They finally found the truck in Kerala, but its cargo was from neighboring states. Delirious, and without food or water for days, they collapsed after being taken out of the truck. They had been made to walk hundreds of kilometers in secret pathways in the dead of night, under cover of darkness to avoid check posts. The beatings no longer mattered, they could not move, so their handlers forced red chilly powder into their eyes noses and anuses, so that they remained standing and continued walking. This is the story of a group of 85 cows that were to be slaughtered for their skin. This was one of many rescue operations led by Animal Welfare Board of India's Gauri Maulekhi.
Words like 'welfare' are a far cry in India's slaughterhouses. "Efficiency at any cost is the aim. Often, the more animals killed the more the assistants are paid. Two men work together, the jugular vein in the throat is cut, one man penetrates the nostrils with fists and the head is elevated, while the other butcher axes the heels to the hind legs. This makes the animal fall, upon which the first butcher makes an incision under the chin. They turn over the animal and split the rib with the axe, and extract innards. Then peel the hide and prepare the meat by quartering the animal. The whole process is carried out within 15 minutes," narrates Chetan Sharma who has possession of videos from the Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai depicting such events. It sounds gory; now imagine watching a video of it. Worse still, imagine living it. It's like Paul McCartney once said, "if slaughter houses had glass walls the whole world would be vegetarian."
India's "fit for slaughter certificates" are open scam. It's as simple as this: to be slaughtered in a legal municipal slaughterhouse, animals need to be given what is known as a "fit for slaughter" certificate from the local municipal veterinarian and only then can they be slaughtered. This certificate shows that the animal is not useful for any other purpose such as dairy or farming. The few that make it alive to the slaughterhouse, and can stand, have their eyes punched in and legs broken by butchers so that they can be certified as fit for slaughter. Again, Chetan Sharma has actual proof of certificates where young cattle are shown as old, and therefore, seen as useless for agricultural purposes.
We all believe or like to believe that leather is OK, because, well, cows and buffaloes are killed for meat anyway, so leather is just a by-product. But the truth is, leather is an extremely lucrative commodity. India contributes to a fifth of the world's cattle population, and makes over two billion square feet of leather per year. What's more is that exports are expected to increase at more than 24% per annum over the next five years. Currently, over five crore animals are killed in India for leather on a yearly basis.
And here's the other thing. Tanneries are one of the major pollutants of the sacred Ganges and Yamuna; the latter is already considered a dead river. Chromium is one of the most popular substances used to tan leather and, in spite of international action against it, is a prevalent and popular method. And as a substance, Chromium is highly toxic and polluting. When ingested by humans it impacts the liver, kidneys, and respiratory organs with hemorrhagic effects, and causes dermatitis (also known as eczema) and ulceration of the skin. There's also the fact that the smell from a tannery is so strong that it's hard to be near a tannery and not gag, but imagine working inside one every day. And another fact you probably didn't consider while picking out a gorgeous leather handbag: children make up a large part of the workforce.
We Indians have had a rich tradition of respect for the natural world. We worship our rivers, mountains, and animals. Emperor Ashoka made animal welfare as a central tenant in his rule, and our great constitution is one of the first in the world to mention animal rights. Ironic then that over the last couple of decades our rivers have turned black, and we see incidents of horrific animal abuse on a day to day basis.
When questioned about these facts, Mr. Tapan Chattopadhyay of the Council for Leather Export states, "People For Ethical Treatment to Animals (PETA) raised the issue way back in 2002 and 2003 that animals are transported before being slaughtered without scant regards for bare minimum ethics. This movement impacted manufacturing and export of leather products for quite some time. Subsequently the industry paid serious attention to this problem and sorted it out by making good deficiency in the system and the problem was amicably settled." This, however, is denied by animal welfare experts.
When asked about this amicable settlement the Head of PETA India, Poorva Joshipura, said, "Believing the Council for Leather Exports when they claim that the leather they sell is not the product of suffering and environmental destruction would be like believing cigarette companies if they claim smoking is not linked to cancer. Animals used for leather in India remain among the most abused animals on the planet. PETA India is currently fighting a case in the Supreme Court to address these unlawful cruelties. Just recently, a bench headed by the National Green Tribunal chairperson said that the hundreds of leather tanneries in Kanpur are still one of the highest sources of pollution in the Ganges, and emit serious pollutants, which are injurious to human health and animal life. And according to Down to Earth, a science and environmental fortnightly magazine, "There are some [tannery] units which discharge chromium 100 times the permissible level."
But it doesn't have to be this way. When it comes down to it, the cruelty faced by animals, the environmental degradation, and the awful working conditions of the poor who are forced to take up work in slaughterhouses and tanneries—the price we as a civilization are paying for a handbag or car seats is just too much. No matter how hard activists work, we will never be able to entirely stop the cruelty or the ecological damage.
As the popular phrase goes, 'when the buying stops the killing can too'. The power to make a change is in your hands. While it's easy to forget and harder to remember how to live an ethical life, when we think about what our lifestyle is doing to our planet today, giving up leather is the right thing to do. A decision we as a civilization need to take together. A decision that is long pending.
Ambika Nijjar is the Founding Managing Trustee of People For Animals Foundation. A lawyer by profession, Ambika is a committed vegan and dedicated animal rights activist who strongly believes that every living being should be treated fairly and compassionately.