Liz Claiborne, have followed suit by boycotting Indian leather entirely.
But the inhumane treatment of India’s once sacred cows will continue as long as there is a demand for leather. As animal welfare legislation has been enforced in the West, cruel and destructive practices have been exported to the developing world. The answer, for Maneka Gandhi, former Minister for Animal Welfare and one of India’s leading animal rights activists, is clear. ‘Don’t buy leather,’ she says. ‘The best thing you can do to help these animals is to stop wearing them.’Ambika Hiranandani, Roland Miller McCall and Salman Shaheen
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