Rajkot’s Dalit cattle skinners | A livelihood silenced 

With rising threats from gau rakshaks and an unsupportive administration, Rajkot’s Dalit cattle skinners live in fear, with many opting out of their traditional profession. The Hindu travels to Gujarat, to meet the people who form the backbone of the leather sector and an important supplier to the food and pharmaceutical industries 

May 03, 2024 12:47 am | Updated 03:38 am IST

Jitubhai Chavda, a resident of Wadhwan village, Surendranagar, at his cattle bone mill.

Jitubhai Chavda, a resident of Wadhwan village, Surendranagar, at his cattle bone mill. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

The waning crescent moon shimmered in the alleys of Rajkot’s Chamadia Para, traditionally the animal skinning quarter of the city in Gujarat. Two policemen accompanied by four gau rakshaks, self-professed cow custodians, allegedly forced their way into the courtyard of 60-year-old matriarch Manju Parmar’s tiny brick house, on April 3.

They claimed to have seized 100 kilos of cow meat that Manju and her son Mahesh, 25, had allegedly stocked in the house. They registered a first information report (FIR) against the mother and son, and both were imprisoned under Gujarat’s stringent anti-cow slaughter law, Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 2017. Manju and Mahesh belong to the Dalit community, traditionally involved in the skinning of dead farm animals, including cows, in Gujarat.

Until last year, 500 to 600 families involved in cattle skinning from different parts of Rajkot worked at the Sokhada dumping ground, 10 kilometres outside the city centre. Today, more and more skinners are renouncing their jobs, sandwiched between an administration that denies them legal recognition by way of identity cards and a safe hygienic place to operate, and gau rakshaks, vigilante squads that threaten to register police complaints and have them imprisoned.

The narrow roads leading up to the leather godowns in Chamadia Para are difficult to find. Only a local can locate the ramshackle warehouses on the periphery of the city, hidden behind the bright windows of silver jewellery workshops and the dull exteriors of scrap dealers.

The rancid stench of leather hides hangs heavy. The loose limbs and tails of cattle jut out from corners of trucks in an otherwise carefully covered stock hidden under blue tarpaulin. Every part of a dead animal is useful: the hide is sold off to traders who send them by road to Kanpur, Chennai, and Kolkata; the bones, used for gelatine in the food and medical industries, go to bone mills dotted across Gujarat in Chalara, Junagadh, Bhavnagar, and Vadodara, among others. Cow horns are transported to Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh to make toys and buttons.

The meat from the dead cattle is sold cheap in the grey market, at ₹50 per kilo. “We don’t slaughter cows. After they die, we skin them and remove the dead cattle’s meat, which has been traditionally consumed in poor Dalit households. It is a cheap alternative to chicken and mutton, which sell between ₹300 and ₹1,700 per kilo,” says Ramesh Parmar, Manju’s neighbour, also from the same community.

In what once was a bustling hub of old warehouses stocking piles of cattle hides, there is now a pall of gloom. There were 10 godowns within a radius of a kilometre in Chamadia Para, better known as Rohidaspra, but only four of them now operate under a shroud of secrecy; six have shut.

The decay of the cattle skinning trade

Until last year the cattle skinners would use their pick-up trucks to drive out to a farm when a cow died. “We have a close association with herders and those that run gaushalas or panjrapole (places where old cows that no longer yield milk and young abandoned male calves are taken care of),” says Suresh Rathod, 41, whose family has been involved in the trade for three generations. Over the past year, Rathod has given up skinning and now ferries passengers and transports goods in his vehicles to earn a living.

Traditionally, the District Magistrate allots a piece of land to cattle skinners known as Charm Kund in each district, where people, usually Dalits, skin dead cattle, goats, and sheep, and carry out allied activities like scooping out the meat, dismembering the hooves and horns, separating the bones, and drying the skin, to send them down the supply chain. 

A worker processing livestock skin in Rajkot, Gujarat.

A worker processing livestock skin in Rajkot, Gujarat. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

With rapid urbanisation, the 30 km stretch along NH27, the Rajkot-Ahmedabad highway, now engulfs Sokhada and beyond, leading to a swanky new international airport for Rajkot, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2023. The government boasts of constructing a six-lane highway and an All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) hospital in the town.

As a part of the Lok Sabha 2024 poll promises for infrastructural development, the stretches adjoining the airport are seeing an escalation of property rates. The price for this is being paid by the Dalit skinners, who are no longer allowed to skin cattle at the Sokhada dumping ground.

