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Democracy and Sri Lanka’s middle-class

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By Uditha Devapriya

 

Speaking at the launch of the 43 Senankaya, a month or so ago, Champika Ranawaka bemoaned the way voters, particularly young voters, view politicians today. “We saw this clearly when MPs began contracting the virus,” he observed. “The first reaction on social media, and elsewhere, was: when will the virus invade Parliament? When will it help us get rid of those in Parliament?” This, Ranawaka pointed out, had a lot to do with how politicians have congealed into a distinct class of their own, insulated from the public and hardly receptive to it. He went on to observe, however, that inasmuch as family bandyism – the Rajapaksas, but also the Senanayakes, the Bandaranaikes, perhaps even the Premadasas – has contributed to the disjuncture between the voter and the voted, it is hardly fair to hold every politician to account.

Ranawaka was obviously insulating himself from the backlash generated on social media against the much condemned, much vilified 225. But his observation seems, at least to me, a tad superficial. True, family bandyism has damaged relations between people and representatives. True, corruption did not begin with the present batch of parliamentarians, and it will not end with that batch. Yet whereas Ranawaka couches the problem – the gulf between citizenry and legislature – purely in terms of political corruption, I feel it must be viewed from another vantage point.

To put it simply, the problem is not with politicians alone. I know this is not the most popular thing to say, but it’s true. The issue that Ranawaka identifies goes far beyond voters wishing a coronavirus pox on all politicians; it goes all the way back to the backlash of disenchantment generated by the yahapalana government, to what voters saw as the failures of that regime. It wasn’t a case of voters wishing politicians away only; it was a case of voters wishing the idea of politics away.

Ranawaka may not have realised it, but the pox-on-all-politicos curse happens to be a symptom of a more serious problem: the highly educated, professional, urban if not suburban middle-class – which he is targeting – envisions a polity free of politics, and wishes politicians out of the system. There are two broad reasons for this: the excesses of the populists, and the failures of the reformists.

I realise I’m engaging in stereotypes here, but that is because the people I have talked with, and the sentiments they express, tend to conform to such stereotypes. Ranawaka aims at a predominantly Sinhala middle-class that’s a lower-middle class version of the Viyathmaga and Eliya (V-E) coterie; Sajith Premadasa’s Buddhi Mandapaya aims at the same thing, only with a less preponderant Sinhala presence. In other words, as with the V-E coterie, both 43 Senankaya and Buddhi Mandapaya target the same class of professionals whose electorates have generated that backlash against politics, politicians, and more importantly, the idea of politics.

I am tempted to call this milieu Sri Lanka’s middle-class, but then I realise there is not just one middle-class. In an essay written in 1975, the Marxist historian Arno J. Mayer drew a distinction between different layers of what he identified as the lower middle-class: petty independent producers, merchants, and service operatives on the one hand, and petty dependent clerks, managers, and technicians on the other, in addition to teachers, professors, lawyers, or put simply, professionals. As far as the Sri Lankan middle-class’s run-ins with politicians are concerned, it is these groups, particularly the professionals, who count. My contention, which may be controversial to some, is that as much as they count, they are not adequate for a national political programme, democratic or otherwise.

 

Why do I say this?

The issue with these groups and milieus is not that they are right about politicians – that they tend to rob, pilfer, piddle, waste taxpayers’ money, hang on to power, and so on – but rather that they are half-right about the bulk of them. They are correct in their diagnosis: of course politicians rob, of course they hang on to power, of course they are corrupt, and of course they corrupt others.

But though correct in their diagnosis, they are wrong in their recommendation. Put simply, they want a polity free of politics. This is unrealistic, something no country in the world has tried out. Yet like a mantra, it has caught on. Disgust with politicians, which in other states has served to reform politics, has served here to turn the most educated, urbanised, and suburbanised setions to an aversion to politics. The call to get rid of the 225 is one symptom of that malaise; the call to replace them with a set of experts is another. Not surprisingly, against that backdrop, the middle-class sees itself in much the same way the one-eyed see themselves in the land of the blind: not only averse to politics, but also superior to, and above, it.

