Is Nothing Sacred?

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International animal-rights activists accuse India of showing uncharacteristic cruelty toward its cows

Mahatma Gandhi believed that a nation could be judged by the way it treats its animals. If that yardstick were applied to his own country today, India would be in the doghouse. Hindus venerate many of God's creatures, and the cow is considered especially sacred. But the international animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has exposed horrendous cruelty to India's cows as they are transported, illegally, to slaughter houses. Many arrive dead or badly injured after long and torturous journeys in trains and trucks or on foot. It is Dante's Inferno for cows and bullocks, says PETA president Ingrid Newkirk.

India's livestock population, estimated at more than 500 million, is the world's largest. More than half are cows, buffalo and bulls. Once they become unproductive, many of the animals are sold by their owners, mostly subsistence farmers, and marched off to slaughter houses. Cow slaughter is permitted in just two provinces, the communist-ruled states of West Bengal in the east and Kerala in the south. Although it is illegal to transport the animals for slaughter across state borders, traders bribe officials to look the other way as they pack the cows into rail cars or trucks headed for West Bengal or Kerala. The animals frequently gore one another or break their pelvises when forced to jump from the trucks. Some suffocate inside boxcars. Thousands of others are surreptitiously herded overland--often without food or water. If they collapse from exhaustion, herders break their tails or throw chili pepper and tobacco in their eyes to make them walk again.

The campaign against the practice is attracting support from a number of animal-activist celebrities. Paul McCartney, Brigitte Bardot, Steven Seagal and Nina Hagen took part in an international day of protest two weeks ago in their home countries. My heart breaks for the misery endured by all the mother cows and their calves ... who have become throw-aways in today's India, McCartney declared. The $1.6 billion Indian leather export industry is feeling the pinch. Gap and its subsidiaries Banana Republic and Old Navy have banned the use of Indian leather in their garments. The British shoe company Clark's announced last week that it will review the purchase of products made from Indian leather. PETA's hit list also includes Florsheim, Nordstrom, Casual Corner and other retail chains. It's a wake-up call to India's leather industry, says PETA's Indian campaign coordinator Jason Baker. If it doesn't do something soon to stop the cruelty against cows, there will be no leather industry left.

India's leather barons are worried that the protests will cripple exports to the West. Nearly 4,000 tanneries and leather-goods factories depend on the export trade. The industry employs around 1.7 million people, nearly a third of whom are women. The campaign is going to affect us, no doubt about it, says Mohammed Hashim, chairman of the Council for Leather Exports. He feels his tribe is unfairly targeted. We're only scavengers, he says. We take skins sold by slaughter houses. Moreover, he adds, 90% of the hides council members use are from buffalo, goats or sheep. His organization has appealed to exporters to use only leather from animals that have been killed humanely.

The government, though, shows no sign of moving against the illegal transport and slaughter. Before PETA's campaign, Indian animal-rights groups had been trying for years to stop the brutal cattle trail. It's a multimillion-dollar business, and the kickbacks to politicians and officials are thought to be huge. (The cow death trains are operated by the state-owned railway.) Banning cow slaughter in West Bengal and Kerala probably wouldn't help, as it would surely lead to an increase in the number of illegal, backstreet slaughter houses. New Delhi may simply find it easier to respond to other demands by animal lovers, like creating a national authority for protecting cows or introducing tougher penalties for cruelty to animals (under existing law, the fine is only about $1).

A simpler solution would be to lift the ban on cow slaughter throughout India, to deter the deadly, illegal herdings across state lines. Villagers can't afford to keep unproductive cows. They're not saints, says Bangalore animal-welfare worker Suparna Baksi-Ganguly. Slaughter has to be made more accessible--suppressing it causes greater misery to the animals. But such a step would provoke the ire of cow lovers, and no political party is likely to risk that. So in a land that venerates them, cows will continue to pay a high price for their holiness.