Follow up story

16 May 2003

Have you noticed that when matters are 'news' you get huge headlines, long explanations and the most absurd details. After the story has been fully milked silence ensues and if the presumed murderer is proven innocent that news is not important unless you are a 'celebrity'. We are fed by the sensational, not truth or justice. Similarly, we heard about PETA and its victims only when big, mainly US, importers decided to boycott India because it looked good, independent of whether the matter was right or wrong. When the ruckus died down the information stopped. In the PETA versus India case, PETA and the Indian Council of Leather Exports had a head-to-head. The latest we officially heard was that PETA persisted with their unreasonable demand that the situation they exposed in India be changed overnight by the leather industry. The leather industry, through the CLE, insisted that they did not make the laws and that they had nothing to do with the treatment of animals, dead or alive. An impasse was reached in which both parties clearly understood each other's reasoning but neither wanted to blink first. Luckily reason prevailed and both CLE and PETA understood that confrontation would bring no results, whereas collaboration and dialogue might bring significant changes in what can be objectively considered a less than ideal situation in the treatment of animals. The CLE recognised that if they did not try to intervene, the whole Indian leather industry would suffer, despite the fact that the leather industry is far downstream of the unethical treatment denounced by PETA and has no power to bring about change. The CLE also realised that, objectively, PETA was not altogether wrong in the substance of the matter. PETA was just barking up the wrong tree. India is still considered to be a developing country where animal welfare is understandably not yet a priority. Many and more important matters have to be dealt with. The CLE analyse Peta's grievances point by point in order to identify why certain situations existed. Surprisingly, it was found that Indian laws on animal welfare are amongst the most exhaustive, although outdated, but it is the implementation that is lacking. Some laws, such as those governing transport, are too strict and enforcing them would cause great economic hardship. The extra costs would be passed on to the poor Indian consumer. Hence it was clear that compromises needed to be negotiated. The transport law, for example, requires two square meters per animal which would restrict the number of transported animals on a typical truck to six, a real travel luxury, whereas now some 30/+ animals are loaded, a travel nightmare. Enforcing this law would make transport five times more expensive so a compromise was reached. An important issue in the humane treatment of slaughter animals in India is the belief by Muslims that an animal should not be stunned before slaughter. According to the Koran (and the Old Testament) an animal must be alive to enable the heart to pump the blood from the veins. It not publicised that this is not just a Muslim preoccupation. All slaughter animals in the developed world, where stunning is mandatory, must be bled before being accepted for human consumption. Stunning doesn't kill an animal, it just knocks them out, avoiding the pain and trauma of getting their throats slit. Dialogue should be able to introduce stunning in Muslim areas. When post-revolution Iran bought lamb carcases in Australia and New Zealand, religious leaders accepted that lambs would be stunned, according to Aussi and Kiwi law, before being ritually slaughtered. So there is a precedent that should make religious leaders all over the world reflect. The huge distances that cows, sacred to the Hindus, must cover from origin to abattoir is explained by the fact that cow slaughter is only legal in two states, so unless all states permit the slaughter of cows, long distance transport will remain. This is a matter CLE has on its agenda for discussion with both state and central governments. The position of CLE, or the leather industry in India in general, remains that of an unwilling participant and ultimately victims in a battle that has nothing to do with them. CLE nevertheless wants to remain involved as a catalyst to keep the central and state governments engaged. The CLE promoted and actively co-operated with PETA for on-the-spot inspections in order to have laws implemented at the grass root level. They also participated in government meetings, organised training sessions and, more recently, were involved in setting up and monitoring pilot projects. The central government in India is now considering legislation amendments as well as being sensitive to initiatives related to abattoir modernisation, altogether a political commitment to animal welfare. One thing should not be forgotten. Cow hides barely make 10% of the quantity of hides used for leather processing. Half of these comes from fallen animals. The remaining 90% is accounted for by sheep, goat and buffalo, of which slaughter is allowed all over the country. So when PETA tackles the cow problem, it focuses only on 5% of the hides used in tanning. The CLE grants that PETA's initial focus on the cow was due to the mileage they were bound to receive by focusing on ill treatment of a 'holy' animal. The proposed animal welfare programme extends to buffalloes, and even sheep and goats. In the best interests of making progress, PETA has stepped away from its earlier combative mode and is working closely with CLE as a partner to get several initiatives off the ground. Animal welfare reform has a far better chance of success this way. The Indian leather industry remains committed to the humane animal handling programme and will work on pilot projects to develop what they call 'best practises' until these are implemented all over the country. I think that the CLE is doing a great job. Instead of simply rolling over to the unrealistic demands of PETA, instead of submitting to the fact that companies cut ties with Indian exporters without any valid reason rather than seeking a constructive dialogue, they reacted in a very positive and responsible way. By boycotting Indian leather certain retailers have played into the hands of people who have a personal agenda. They reacted quickly in order to rid themselves of the nuisance and without checking their facts. The law says: one is innocent until proven guilty, or am I being naive? Consumers should bear this in mind the next time they buy leather articles. They should not support retailers who just cynically followed their own short term convenience with an eye only on the bottom line. Each bad experience always has its positive angles. PETA have made a point about animal treatment, whereas the Indian leather industry has shown that the industry can do more than just making leather by becoming an important participant in a socio-political question that will certainly bring beneficial innovations to the whole country on a level that CLE may never have imagined it could become involved in. The Indian leather industry did not follow the example of its overseas clients by simply taking the easiest way out. It got engaged, admittedly also for its own interest, but what counts is that they made a difference. Sam Setter [email protected]

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