Will the Government allow import of cow-skins to tanneries?

Wednesday, 14 October 2020 00:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

While the country was in the middle of the corona crisis and the 20th Amendment, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa presented the ban of cattle slaughter to the MPs, who were taken unawares and kept silent respecting the leader, which was taken as acceptance. As any opposing Buddhist Parliament Member would be unable to face the Buddhist clergy, the same reaction continued at Cabinet level too

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting of party Members of Parliament proposed to impose a ban on slaughter of cattle, supposed to eliminate shortage of cattle for farming. But according to the PM, beef requirement of consumers would be imported. Local media in reporting the proposal were brief and stopped short of details.

The proposal was brought in suddenly without any public discussion, prior requests from public, or even a demand from the Buddhist clergy. The proposal was accepted by the Cabinet on 29 September without any opposition. The proposal was outside the President’s program submitted to citizens under ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour,’ where cattle farming refers only to milk production.   

Public reaction

The public response to the proposal was very poor. Buddhist priests lauded the proposal, Members of Parliament who were present at the meeting refused to comment, possibly as any adverse comments would affect their relations with the Buddhist clergy. Even members of the Muslim community who are vastly affected by the proposal failed to make sufficient opposition to the proposal.

I am surprised that the group most affected by the proposal, the members of the Sri Lanka Leather Association, failed to comment of their plight resulting the implementation of proposal. They include leather tanners, who convert raw cattle-skins into leather for use by the industry, shoe and leather goods manufacturers who use the tanned leather for the manufacture of shoes, leather bags, articles for sale to tourists, also to cover the sides of drums. If the slaughter of cattle are banned they all will be unable to continue their livelihood, and many hundreds of thousands will lose their employment.

In the shoe industry large manufacturers mass produce the same design. But for the customers who wish different designs are supplied by the small cottage manufacturers. Also those with extra-large or tiny feet and with deformed feet are supported by small manufactures.

Now the PM is proposing to import beef for consumption; in the same manner the Government could also allow the import of raw cattle skins duty free, for processing by local tanneries, to enable the industry to keep moving.

Personal involvement

Up to the turn of the century, for nearly 20 years, I was engaged in the manufacture and sale of shoes under the brand name Walk-Way, employing nearly 150 persons. I purchased my leather requirement directly from tanneries, as well from Prince Street, Pettah, housing most supplies to the leather industry.

During the 1990s I regularly visited the ‘India International Leather Fair’ held in Madras (now Chennai), South India with my wife. The Fair, held during the first week of February, was attended by most Sri Lankans in the shoe and leather industry. After a hectic Christmas season, early February is a dull period and with the Independence Day holiday making sales extremely low, most made use of the opportunity for a holiday. After attending the Fair for two or three days, many travelled widely in South India, patronising tours organised by the Tamil Nadu Tourism Authority, taking travellers over to uncommon destinations, providing guiding, hotel accommodation, etc.

Cattle farming in semi-urban India   

In India, fresh milk is an important part of the daily diet and powdered milk is almost unknown. Every family in the suburbs owns a cow accommodated in a shed attached to the house. Although the land is limited, householders grow a tall variety of grass in small plots of land. The grass is cut, chopped into small pieces, put into a large basin filled with water and offered to the cow.

Meanwhile, brokers visit houses taking note of the elderly cows nearing the end of milking period. When the cow cannot yield milk anymore, brokers make deals with the owner and collect the cow in the morning, when the children have left for school.

Most occupants in Tamil Nadu State are Hindus and the slaughter of cattle is prohibited by the State Government. The collected cattle by the brokers are loaded into cattle-trains and transported over-land to adjoining Kerala State (mostly a Catholic State) where cattle slaughter is permitted. At the border between two states Tamil Nadu State officials collect a tax on the exported cattle.

Kerala State

Kerala State, formerly controlled by the Portuguese and where most citizens are Catholic, is more liberal than other states. They have a thriving industry in slaughtering cattle imported from other states and exporting beef to the Middle East, which is consumed by their low-end consumers. Higher end consumers prefer beef supplied from Europe.


