Cowed by vigilantes

Fear haunts India's lucrative leather industry despite Supreme Court suspension of ban on cattle slaughter.

Mohammad Ibrar is a worried man. The director of Adiba Leather in Kolkata may have the law on his side when it comes to obtaining cattle for his business. But the people who would supply and transport the animals are still terrified of "cow vigilantes" In India.

The prevailing legal confusion and fear have dealt a severe blow to the leather industry, one of the country's most valuable export sectors.

The Indian Supreme Court on July 11 suspended for three months a central government ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter, upholding an earlier order by the Madras High Court. The Union Environment Ministry issued the ban on May 23 and the Madras court overturned it a week later.

But Mr Ibrar believes that even the authority of a Supreme Court order will not be able to allay the fear of cow vigilantes among transporters.

"There is raw material in northern India but nobody is ready to bring it here," he told Asia Focus. "The driver is afraid people will stop him on the road and beat him up. The transporters are not ready to carry cattle, meat or leather."

According to Mr Ibrar, 80% of his company's raw material comes from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and other parts of northern India where the cow vigilantes have caused maximum havoc in recent years.

A content analysis of English media reports by IndiaSpend, the country's first data journalism initiative, shows 28 Indians have been killed in the last seven years (2010-17) in violence triggered by cow-related issues. Ninety-seven percent of the cases or vigilante attacks have been reported since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took office three years ago.

Ever since the BJP stormed to power in 2014, Hindu nationalists have become emboldened and they have made protection of cows one of their chief causes. Rumours of cows being taken for slaughter can spark murderous reprisals and religious riots. When the Modi government tried to impose a nationwide ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter, it triggered an outcry among Muslims and other minorities who eat beef, leading to the court rulings.

Mr Ibrar said his foreign importer was not convinced that the Supreme Court ruling would be enough to reverse the tide, and was thinking of turning to Bangladesh or some other source of leather goods.

"Our customers are not placing orders. Earlier Gerry Weber (a European fashion leather-goods maker) would order 500 wallets in one go, now it only asks for 50," he said.

Gerry Weber is not the only international giant with doubts about importing leather wallets, handbags, belts and garments from India. There is also apprehension in the minds of international brands across the entire fashion spectrum -- from Zara and Marks & Spencer to Prada, Hugo Boss and Armani -- which source a lot of their leather goods from India.

Mohammad Ikram, production manager with AN Leathers, a Delhi-based company that supplies leather to various companies in Agra, said violence by cow vigilantes was clearly responsible for making foreign importers apprehensive.

"A magazine in Italy ran a detailed report on cow vigilantes. Our foreign clients know we will not be able to deliver. Why will they take a risk? They will instead go to Bangladesh and Pakistan," Mr Ikram said.

He told Asia Focus there was no raw material available to him and that as a result he had already asked half of his staff to leave.

Cow vigilantism has dealt a big blow to the leather industry, but other economic factors are at work too. They include the strengthening of the rupee against the US dollar in recent months, increase in prices of buffalo and cow leather, and the imposition of the goods and services tax (GST) the biggest tax reform in decades.

"After the introduction of the GST, the tax on leather goods has gone up from 5% to 12%," Mr Ibrar said.

The value of India's leather exports (skin and bones) already contracted by 9.9% in the 2015-16 financial year from a year earlier.

Mr Ibrar said the leather industry in West Bengal alone needed the hides of 300,000 cattle in a year. For every 2,000 wallets and handbags he exports to Gerry Weber, he needs 9,500 square metres of leather.

Ramesh Kumar Juneja, chairman for East India of the Council for Leather Exports (CLE), said he welcomed the "favourable" Supreme Court order but also demanded that the central government give states the right to decide on the slaughter of cattle.

His counterpart in northern India, Puran Dawar, who is also the president of the Agra Footwear Manufacturers and Exports Chamber (Afmec), said he hoped the court order would ease the panic in the leather market, but he conceded that isolated incidents of violence by vigilantes might continue.

Mr Dawar called for excluding foreign breeds of cows from the ban on cow slaughter.

Barring Kerala, West Bengal and a few other states in the northeast, all states in India have banned cow slaughter.

"Let them ban the slaughter of Indian cows, but exclude the Jersey cow (originally bred on the island of Jersey in the English Channel). Most shoes are, after all, made from buffalo and cow hide," he said.

Aseem Singhal, whose Alignz Exports supply leather garments to the British jacket maker Superdry, believes leather exports could go down substantially in 2016-17 because of the ban on cow slaughter and the Uttar Pradesh state government's campaign against illegal slaughterhouses.

The government of Uttar Pradesh under Hindu hardliner Yogi Adityanath began the slaughterhouse crackdowns in April.

Deepak Katiyar, a partner at Opad Shoes, a maker of women's sandals, shoes, bags and belts, believes the prices of buffalo and cow leather, driven up by scarcity and reluctance of suppliers, might not come down despite the Supreme Court order.

"There has been a 30% increase in cow and buffalo leather prices in Kanpur. The suppliers are not going to take it back," Mr Katiyar said, sitting in his glass office in his factory at Noida, east of Delhi.

Pradeep Kumar, production manager with Opad Shoes, said that in the past, tanneries could buy raw material from small slaughterhouses at lower prices but now they were totally dependent on large businesses where the expenses of processing leather were much higher.

Besides Kanpur, Opad Shoes procures leather from tanneries based in Jalandhar, Chennai and Kolkata. The company manufactures on average 200 pairs of shoes daily and sources about 30,000 sq m of leather from the four cities annually.

Tanneries obtain most of their supply from slaughterhouses. According to Ayaz Siddiqui, general manager for operations at Frigerio Conserva Allana, slaughterhouses generally sell cattle (cow and buffalo) hides weighing from 25 to 35 kilogrammes for anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 rupees (780 to 1,560 baht). Mr Siddiqui said skinning of cattle on a mechanised dressing line made sure there was no damage to the hide.

Apart from the manufacturing of shoes, leather belts and garments, cattle hide is preferred in high-end cars, sofa covers, upholstery, saddlery and harnesses.

The leather industry is one of the top eight export earners in India and employs 2.5 million people. About 3,100 businesses are registered with the CLE. According to the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), leather and leather goods exports fetched US$4.72 billion in the first three quarters of fiscal 2016-17 to Dec 31.

During this period, India exported over 40% of its leather products to the United States, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. Other importers included Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, China, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia.

Footwear, according to the CLE, accounts for 49% of India's leather exports. Leather goods account for 23.3%, finished leather 15.7% and leather garments 9.5%.


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