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ERODE, INDIA, July 19, 2001: To Western companies operating in India, the cow is a sacred. But nothing is so straightforward in India. India is actually a major producer and consumer of leather, and only some of it comes from goat, sheep and buffalo. With a population that is an estimated 80% Hindu, India slaughters 14 million cattle a year, making it the world's fifth most active cattle killer, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Government tax breaks have helped make leather of all kinds one of India's biggest exports. But it takes some effort to accommodate business and religion when it comes to cowhide. The Hindu religion forbids eating beef and slaughtering cows, but permits taking the hide of a ''fallen'' cow, or one that has died naturally. Central Leather Research Institute in Madras' executive director, T. Ramasami, says leather is just a by-product of cows that are slaughtered for meat. ''Economics are a reason cows became sacred, as one cow provided milk for an entire village. Economics change faster than religious beliefs," he says.