But the cattle-skins are rarely used in Kerala and are sent back to Tamil Nadu, feeding the large number of tanneries which supply processed leather to their extensive leather industry.

Indian Constitution

The 1949 Constitution of India, Article 48 under ‘Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry’ states that “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

But on 26 May 2017, the Ministry of Environment of the Government of India led by Bharatiya Janata Party imposed a ban on the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter at animal markets across India, under Prevention of Cruelty to Animals statutes. But the Supreme Court of India in its judgment in July 2017 suspended the ban on sale of cattle, giving relief to beef and leather industries.

Furthermore, the Indian Supreme Court questioned if the purpose of the rules was to prevent cruelty to animals, then why is their scope limited only to cattle.

MR proposal reported by Indian media

Although MR’s proposal for banning cow slaughter received scanty coverage locally, Indian newspapers offered more details.

Quoting from Zenger, an Indian media report: “The Government of Sri Lanka is proposing a ban on cow slaughter, citing the protection of the island’s Sinhala-Buddhist culture, whose population helped bring the president and prime minister to power. Final approval of the bill, delayed for a month, is expected to leave 300,000 people — mostly farmers and leather tannery owners — on the brink of unemployment.

“Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the minister of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, received approval for the ban from the parliamentary group Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, known as SLPP, on Sept. 8. The proposal cites reasons for conserving the Sinhala-Buddhist culture.”

Views of Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi in India promoted non-violence and respect for cows. His views are presented in ‘Gandhi’s prayer discourse of 25 July 1947, from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Volume 88’:

“In India, no law can be made to ban cow slaughter. I do not doubt that Hindus are forbidden the slaughter of cows. I have been long pledged to serve the cow. But how can my religion also be the religion of the rest of the Indians? It will mean coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus.

“How can I force anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there are only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here. The assumption of the Hindus that India now has become the land of the Hindus is erroneous. India belongs to all who live here.”

MR against Government policy

The Government facing a severe foreign exchange crisis and has adopted a policy to stop/reduce imports and improve local production with low interest loans. In the appointment of deputy ministers most were directed to improve local production.

The Government banned the import of turmeric to improve local production, the turmeric plant takes eight to nine months to mature. The ban resulted a shortage of commodity shooting up prices. The smugglers brought them down to make profits, but most were apprehended by the police. But the Government refused to release them even through CWE or cooperatives, even when the next local crop be over six months away. Now the banning of cattle slaughter would be a complete turnaround of the Government policy.

Breaking the cycle

Rearing cattle for milk is only a part of a cycle, not properly understood by the politicians. While consuming milk provides vital nutrition addition for young and the adult, most consumers prefer imported powdered milk, costing billions of rupees to the country. Thus the President’s ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ wished to improve local milk production. For the improvement of local cattle stock the past Government imported parent stock from abroad and the present Government too is contemplating.

But when the cow becomes older milk production reduces and the cow cannot be maintained and is sold to a third party. If cattle slaughter is banned by law, the owner will have no option but to release the cow to feed itself.

The ban on slaughter of cattle is supposed to increase cattle for farming. But only buffaloes are used to churn up mud in water filled paddy fields prior to being sown with seed-paddy. Male cattle were used to pull bullock carts and to separate paddy after harvesting. Currently in paddy cultivation, land preparation and harvesting entire process is almost fully mechanised, use of cattle is minimal.

The effect on the Muslim community

Slaughtering cattle and sale of beef is carried out mostly by the Muslim community and beef is a major part of their diet. Their livelihood will be adversely disturbed by the ban. The ban would surely create a rift between the Muslim and Sinhala communities, an additional issue to the country filled with problems.

The Muslims and others who consume beef would be expected to consume imported beef. How about the price?

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Minister for Buddhasasana. Is it fair for the Minister for one religion to bring in legislation affecting persons of another religion?

