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Gold, silver leaves

Machines can make the varakh industry a clean, hygienic and well-managed sector

MANEKA SANJAY GANDHI

The varakh industry is huge in India, with over 300 tonnes of silver leaves used in paan, chawanprash, tobacco products, ayurvedic medicines and mithais

Nov 13, 2016- For years and years the Indian government put off the decision to make varakh, any leaf composed of pure metals, typically silver and gold, 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 (FSSAI) has clearly notified 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 in Vasundhara Raje’s first term as Chief Minister, lured by the promise that they would get all the help required 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 to only a few shops in his own area. I heard of him, and met him, while campaigning to make varakh in a vegetarian way. Then, when the FSSAI started to take the matter seriously, he came was called to show them how it could be done properly.

The varakh industry is huge in India, with over 300 tonnes of silver leaves used in paan, chawanprash, tobacco products, ayurvedic medicines, mithais and temples. It is used in Germany on food (the food number is E 175) and in France on photo frames. In Japan it is everywhere—interiors, tea, instruments, frescos, temples. 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, facepacks 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. The 300 tonnes of silver used in India means: one kilo of silver has 225 gaddis (bundles) and one gaddi is 150 sheets of silver varakh that means, 6.75 crore gaddis every year. The world market asks for 300kg of goldvarakh every day.

Silver in abattoirs

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. This 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 and also 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 not only unhygienic but also unfit for eating.

Karnavat has replaced leather or animal fat with a specially engineered paper, which 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.

The right way

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 low cost machines to be produced and installed, and train unskilled labourers—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 2 lakh people to be employed, and that this is the only way for the varakh industry to become a clean, hygienic well- managed and 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 a woman. Gold and silver leaf can be major exports from India as well.

Karnavat was invited by the Chinese government to establish a unit and train their people. 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.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, http://www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

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