My problem with this approach to politics is that it does not sit in well with certain tenets of democracy, and more worryingly, with a pluralist conception of democracy. This belies another major problem, relevant to the issue at hand.

One of the most enduring myths about democratisation in countries like ours is that the middle-class should play a leading role. Much of the literature on the role of the middle-class in democratisation, even in these parts of the world, focuses on the link between economic aspiration and political reform. This “structural linkage” assumes that as an economy develops, authoritarianism will wither away, thanks to the rise of an educated, professional, meritocratic milieu.

Although the evidence collected thus far is not enough to establish this view as a fact, the assumption has been accepted as such for more than half a century. It traces its origins to the influential work of Seymour M. Lipset, who saw economic growth as a precondition of democratisation and argued that far from fostering liberalisation, the working class served to obstruct it. For him, the class most benefitted from growth, which would by default stand up for democracy, was the middle-class.

Lipset’s observation suffers from two limitations. The first is obvious: it’s limited, for the most, to the experience of Western liberal democracies of the mid-20th century. To put it simply, it is limited by time, space, and historical context. The second is as significant: it endorses a centre-right, anti-working class position. In other words, not only is his study contextually limited, it is also shaped by ideological convictions. But Lipset’s hypotheses about the link between middle-class aspiration and political liberalisation have been and continues to be taken at face value by scholars, activists, and NGOs the world over, from New York to New Delhi.

Even those who have pointed out Lipset’s contextual and ideological biases tend to harbour contextual and ideological biases of their own. Much of the work which provides an alternative account of middle-class involvement in democratisation focuses on the East Asian and South-East Asian experience. At first glance, the shift to this region makes sense: the transition from Third World to First in the economies of Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and even Taiwan did not mirror a transition from autocracy to democracy. Indeed, as Lee Kuan Yew once put it to Fergus Bordewich, political autocracy and one-party rule encouraged Singapore’s middle bourgeoisie to favour honest government over party politics.

But Sri Lanka is not Singapore, just as Singapore is not the US. The dynamics and the optics are different. It is imperative to account for such optics if we are to formulate a proper account of whether, and to what extent, middle-class growth in the country has widened democracy. An alternative account of their relationship with democracy, indeed their conception of it, must hence be formulated.

At the risk of simplifying a complex reality, I see Sri Lanka’s middle-class as making two demands: less taxation, and more representation. To explain more clearly: less taxation in the form of cheaper food prices, fewer import tariffs, and fewer barriers to trade; and more representation in the form of greater state accountability and greater access to public goods, i.e. the best hospitals, the best schools, institutions to which the middle-class can get access only by bribing officials. How contradictory these two goals are can be seen in how, if they are met almost exclusively in favour of a middle-class, they tend to exclude or marginalise other social groups. Resources, after all, are not unlimited, and even in a context where tax revenues are not diminishing (as they are in Sri Lanka), it will prove to be difficult for a policymaker to, say, reduce import restrictions to benefit an aspiring middle-class without cutting down on welfare payments to the poorest in order to offset resultant losses in state revenue. And yet, far from concerning the middle-class, the point that the state can cater to them only at the cost of welfare to other classes seems to have escaped them.

One example will suffice to illustrate my point. Not too long ago, the government allocated space to an agitation zone near Galle Face where trade unions and activists could gather and yell and holler to their hearts’ content without obstructing traffic. Of course, to limit dissent to a demarcated zone cannot be considered very open, for that matter very democratic. Yet for middle-class democrats, excluding a group other than their own – a group they generally detest because the protests they hold tend to obtrude on their routines – did not seem a problem; indeed, far from bemoaning it, vast sections of this milieu appeared to welcome it on social media.

For these middle-class types, then, family bandyism remains a problem; corruption too; taxes on imported cars, certainly. But stopping protests from spreading out to the roads? Not by a long shot. Therein lies the dilemma at the heart of this class: they want democracy, they want representation, they want honest government. Yet they also want, and desire for, a polity free of politics. The issue is that this polity appears less a democratic Utopia than an entrenched oligarchy: one that substitutes rule by middle-class philosopher-kings for rule by populist family cartels.

