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Better late than never

After years of sitting on a decision to rectify the filthy process by which silver leaf is produced, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has notified that this cannot be made except by machine — and the person responsible is Surendra Karnavat, a diamond jeweller in America.

Statesman News Service |

For years and years the government put off the decision to
make varakh (silver leaf) by machine on the grounds that no machines were
available. Finally, this year a historic decision has been taken and the Food
Safety and Standards Authority of India’s notification has come that no varakh
can be made except by machine.

The person responsible for this change (apart from me!) is
Surendra Karnavat, a diamond jeweller in America. He and his wife were members
of the Rajasthan Association of America and came to India during Vasundhara
Raje’s first term as chief minister, lured by the promise that they would get
all help to start a machine-based varakh industry. He was given none of the
promised assistance and could only start in a very small way. However, he did not
give up hope and started by supplying only a few shops in his own area. I heard
of him, and met him, while campaigning to have varakh made in a vegetarian way.
Then, when the FSSAI started to take the matter seriously, he came in to show
them how it could be done properly.

The varakh industry is a huge one. India uses over 300
tonnes of silver leaves in paan, chawanprash, tobacco products, ayurvedic
medicines, mithais and temples. It is used in Germany on food (the food number
is E 175), France on photo frames. In Japan, it is everywhere — interiors, tea,
instruments, frescos, temples. In fact, Kanazawa has a Gold Leaf Museum. The
whole of Southeast Asia uses varakh to pay homage to Lord Buddha. It is used on
chocolates, cocktails and liquors — German Goldwasser and the Swiss
Goldschlager are examples — soups, salads, ice-creams, coffees. Now, gold leaf
has become a part of anti-ageing creams, face packs and foundations. The use of
the gilded leaf is endless.

Gold leaf has been used for jewellery, for art decorations,
picture frames and gilded art. We have used it in our glass paintings. But we
don’t export it because we make it in a dirty — and now illegal — manner. ABP
News has done a piece on it, which is doing the Whatsapp rounds so you can see
it.

Three hundred tonnes translates like this: one kilogram of
silver has 225 gaddis (bundles). One gaddi is 150 sheets of silver varakh. That
means, 6.75 crore gaddis every year. The world market asks for 300 kg of gold
varakh every day

Till now, the varakh makers are in slaughterhouses. They are
all a sect of Muslims called Pannigars. They select cattle by feeling their
intestines while they are alive, and then having them cut and extracting the
intestines while they are hot. These intestines are made into pouches, and
silver is beaten in between them till it is thin enough to be sold. The method
is filthy and certainly not pure silver. When you eat it, you place yourself at
risk.

The second method that is used by most mithai sellers — who
will pretend that they are getting the varakh from vegetarian sources (which is
what the president of the mithai association claimed to me) — is to beat the
silver between plastic sheets. However, this is also a filthy meat-based
method, as the plastic is coated with animal fat for lubrication and is also
then covered with leather. The varakh that emerges is also not hygienic or fit
for eating.

Karnavathas replaced leather/animal fat with a specially
engineered paper that is translucent and smooth. This paper is fed into a
machine and the process of making varakh is completely mechanised, without
coming into contact with the sweaty human hand. The leaf has a thickness of
0.18 microns in silver and 0.1 microns in gold, making it of international
standards even for gold fillings and ayurvedic medicines. The machine has taken
15 years to develop and meets the guidelines of the US Food and Drug
Administration.

He is one of the very few people in the world who has the
knowledge of producing varakh paper (also known as interleaf paper or carbon
coated paper). He wants to help in the production and installation of low cost
machines and training of unskilled labour — perhaps even the same people who
have been sitting for years at slaughterhouses and taking out the intestines of
freshly killed buffaloes and cows. He believes there is scope for at least
200,000 people to be employed, and that this is the only way for the varakh
industry to become a clean, hygienic, well managed organised sector, instead of
being a filthy unorganised secretive sector that operates in the shadows of
butcheries. This could also be a major employment area for women, as gold and
silver leaf have to be transferred from interleaf paper to tissue paper, and
this delicate exchange can be best handled by women. Gold and silver leaf can
be major exports from India and earn foreign exchange.

Karnavat was invited by the Chinese government to establish
a unit and train people there. He refused because he wants to make India the
silver/gold leaf hub of the world. This seems to me to be an excellent
potential industry and, now that Mudra loans are available to small
businessmen, this should be taken advantage of. In fact, if you are a large
mithai maker you should establish your own ancillary varakh leaf factory. If
you want to get in touch with him to start it in your own area, and to make
sure that no mithai or paan is being made from cattle intestines in
slaughterhouses, this is his address:

Surendra Karnavat, 9-A
Takhteshahi Road, Jaipur — 302004. Ph: 0141-2574888/09950555555 Email:
[email protected]

To join the animal
welfare movement, contact [email protected], www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

By Maneka Gandhi