“In what we once used as Charm Kund, the Rajkot Municipal Corporation has erected concrete boundary walls. Gau rakshaks in the city hover around the area armed with steel rods discouraging any skinning activity. They say it hurts their sentiments,” says Haresh Parmar, who used to be a skinner until a year ago.

“On the opposite side of the Sokhada dumping ground, local leaders affiliated with the ruling party are developing plots for parties,” says a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker. Haresh says they say the stink is repulsive and unacceptable, so animals should be buried whole. There is a luxury car showroom adjacent to the plots.

Last year, after Haresh had returned home from work at the Sokhada ground, he was summoned to the Taluka police station in Rajkot, and later hauled into Rajkot central jail, where he was lodged for three months in an allegedly false case that named him as an accomplice for illegally selling cow meat. “My bail application was rejected five times, thrice in the sessions court, and twice in the Gujarat High Court. I spent nearly ₹2 lakh on bail,” Haresh says.

Every 15 days, he presents himself at the police station. He cannot leave town and has to show up at monthly court hearings. “We are being punished for doing our jobs,” he says. If convicted, Haresh stares at a sentence of up to 10 years in jail.

Ironically, Rajkot’s BJP candidate Parshottam Rupala, who is also the Union Minister for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, finds himself in the eye of a storm for riling up the sentiments of Kshatriyas when he said that while the upper caste community had been in close collusion with the British, the Dalits had not. Rupala referred to Rukhi Samaj (a Dalit community) as the most oppressed and said he “respected” and “honoured” them. Rajkot Lok Sabha constituency has nearly 22 lakh voters, with Scheduled Castes making up a low 6.9% of the electorate.

“Dalit flattery is limited to garnering votes. On ground the reality is starkly different. We have been fighting for over a decade for sheltered facilities at Sokhada dumping ground so that we can go about skinning cattle hygienically, but both the ruling party and the administration have turned a deaf ear to our demands,” says Rathod. 

The crumbling cow economy 

Gujarat is among India’s top five milk-producing States, with a share of 7.49% of milk production of 230.58 million tonnes during 2022-23, according to Basic Animal Husbandry Statistics 2023 released by Rupala. From a population of over 2 crore cows, ox, and male as well as female buffaloes, only half are milk-producing.

“A cow lives for 25 years,” says Haresh Chavda, manager of Wadhwan Taluka panjrapole in Surendranagar district, nearly 115 kilometres away from Rajkot city. It gives milk for 15 years, after which it is deemed redundant. Cattle breeders find it difficult to maintain non-milch cattle and leave it at the panjrapole for care, Chavda adds.

Wadhwan’s panjrapole has 4,289 animals including cows, calves, oxen, and buffaloes. Up to 20 of them are lodged in a separate hospice, suffering at the end of life. On most days, there is at least one death here and Chavda dials Jitubhai, who picks up and disposes of carcasses. For Jitubhai, who has been allotted 2 acres of land on the outskirts of Wadhwan by the District Magistrate under the Charm Kund category, this is business.

Tax registration certificates and licences under the name ‘Saurashtra Hide Charm Udhyog Cruss Bonds’ hang conspicuously on a wall in Jitubhai’s godown, where he employs nearly 50 people to process cattle carcasses.

Motihari resident Bashir, 30, who has travelled 2,000 kilometres from Bihar to work in Jitubhai’s skinning field, is one of them. In 40-degree-Celsius heat, Bashir makes neat cuts on a dead cow’s hide, deftly skins the carcass, and hangs it to dry, within half an hour. “I earn ₹15,000 to ₹20,000 each month through this job. There is no employment for us back home,” says Bashir. He smirks at the suggestion of going back home to vote in the ongoing Lok Sabha 2024 elections. “Who will earn money then?” he says, sniggering.

A few metres away from the skinning area, Jitubhai has 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of cattle hide in neat stacks. They are regularly sprinkled with sacks full of coarse salt to preserve them. But the market for cattle hide has slumped, he rues. “In 2016-17, we used to get anywhere between ₹400 and ₹500 for one hide; now we sell one at ₹100,” he says. Many traders in Rajkot and Surendranagar confirmed the slump in the leather trade.

Jitubhai points to a corner of the warehouse where cattle hide is rotting. “In summer, they decompose is faster. Only last week I had to throw away 1,000 pieces as there were no immediate buyers,” he says. But there is another business, that of cattle bones, that he is banking on. Behind the warehouse, hundreds of tonnes of cattle bones are piled up in mounds, two storeys high. The mounds open into the mouth of a 50-foot-long bone crushing machine, which whirs its way into crushing and separating good quality bone pieces from bone dust.