Whether that is something we should want is a question civil society must ask itself seriously. To me the solution is simple: to usher in a democracy free of private and public corruption, civil society must engage in mobilising other classes. In a word, it must be inclusive, participatory, and broad, rather than be reliant on professionals, idealists, and petty anti-regimists. The sooner civil society realises this, the easier it will be to come up with a truly national political programme: one that addresses the concerns of marginalised minorities, ethnic and economic. With a middle-class that aspires to the ranks of a compradorist bourgeoisie, such a programme will probably never materialise. For that we must look elsewhere, to other classes.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

 

 



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Sat Mag

Protect health of environment, animals, humans to prevent future pandemics

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By Debapriya Mukherjee
Former Senior Scientist
Central Pollution Control Board, India

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the veneer of civilization is very thin. we did not have knowledge, resources and technologies to deal with such a devastating pandemic. More than 3.1 million people worldwide have died from Covid-19 and more than 146 million cases have been recorded till date. This pandemic is a crisis not today, this is only the beginning. The other viruses of animal origin are just around the corner. A future pandemic could be worse than the ongoing crisis because we are pushing nature to its limit by destroying and degrading amazingly diverse ecosystems, like tropical forests, rivers, lakes, mountains, coral reefs and many more and ultimately removing natural buffers and expanding the interface, the touch points, between wildlife and people where pandemics emerge.

This unsustainable exploitation of the environment due to human induced land-use change, intensive agriculture and animal-based food systems, growing trade in and farming of wildlife species and their consumption leads to instabilities in ecosystems and host microorganism dynamics. Increased intimate contact between wildlife, livestock, and people, potentially leads to emerging many zoonotic diseases either directly or indirectly. These problems are not restricted to any single species and the viability of even highly resilient natural populations of animals are now at risk.

A majority of emerging viruses come from wildlife but we cannot blame wild creatures, because behaviours of human to fulfill their greed by destroying the natural resources at a dizzying pace invite these viruses into our living room. Among all the human activities, deforestation is likely the single biggest source of new zoonotic diseases. As forests become increasingly fragmented, the chance of humans and their livestock coming into contact with wildlife and contract viruses increases. Nipah virus first spread in Indonesia when forests were burned for agriculture. Fruit bats fled to orchards, passing the disease to pigs and pig farmers. It is widely assumed that a pathogen in a bat jumped to another animal to a human in China and then hopped onto the “globalization express”, causing extraordinary suffering and trillions of dollars in damage. This happened after several decades of other pandemics— with bats or civets in the case of Ebola and SARS-CoV-1 and most likely chimps in the case of H.I.V.

Arrogance and luxurious lifestyle compel us to assume that humans are superior to the rest of living beings on earth and there is no need to maintain relationship with the wild. In this context I just want to mention that forests, freshwater systems, oceans, grasslands and the biodiversity within us literally give us the clean air, clean water, climate-stabilizing buffers and healthy food, as well as natural protection from viruses. Despite realizing this truth, we could not motivate us to stop exploitation in the name of so-called development.

Though upon occurrence of this pandemic, huge money is being spend towards treatment of Covid-19 patients and development of vaccine, governments and politicians, irrespective of any political affiliation, did not give any emphasis to stop this unsustainable exploitation. Otherwise, how multinational companies continuously undertake large-scale logging or mining in the world’s remaining great forests and construct hydropower projects on river? These MNCs need to pay for the pandemic risks associated with these extractive activities. In such a hypothetical scenario, perhaps some of these projects would not be undertaken at all. In this context it is pertinent to mention that halting these practices is the only sustainable vaccine against the next pandemic. This COVID-19 crisis is also clear that the cost of the boldest initiative to prevent future pandemics of this magnitude is less than the price we pay once a pandemic occurs, as opined by the researchers.

