Leather to meat, how BJP’s beef crackdown is devastating Dalits and Muslims
Mohammad Shahin has been exporting leather for 35 years but has never faced a crisis like this. The businessman is a community leader in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district, owing largely to the 60 people he employs at his factory, one of 400-odd units in Kolkata’s Leather Complex.
But now, a government crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses coupled with a central rule that makes it virtually impossible to procure cattle for culling has dealt him a body blow. Orders have fallen by half, crimped both by a supply crunch and fears that harder times are on their way. In the middle of this crisis, Shahin is battling a dilemma: How to sack his all-Muslim staff.
“It is the holy month of Ramzan and these workers have been here for decades. The lord’s wrath would singe us if I remove them,” he rues, sitting in his sparse ground floor office. “Jab se yeh sarkar aayi hai, hamare industry ka baarah baj gaya.”
On the floor above him, stacks of leather sheets touch the high ceiling, but there are few workers around the giant whirring machines treating and drying leather. Shahin says he’s had to cut back on monthly pay, from an average of Rs 8-10,000 to just around Rs 4,000 now.
Shahin is one of tens of thousands of people dependent on bovine hide on the southern fringes of Kolkata. Most of the workers in the complex are backward Muslims and scheduled castes, who live in ramshackle quarters or cheek-by-jowl hutments.
But life is increasingly difficult. The rates of leather sheets have fallen from Rs 50 a feet in 2014 to Rs 22 a feet now. Orders are down 60%, hurt also by a collapsing market in Europe and China.
“The message has gone out in the international market that the Indian political climate is not favourable for the leather industry. We used to get most of our material from Uttar Pradesh. The cattle market ban has made it difficult,” says Tauheed Alam. He thinks the Uttar Pradesh elections, where the BJP cruised to an emphatic victory, was a “big factor”.
Such tales abound in the complex, one of Asia’s largest that is still one of the best hopes for the industry – after all leather and allied industries employs about a million people in the state and account for 25% of India’s leather exports.
Last month, representatives of tanneries in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur met Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra, asking to be allotted land near Kolkata. Local workers are also buoyed by chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s fierce opposition to the cattle market order. “We hope for the best from the state government…we know the Centre cannot do this,” says Mohammad Ishaque, who runs his own factory.
The crisis has hurt a host of ancillary small-scale industries – many of them micro units that make handbags, belts, small purses and wallets in hundreds of shops and makeshift warehouses that dot the outer fringes of Kolkata. These make their way to the many footpath stalls in Esplanade, Padmapukur and other more genteel neighbourhoods, and often end up as the blink-and-you-miss Gucci fakes.
“Getting hold of raw materials is slowly becoming more difficult. We had 55 workers making moneybags. Now there are 30,” says Rafikul Islam, who runs a unit near the leather complex.
The leather industry zoomed over the past decade on the back of cheap raw materials, making India the world’s second-largest producer and putting cash in the hands of the country’s poorest communities, who mostly cured hides in small home units.
But now, in BJP-run Uttar Pradesh, successive state government decrees since Yogi Adityanath’s ascent to power have left behind a trail of distress. In the bustling back alleys of Agra that houses a centuries-old footwear industry, Dalits and Muslims are the worst hit by the diktat.
“The notification is fatal for the industry,” says Puran Dawar, who runs his own footwear company and is the president of the local leather manufacturers and exporters association. “It is against Make in India, in which leather is a focus sector.” Dawar is referring to the ban on buying cattle for slaughter.
The city has at least 150 big units and more than 10,000 micro units, each of whom employs five or six people who make shoes from their homes. Most shoes use cow hide, the coarser buffalo skin is used for cheaper makes, and goat skin is in vogue for boots and high fashion. All these come under the ambit of the notification.
Dawar says he’s against illegal slaughter but doesn’t understand why the logic behind the government’s directives. “An animal is slaughtered only when it is old and cannot be used for tilling fields, labour or milk. No farmer sells a healthy animal.”
Trouble has been mounting for the state’s two million beef traders since 2015, when the BJP government banned cattle slaughter. Now, traders say, vague cattle market rules are a death knell for the $4 billion meat export industry that accounts for a fifth of the global output.
“How will I or any other trader come to know which farmer wants to sell his cattle? They (the government) say that the notification is to streamline the cattle trade, but it is merely done with religion in mind,” said Abdul Jameel Qureshi of the Beef Traders’ Association.
“What the Centre has now done is a backdoor move to help or force state governments put a ban on beef trade or livestock markets,” said Mohammed Qureshi, president of Mumbai Suburban Beef Dealers’ Association.
Before the ban, 600-700 bull and bullocks would get slaughtered at Maharashtra’s largest abattoir in Deonar. “Now the numbers are just 60 to 70 buffaloes per day,” he said.
Anand has never seen any such slaughter but he is just as affected by the rules. Since he can remember, the 50-year-old has glazed leather for Kolhapuri chappals, the famous handcrafted footwear that derives its name from the eastern Maharashtra town. For two years now, workers have been laid off in droves – from 6,000 in 2015 to just 500 today -- as the supply of leather hide dried up. Artisans such as Anand are paid for every 100 pieces they craft, so dwindling raw material means less pay.
I have no other skills, how will I feed my family of five if I lose my job,” frets Anand, an employee of the industrial cluster created for Kolhapuri chappals.
Traders say procuring leather from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka pushed up their costs by a third and that exports of the famous chappals has almost stopped. “I don’t know what we will do. From a turnover of Rs 1800 crore in 2014, we didn’t even make Rs 800 crore in 2016-17,” says Ashok Shankar Gaikwad, president of Kolhapur Charmodyog Samuh.
No more music?
Feeling the heat of the government notification are not just organised industries but a small group of tribal artisans whose musical instruments are known across the world.
For a century and half, around 90 families in Peruvamba, a small leafy village in Kerala’s Palakkad district have lovingly crafted chenda, mridangam and maddalams out of smelly chunks of hide in their homes. But now, they fear the music may soon fall silent.
“If the situation continued like this we will be forced to stop our work. It seems the new restriction will kill our vocation,” said M Velayudthan, a master craftsman.
The irony: The government recently applied for a Geographical Indication tag for the world-famous Palakkad maddalam. Going by the current crisis, Velayudthan fears there might be no new maddalam to tag.
(with inputs from Swapnil Rawal in Mumbai and Ramesh Babu in Thiruvananthapuram)