As Suresh Rathod, 35, stacks cattle hides in his godown, his phone rings. Eight kilometres away from Chamariya Para in Rajkot city of India's western Gujarat state, a calf has died. Raghu, a "bharwad", a traditionally sheep herdering Hindu community, who owns 25 to 30 cattle, wants Suresh to take away the carcass.
Bharwads, though herdsmen, don’t want to touch or bury the dead cattle, onus of which falls on the socially-discriminated community of Dalits, also known as "untouchables".
It's only a little less than three weeks since the attack on cattle skinners by self-proclaimed "gau rakshaks", or cow saviours, in Una town of Gir Somnath district, which is up to five hours away from Rajkot.
While the Dalits in Surendranagar, a nearby town, took to protest by refusing to pick up cow carcasses, it is business as usual in Chamariya Para.
At Raghu's place in an urban locality, Suresh and his partner pick up the puny dead calf, hold it upside down and place it in a jute sack.
They then load the sack on to the front of their scooter and make their way to the Sokhda dumping ground, another seven kilometres away on the outskirts of the city, to skin it.
Running into 10 acres, Sokhda dumpyard is owned by Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC) and used to dispose animal carcasses.
Dalits have come to occupy a part of the ground, where they skin the cattle carcasses in open. The road to the site is bumpy. After traversing a few metres, a strong stench of rotting meat assaults the senses. Wild dogs roam in dozens and swarms of flies hover around.
As Suresh reaches the site, two men approach him. They carry the calf upside down, hold it by its feet, lay it flat on the ground and deftly go about their skinning work. They cut through the legs first and slowly make their way across the torso to split open the hide, exposing the fresh pink meat that wraps the boney cage.
In less than five minutes, they are through with the skinning of the calf. “A full grown cow or a buffalo may take over an hour to skin,” says Suresh.
After the skinning, organs of the cattle are separated. Swollen stomach and intestines are set apart. Navin Rathod, 36, sears open the stomach of the calf to copious amounts of shredded plastic inside. The entire stretch of the dumping ground is replete with plastics. The bones are left on the ground for close to two months to dry in the open.
Turning a blind eye
Gaurav Dave, assistant engineer, RMC, is seemingly "unaware" of the skinning business that goes on inside the ground. He admits though that the ground’s boundaries are unmanned. “We will put up a fence soon. We can’t allow animals to rot in the open,” he said on seeing the pictures taken by this correspondent.
“We are also considering setting up an incineration plant to burn the carcasses,” said Dave. The Dalit community, however, is opposed to the idea. An incineration pit can well snatch away their livelihood.
Suresh earns a paltry Rs 10,000-15,000 per month by selling raw hides to traders in Jetpur, a nearby town in Gujarat, who then sell it to leather factories in Kanpur, Kolkata and Madras. The insides of the godowns where he stores the hides raise a stink. On one side are the cattle bones, dumped en masse.
The skinners may be putting their lives in danger, retrieving and storing the hides, but the RMC till now has not bothered to provide them with licence to run godowns.
This despite the 500-member strong Dalit community in Chamariya Para appealing for it several times.
“We need licence to legally operate, so that when gau rakshaks halt our vehicles we can tell them that we deal in dead cattle. We want adequate space for skinning and storage. RMC does not equip us with gloves, masks while working in the dumping ground or the
godowns. They have turned a blind eye to our condition,” says Navinbhai.
“The facilities to drain animal blood are dismal. There is not enough ventilation or sunlight in some godown. We also want protection against attacks that occur time and again,” he said.
But NK Parmar, an environment engineer who is also in charge of licencing at RMC's solid waste management department, says: “We are yet to devise any mechanism to regularise the functioning of cattle skinners.”