By 2050 or so, the human population is expected to cross nine billion mark. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources on a planet where humans are already shaping climate and the web of life. Now the question is what collective actions are needed to prevent this pandemic and at the same time to meet the population’s dietary needs? Now we have to explore the most important change that needs to be made by addressing 21st Century education challenges in a One Health manner.

The starting point of “one health” is to recognize that the health and well-being of humans, animals and the environment are intricately linked. The experts from a range of sectors, notably human health, animal health, plant health and the environment, work together in building a response infrastructure that emphasizes the sharing of information and the coordination of actions across multiple sectors. The “One Health” approach resembles other public health initiatives that attempt to break down disciplinary or sectoral silos, such as whole-of-government or health-in-all-policies approaches, or more recent calls for prioritizing eco-health or planetary health. It differs, however, by focusing on how competing interests such as agricultural productivity, farm livelihoods, animal health and the health of populations far removed from the farm must be balanced over a long period. This poses difficult governance and implementation challenges as the spectre of imminent health catastrophe is seldom present at the pre-epidemic stage when action is most crucial.

To strengthen its integrative approach to One Health, one of the important tasks is to collect data Systematically on the occurrence of infectious diseases, and related behaviours, in both humans and animals, can eventually contribute to developing models to estimate the probability of the emergence of a new zoonotic agent. Such systematic monitoring also facilitates the tracking of the spread of infection while providing early warning to human and animal health officials for response measures.

Next is the challenge of coordination and active collaboration required between various agencies for a unified, timely response. This is not only required at the local level but also for global response efforts to minimize the likelihood of pandemic potential.

Another challenging action is to better understand the differing regulatory environments that govern the live animal markets as a crucial first step in assessing the role of local or national-level institutions in minimizing zoonotic disease risk. In addition to above, health equity concerns are to be integrated for framing the policy for improvement of protection of vulnerable populations in current and future infectious disease outbreaks, both through attention to the socio-historical conditions and recognition of the knowledge and capabilities to prevent or mitigate the health harms arising from such outbreaks.

Though the One Health approach is considered crucial to address governance challenges of zoonotic diseases but its implementation in practice remains quite limited. It is time for international law to catch up with global reality. But global health scholars can neither simply focus on the health sector nor limit their work to scientific and technological improvement. All will have to realize is that food, trade, human rights, humanitarian relief, and the environment are critically important in improving health and reducing health inequalities.

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Unsung heroes

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In the year 1973, the Galle Cricket Club playing their Daily News Trophy match against the Chilaw Cricket Club, registered the highest partnership of 210 runs for the 4th wicket in club cricket. The Galle C.C. players were R.L. Hewa and A.T. Fonseka, an Assistant Superintendent of Police (A.S.P) attached to the Galle Police.

* * *

The last time I went to the Galle Police Station, it was to pay a courtesy call on A.S.P. Bandula Seneviratna, who had come from Badulla. Like me, he was a fellow columnist in ‘Amita’s Column’ in The Island. That was the only time I met him. His anecdotes enormously enlivened us, more so how G.A.S.M. Silva, who had a penchant for toddy, became G. U. S Mutti Silva.

* * *

In the late 1950s, there was this policeman, Zoysa, attached to the Galle police, who was a popular Baila Maestro. One of his melodious Bailas was:

Dukayi kiya dukayi kiya handai lokaya!’

Aida priye yanna giye apa duke dama!

Ara asiyathika ratawala kathanayaka

Ma piyaneka garu Bandaranaike

* * *

An A.S.P. serving away from his native Galle used to come to the Club on his visits to the town. One of his brothers was the new Mp, who rode on the tidal wave of 1977 and was the butt of many an unkind joke. This A.S.P very much liked to hear them. One such was about the ‘Nila’ Telephone. One day when the M.P. came home for lunch, he saw some workman busy installing a telephone. He asked them what was going on. “Manthrituma we are installing your Nila Telephone,” they said, meaning official telephone, but which literally translated, meant blue telephone. “Nila telephone be damned! I want a Kola Telephone!” (a green telephone). We gathered on the grapevine that he shared these jokes with his M.P. brother.

