Hide Hierarchies: A social and economic history of the entangled networks of meat, tanning and leather industries (1860-1960)

Soheb Niazi

The meat industry in India has grown steadily since the 1960s and in the last four decades the annual figures of meat production have dramatically escalated from 2.63 million tonnes in 1980 to 8.14 million tonnes in 2019. Food and agriculture experts euphorically affirm this expansion keeping in view, that historically, India has one of the largest reservoirs of livestock population. However, despite a huge livestock population in India, the meat industry in India did not expand or commercialise significantly in the colonial period, unlike other industries, most notably, the allied industries of hides, skins and finished leather goods manufacturing. Several factors can be attributed to the stagnant state of the meat industry before its recent expansion. These include, the influential cow slaughter prohibition movement that grew since the late nineteenth century, vegetarian dietary customs adopted by a section of the population,  the delayed introduction of refrigeration technologies that are essential for the distribution and processing of meat and finally, the largely extra-legal or illegal structure of the basic infrastructure of the meat industry, mainly, the primary sites of production, that is the slaughterhouses, of which only 10 percent were licensed and regularised by 1945.

This post-doc project aims to take up a unique endeavour to study the entangled networks of the meat, tanning and leather industries in colonial India. By examining the contours of these entangled networks, the project will trace the development and transformation of hierarchies that existed within the various economic units and among social actors involved in these allied industries. In this regard, the project will focus on specific themes that were crucial to these allied industries, namely the history of new technologies such as chrome tanning methods or refrigeration for meat processing and packaging, debates on commercialization and de-industrialization thesis with regards to the artisanal industries in colonial India, the nature of markets and the bazaar economy, especially the structure of finance and the extra-legal nature of the credit system. Additionally, the project will contribute the field of business history in South Asia, by providing a rich account of the life of Muslim merchants and entrepreneurs involved in the meat, tanning and leather industries.

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