Environmental concerns

With the ban of cattle slaughter, cattle owners will be unable to dispose their cows after the milking stage, would be forced to chase them out. Such cattle on the streets will disturb the traffic flow and some may get killed by vehicles. The cattle will also enter roadside gardens, also the paddy fields destroying cultivations. When cattle die on the roadside or in public grounds, the transport and disposal of bodies would be a burden to the local authority.

An article in Daily FT titled ‘Domestic cattle invasion: Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks under threat’ highlighted how farmers send their cattle for grazing into wildlife conservation regions depriving elephants of food. 

In the Eastern Province there are cattle herders who allow cattle to roam mostly in upper sections of irrigation tanks when water has receded. They do not milk their cows, but sell cattle for an income, how will they survive after the ban? Ultimately, poor farmers in the villages will have to face elephants as well as roaming cattle.

 Is timing of the ban a sabotage?

The proposal to ban cattle slaughter forwarded by the PM came out of the blue, without a public discussion, and is creating serious other problems. The Government has the 20th Amendment on the table and is short of a few votes; it would be expecting support of Muslim MPs. But the proposed cattle slaughter ban would make Muslims think twice of their support.

The 20A would seriously deprive the PM of the powers given under the 19A, does the PM wish to sabotage the Parliament accepting 20A? Two brothers do not fight, at least in public, and the new legislation may upset the passage of 20A through the Parliament.

Challenging the bill

Although the PM’s proposal was accepted by the MPs and the Cabinet, the Bill needs to be presented to the Parliament, whose acceptance would not be a problem, with even some members of the Opposition supporting the Bill.

But the Bill could be challenged in the Courts by various parties. Going by happenings in the Indian Supreme Court, they would challenge the reasonability of confining the animal killing only to cattle, how about goats, chicken and fish?

In addition, is it fair for the Minister of Buddhasasana to present legislation placing restrictions mostly on Muslim community?   


While the country was in the middle of the corona crisis and the 20th Amendment, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa presented the ban of cattle slaughter to the MPs, who were taken unawares and kept silent respecting the leader, which was taken as acceptance. As any opposing Buddhist Parliament Member would be unable to face the Buddhist clergy, the same reaction continued at Cabinet level too.

Buddhist priests, politicians and also some others claim Sri Lanka is the land of the Buddha. They need to learn from Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest peace icon the world has ever produced. India has a huge population belonging to numerous religions and the Indian Constitution of 1949 addressed the problem properly and managed to keep the country under control.

Maintaining peace and harmony among different religions and ethnic groups is essential for the country’s advancement. Our country has experienced the results of ethnic issues leading to riots and years of war, distrust among ethnic groups and deterioration of the economy.

If the proposed legislation gets Parliament acceptance, the PM would be hailed by the Buddhist clergy. Although his powers would be curtailed by the 20th Amendment, he could retire and the priests would praise him as another god.

Unfortunately our environmentalists failed to understand the effects on stoppage of cattle slaughter on the environment and when they realise, most damage would already be done.

If for some reason the parties challenging the bill fail to prevent legalising the Bill, the country would be forced to face the consequences.

The butchers would be first to feel effects of the ban, who could move over to mutton, but the supply of sufficient numbers of goats would be an issue. When an owner of an elderly cow ended yielding milk cannot be disposed, it will result in leaving the owner without funds to buy another young cow.

For the leather industry, first to be affected would be the tanners who supply processed leather to the industry and it is hoped MR, who allowed import of beef, would also permit the import of cattle-skins, most likely from Kerala, the nearest location, needing importation under refrigerated conditions.

The reason behind the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proposal to end slaughter of cattle is only known to himself, but will create an utter confusion in the country. If the legislation is passed by the Parliament, for the public to feel the environmental issues resulting from the stoppage of cattle slaughter would take some time. The financial cost to the Government in importing beef and cow skins would be a high foreign exchange cost.

When people become aware of results of the ban, it would create such a mess and a public outcry; the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government will be forced to reverse the decision before the ending of the current Government. A similar decision reversed the Poya and Pre-Poya weekend in the 1960s.