* * *

In the late 1930s, the Galle folk were not without entertainment. On moonlit nights, under the able and popular direction of Inspector Lazarus, the Police Band played delightful music on the Ramparts to the enjoyment of the residents of the town. How nice it would be if we could revive it now? The Police Courts of Galle were established in 1844.

 

When a police party led by an OIC raided a kasippu (illicit liquor) den, run by a man and his sister, the man fired at the OIC with his unlicensed gun. When the OIC directed fire at the man, he fell dead. During the raid when one policeman attacked the man’s sister with a baton, she fell and sustained injuries to her leg. When the OIC went up to her, she said, “Forgive us, Sir! Despite my telling my brother not to engage in this illegal business, he carried on, as he said that he had no other job.” When the OIC looked at her sweet pathetic face, tears came to his eyes. Carrying her in his arms to his jeep, he took her to hospital.

When she recovered from her injuries, the OIC took pity on this pretty girl with nobody to support her and married by special licence and lived happily thereafter. A few days after the marriage, he received a letter from his father, asking him to come home, as there was a favourable proposal of marriage to a pretty girl with a fat dowry!

 

* * *

Once two cars driven by two lady drivers collied. Alighting from their vehicles, the two ladies began abusing each other in shrill, strident tones. Not even the grizzled, elderly police sergeant who arrived on the scene could stop their shrieking. At last the sergeant got a brainwave. Talking out his notebook and pencil, he said aloud, “Now then ladies; will the older of you two please tell me what exactly happened!” Immediately there was a deafening silence!

 

* * *

It was midnight and a policeman on beat duty watched curiously, as a drunk tried to insert his door key into a hole in the lamp post. Walking up to him, the policeman said “Hello, what are you doing?” “I am trying to open the door of my house!” said the drunk. “It’s no use,” said the policeman diplomatically. “Everybody in the house is out.” “Don’t be shilly,” said the drunk. Can’t you shee the light burning upstairs?”

 

* * *

Writing to The Daily News of June 7, 1999, Herby Jayasuriya, the retired Senior Superintendent of police, stated that the Government Services Cricket Tournament in Kandy, in 1960, had been won by the Agriculture Department. Thereafter a match was arranged to be played at the Asgiriya Police grounds between the losing combined Government Services Teams and the champions – the Agriculture Department.

Duckworth from the Kandy Prisons was selected as the captain of the combined team while Cotalingam was the other player from the Kandy Prisons. B. Jurampathy and Herby Jayasuriya were selected from the Kandy Police. The former Zahira captain, Haleem, who played for the Agriculture Department bowled an over to Duckworth, who hammered all six balls for six sixes. After the next over was bowled from the other end, Haleem bowled his next over, this time to Cotalingam, who also hammered Haleem for six sixes that over. Bowler Haleem was so disappointed and disgusted that he sat on the ground and cried for 10 minutes. Play was interrupted till Haleem finished his crying session.

Ruhunu Puthra remembers Cotalingam, who was an old boy of S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, serving as the Superintendent of Prison, Galle in the mid 1960s. He was a perfect gentleman and of the friendly type who used to come to our club in the evenings. After his retirement from the Prisons, he lived in Anuradhapura. Unfortunately, he met with a tragic death; he was stabbed by the very boy whom he had adopted, an avaricious fellow.

Here is an extract from Herby Jayasuriya’s book ‘A Policeman Remembers’ (pg;241):

EPILOGUE

These are the reminiscences of a person who spent almost 39 years as an officer in the Police service. Considering all, it was only by the Grace of God that I survived this period and ended with an unblemished record. I always endeavoured to do my duty without fear or favour. I may have got to a higher rank had I sought political patronage. Nevertheless, I leave with no regrets having thoroughly enjoyed my work as a Policeman.

 

* * *

I wish to end my story with a Policeman’s Prayer, which I came across when I visited Singapore about ten years ago. The text was on the office wall of a Singaporean Police Inspector. I copied it, had it framed and hung in my office. This is the prayer.