Sacks full of what Jitubhai calls ‘number 1 quality’ are ready to be transported to active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing factories and gelatine manufacturing units in Gujarat. “Each tonne of number 1 quality crushed bone fetches me ₹25,000. I supply anywhere between five and 20 tonnes every month,” says Jitubhai. “Income from the bone mill business is between ₹1.25 lakh and ₹5 lakh a month.” He says after deductions for salaries, electricity, and water, he makes a profit of ₹50,000 to a lakh a month.

In an adjoining godown, cattle horns are piling up. “There are no takers for a few months now,” says Hirabhai Chavda, 68, Jitubhai’s father. Jitubhai says he wants both his sons to take up ‘respectable’ jobs in cities and earn a stable income. A few hundred metres from Jitubhai’s bone mill, an international school campus has come up. He is scared they’ll shut him down.

Plastic, the real killer

Bashir points at a wobbly sack next to a carcass, the cow’s stomach. He holds up shredded plastic, saying it had found its way into the cow’s tummy when she was alive, grazing near the dumping ground. Inside the Wadhwan village, a huge dump of rubbish lies by the roadside, with a dozen cows lounging around.

Natubhai Parmar, 47, has installed a statue of a cow at a road crossing, and put up an exhibit of 60 kilos of plastic bags, which he says was recovered from dead cows’ stomachs in the nearby skinning fields.

Nattubhai Parmar, an activist with non-profit Navsarjan, shows the mound of plastics extracted from cow’s stomachs at Wadhwan, Surendranagar.

Nattubhai Parmar, an activist with non-profit Navsarjan, shows the mound of plastics extracted from cow’s stomachs at Wadhwan, Surendranagar. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

“Villagers dispose of leftover food in plastic bags. Cows in search of food lick plastic bags and end up consuming them too,” says Natubhai, who works as an activist with Ahmedabad-based non-profit Navsarjan on Dalit issues. It is worse when cows get pregnant, and have consumed mounds of plastic. “They die in pain as the plastic blocks their pregnancy. Even their calves don’t survive,” he says.

In 2017, Natubhai remembers that the entire Dalit community gathered plastic from dead cows’ stomachs and filled bits in glass jars labelled “This bottle contains plastic extracted from a dead cow’s stomach; this is the sin of the Gujarat State Assembly.” They presented a bottle each to 182 MLAs. Their demands included making adequate grazing land available to cattle, so they didn’t turn to garbage dumps for food.

A history of fear

In 2016, in Mota Samadhiyala village of Una district in Diu, five Dalits who skinned dead cows for a living were lynched by 40 gau rakshaks. The incident was a turning point for the community, which gave up skinning after the scare in and around Diu. That year in Rajkot, urban cow skinners like Rathod and Ramesh had, in protest, dumped cow carcasses in front of the District Magistrate’s office, because of the terrible conditions at the Sokhada dumping ground.

A few months after the protests, they resumed work, but last year they too stopped skinning. “Before last year, we would easily get five or six dead cattle from across the district for skinning. This would get us an income of ₹50,000 to ₹60,000 a month from selling skin and bones. Now, we survive hand to mouth,” says Ramesh, who picks up dead animals and deposits them in pits dug by the municipal corporation.

Sidharth Parmar, who is a Rajkot-based former MLA, says that atrocities against Dalits and snatching away their right to work primarily stem from the need to control land. “Our long-time demand for recognising the Dalit right to Charm Kund land has gone unheard in Rajkot. There are some Dalits in neighbouring villages who have become prosperous because of earnings from the bone mill businesses, but there have been instances of them being dragged out of their bungalows and beaten up by upper caste people who can’t stand to see them prosper,” Sidharth says.

During his five-year term (2002-2007), he recollects having raised the issue of a budget cut of nearly ₹100 crore in the SC category with Gujarat’s former Chief Minister and current PM Narendra Modi. “With increasing instances of injustice against Dalits in Saurashtra and no visible difference on ground, I got disillusioned by the ruling government and tendered my resignation,” he says.

Despite a 2017 notification by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment to allocate identification cards to those involved in skinning of cattle, Haresh says that he was refused an ID. “The department said I may misuse it,” he says.

A senior police officer in Rajkot says the police are compelled to register FIRs and investigate complaints of gau rakshaks. Between 2019 and 2024, nine FIRs related to cow slaughter and ferrying of cows have been registered in the district. The mobile van of the Department of Forensics seizes samples of meat to investigate their origin. The officer explains that it is up to the court to decide the outcome. “In my career, I have witnessed actual cases where cows were being transported with the intention of slaughter. But Dalits who have been traditionally involved in cattle skinning should be allowed to do their jobs,” he says.

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