A Crackdown on the Slaughter of Sacred Cows Is Hurting India’s Leather Industry
The election of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) three years ago has emboldened right-wing Hindu groups to push harder for protection of the cow, an animal they consider sacred.
Authorities in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, started closing down unlicensed abattoirs in March, immediately hitting production and sales in the Muslim-dominated meat industry.
Last month Modi's government also banned trading cattle for slaughter, including not just cows, whose killing was already outlawed in most states, but also buffalo, an animal used for meat and leather.
Now the squeeze is spreading to others in the Muslim minority and to lower-caste Hindus who cart cattle, labour in tanneries and make shoes, bags and belts—including for big name brands such as Zara and Clarks.
Frequent attacks by right-wing Hindus against workers they accuse of harming cattle have further rattled the industry.
Much of India's meat and leather trade takes place in the informal economy, meaning the impact of the closing of illegal abattoirs and ban on trading for slaughter is hard to measure.
But cattle markets are reporting a big slowdown in trade and tanneries a shortage of hides.
Abdul Faheem Qureshi, a representative of India's Muslim Qureshi community of butchers, said in Uttar Pradesh some markets trading 1,000 animals last year were now down to as few as 100.
The decline in production means fewer jobs for two of India's poorest communities, and risks inflaming social tensions at a time when Modi has vowed to boost employment and accelerate economic growth ahead of the next general election in 2019.
Some large leather manufacturers support the Uttar Pradesh state government's move, arguing that allowing only licensed abattoirs to operate will clean the industry's image.
Bigger exporters also say they have enough leather as they source hides widely, including from abroad.
Still, millions work in the meat and leather industries, which are worth more than $16 billion in annual sales.
When Reuters visited the narrow shoemaking lanes of Agra a crowd of Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast gathered, shouting angrily that they were no longer safe to trade buffalo, buy cow leather for shoes or to do work that their community has done for centuries for fear of being attacked by Hindu vigilantes.
"They want to weaken us. They want to snatch our bread," says 66-year-old Mohammad Muqeem, whose workers stitch $3 shoes in his cellar, referring to the closure of slaughterhouses and recent attacks on cattle traders.
Muqeem's monthly income has halved to $300 since last year as leather has become scarce. His dozen casual workers, down from 40, now use mostly synthetic materials.
Like meat, India's leather industry has expanded rapidly in the last decade, providing relatively well-paid factory work and cash for families stitching informally in their homes.
Agra, in Uttar Pradesh, turns out a million pairs of shoes a day for domestic buyers and European labels such as Inditex-owned Zara and Clarks. An estimated 40 percent of the population of the northern Indian city, famed as the home of the Taj Mahal, depends on the industry.
Clarks said in a statement that it does not use leather from Indian-origin cows and that the small amount of buffalo leather it sources from India had not been impacted. Zara and did not respond to requests for comment.
India is one of the world's top five producers of leather, with skins coming from cows that die of natural causes or from the legal slaughter of buffalo.
Modi's government is targeting leather revenues of $27 billion—more than double today's level—by 2020 as part of a job creation push.
But in May, the government decreed that animal markets could only trade cow and buffalo for agricultural purposes such as ploughing and dairy production - a move many in the industry say contradicts its plans to grow leather sales.
India's environment minister said this week the government could amend the rule after a court temporarily stayed the order and there was widespread anger in regions where meat and leather are important to the local culture and economy.