Teach me that sixty minutes makes one hour, sixteen ounces a pound, and one hundred cents a dollar. Help me to live that I can lie down at night with a clear conscience, without a gun under my pillow and haunted by faces to whom I have brought pain. Grant that I may earn my meal ticket on the square and in earning it may do to others as I would have others do unto me. Deafen me to the jingle of tainted money and the rustle of unholy skirts. Blind me to the faults of the other fellow, but reveal to me my own. Guide me so that each night when I look over the dinner table at my wife, who has been a blessing to me, I shall have nothing to conceal. Keep me young enough to laugh with little children and sympathetic enough to be considerate to the old. And when comes the day of darkening shadows and the smell of flowers, the tread of footsteps and the crunch of wheels in the yard, make the ceremony short and the epitaph simple:

‘HERE LIES A MAN’

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Towards a world where meat, milk and leather don’t come from animals

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I am hopeful that, in my lifetime, I am going to see a disruptive change in the eating and wearing of animal flesh. It is coming fast: the largest slaughter companies, and the largest investors in the world, have invested in laboratory created real meat (called clean meat) and milk. These meats are already in the market in countries like Singapore. Perfect Day, which makes milk cells, is on the market with yoghurt (under the label Smitten) that is made of animal free dairy. The Netherlands and Israel are far ahead in meat grown from in-vitro animals’ cell culture, instead of from slaughtered animals. Indeed, if clean meat would replace intensive farming as an industry standard, the benefits for the environment would be immense. As consumers, we would also have “cleaner” meat, meaning a product that doesn’t have the antibiotic residues and bacterial contamination that come with slaughtered meat. We would also save the lives of over 56 billion animals yearly. Yes, that’s the number of animals that are eaten every year by humans.

The meat industry keeps bringing out statistics, that vegans and vegetarians are still less than 5% of the market. That is simply not true. If it were, entire supermarket sections and fast food vendors would not be catering to them. Impossible Foods, which makes plant-based meat, is one of the fastest growing companies in the world. Its current valuation is $4 Billion.

And the largest slaughterhouse companies in the world would not be investing in an alternative meat future.

Vegetarians and vegans finally have meat eaters on the run.

But the wearing of meat in the form of leather – has it gone down? Not yet. But it will.

Apart from the millions of animals that it kills every year, especially young calves, the leather industry is extremely dangerous for the Earth’s survival. The rivers are polluted with the toxic chemicals used in leather, leather polish alone kills millions of fish. A 2018 global impact study, by Quantis, stated that 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide are emitted by the leather footwear industry annually – a major reason for global warming.

The New Zealand shoe company, Allbirds, which is in partnership with the giant Adidas, has just announced that it is investing millions in plant-based leather. Allbirds has been going this way for a long time: shoes made of eucalyptus and cotton fibre for instance, insoles made of castor bean oil, recycled plastic laces. This new material, plant leather, is made from vegetable oil, natural rubber and other bio inputs. The company announced their investment in a material innovation firm called Natural Fiber Welding, Inc. and says it will be adding “the world’s first 100% natural plant-based leather” to its product lineup by December 2021. This material, which is called Mirum, is said to have 40 times less carbon impact than real leather, and produces 17% less carbon than synthetic leather made from petroleum-based sources. Mirum will be constructed without any polyurethane, meaning that the material can biodegrade at the end of its life, without leaving traces of plastic in the soil, or it can be reground into new Mirum .

Joey Zwillinger, co-founder of Allbirds, said in a press release, “For too long, fashion companies have relied on dirty synthetics and unsustainable leather, prioritizing speed and cost over the environment. Natural Fiber Welding is creating scalable, sustainable antidotes to leather, and doing so with the potential for a game-changing 98% reduction in carbon emissions. Our partnership with NFW, and planned introduction of Plant Leather based on their technology, is an exciting step on our journey to eradicate animals and petroleum from the fashion industry.”

Vegan leather, an oxymoron, is the ethical and cruelty-free alternative to traditional leather. It is meant to look and feel like traditional leather, without the baggage of pollution and suffering. As more and more people grow aware of the leather industry’s effects on the environment and on animals, the market for cruelty-free alternatives keeps growing.

British materials company, Ananas Anam, set up in 2013, was among the first to come out with a plant-based leather alternative called Piñatex. The material uses fibres derived from pineapple leaves, sourced from the Philippines. These fibres are mixed with polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic derived from corn, to create a flexible and durable material. Piñatex is being used by Hugo Boss and Canadian brand Native Shoes.

Dutch designer Tjeerd Veenhoven has sourced his vegan leather from the leaves from the Areca Betel Nut (Supari). The Palmleather project was born as a low-cost plant-based replacement for animal leather, plastic and rubber, and uses far fewer pollutants and water consumption than animal leather.

The company, Desserto, has introduced a vegan leather made from nopal cactus leaves, which can be used to make furniture and car interiors, wallets, purses, and shoes. The nopal cactus grows in abundance across Mexico without requiring any water, making it a low-impact crop.

Major luxury fashion houses including Stella McCartney, Adidas, and Gucci parent company Kering, have invested in a leather substitute product called Mylo, a soft leather like material, created from mycelium, the branching filament structure that mushrooms and other fungi use to grow. The material consumes substantially less water than is needed to produce animal leather, while emitting fewer greenhouse gases. It takes just days to produce and is completely biodegradable and non-toxic. MusKin is a leather-like material made from the caps of a mushroom called Phellinus ellipsoideus. The fungus is native to subtropical forests and feeds on tree trunks.

Will’s Vegan Store is an online store that makes luxurious vegan leather shoes from cereal crops. The company’s vegan leather is made from a mix of polyurethane and bio-oil made from cereal crops . The company is trying to move away from using polyurethane, and recently rolled out a new product using viscose made from eucalyptus bark.

In 2017, the high-end vegan shoe company Veerah rolled out leather made from 50 percent apple peels leftover from the apple juice industry, and 50 percent polyurethane. The peels are dried and ground into a fine powder, which is then mixed with non-toxic pigment, and polyurethane, to become a leather-like fabric.

Here are the Indian entrepreneurs that you should buy from, or invest in:

Malai Biomaterials Design Pvt Ltd, a Kerala based initiative, is the brainchild of Zuzana Gombosova and Susmith Suseelan. It produces a vegan alternative to leather, using sustainable bacterial cellulose sourced from waste coconut, banana stem, sisal fibre and hemp fibre. It is completely biodegradable, flexible, water resistant stretchy and has the same thickness as leather.

The company collects coconuts from farmers in Kerala. The water is left undisturbed for bacterial culture to feed on. The end process results in jelly-like cellulose, which is mixed with banana fibre, or gum, to create raw material in the form of sheets or three-dimensional shapes. To make the sheets colourful and glossy, the company uses natural dyes such as indigo, madder or cutch.

The company’s major clients are prestigious companies like Crafting Plastics, TON, Ma-tt-er, Kazeto, and the products are bags, wallets, backpacks. I do not know whether they have started making shoes as yet.

Aulive is an online Indian brand that has genuinely beautiful vegan, cruelty-free leather products. It labels itself as “Genuinely Not Leather” and uses Pinatex. They have come out strongly against the cruelty, and toxicity, of the animal leather trade. Look up the site when you want to buy suitcases, briefcases and bags.

Kanpur Flower Cycling, owned by engineer Ankit Agarwal, has created Fleather, a leather made of temple flowers. Even though it’s not on the market yet, Fleather has already won a UN Sustainability Award and a PETA award for best innovation. The company has already been making Florafoam – a compostable alternative to styrofoam (non-biodegradable plastic) from moulding dried flowers with natural fungi. Brands, like Bajaj and Havells, are already using Florafoam packaging. Fashion houses, like Anita Dongre, have also shown interest in this breathable and tensile material called ‘Fleather’.

These companies can only be successful if you change your buying pattern.

 

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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