Banning cattle slaughter, like demonetisation, may deliver political gains but will hit the rural economy hard
More than a century ago, a team of officials from Brazil toured some villages of Kheda district, in central Gujarat. They had come to procure breeding bulls of the famous Kankreji breed, notes Bhailal Patel, a charismatic institution-builder who was also the first leader of opposition in Gujarat assembly, in his memoirs. It was of course a different India the Brazilians encountered. Cattle in those days were sold and procured without the paperwork to prove that the purchase was being made for purposes other than slaughter. It was a time when nutritionists had started calling milk a complete food and it was creating a niche in the food basket of people.
Not that there were no animal rights activists around then and prevention of cruelty against animals was an unheard-of phrase. On the contrary, there were several of them – the first Society for Prevention of Cruelty against Animals was founded in Calcutta in 1861 by Colesworthey Grant, and there exists a memorial for her in front of Writers’ Building – but they lobbied the government for ensuring the welfare of animals without the nefarious intent of interfering with people’s dietary choices or imposing vigilante ideas on minorities that derive their livelihoods from livestock.
If one looks carefully in the archives, even as a cow protection movement took roots in north India, livestock experts within the British establishment and commissariat were debating questions such as ‘What good does a cattle show do in India?’ They considered whether to impose an embargo on the export of live animals of certain breeds of cattle or not. The Indian branch of the Humanitarian League started publishing several documents that focused on vegetarianism and cow protection. However, the drumming up of hysteria around cattle slaughter and vigilantism had not surfaced without sane voices articulating checks – be it Ram Mohan Roy writing in defence of beef-eating or MK Gandhi articulating a non-fanatic version of championing the cause of the cow in his Hind Swaraj.
On May 23 this year, the ministry of environment issued ‘Rules on prevention of cruelty to animals (regulation of livestock market)’ with the purported aim of regulating animal markets. When one reads the rules – notwithstanding the lame efforts from union ministers to issue clarifications – one is left with the feeling that these are drafted by overzealous persons with misplaced notions of what constitutes the welfare of livestock and livestock owners.
Clause 22 has been the one that has come under close scrutiny, and not without reason. With a single stroke of the pen, it seeks to restructure all the animal markets in the country where animals are to be traded exclusively for “agricultural purposes” and not for slaughter. Notwithstanding finance minister Arun Jaitley’s clarifications, please read clause 22 along with the clause 2 (b), which contains a very expansive definition of what all places are construed as ‘animal market’ – it even includes “any lairage [that is, where cattle may be rested on the way to a slaughterhouse] adjoining a market or a slaughterhouse”!
The overzealousness is also visible when one read clause 2 (e) that states, “cattle means a bovine animal including bulls, bullocks, cows, buffalos, steers, heifers and calves and includes camels” (emphasis added). The inspiration for making sure that all these animals that clause 2 (e) defines as cattle must be traded at animal market exclusively for ‘agricultural purposes’ is said to have its origins in the directive principles of the Indian constitution. The deceit becomes obvious when one reads the directive principle and finds no mention of buffalo and camel there.
So, why were camels and buffaloes added in the definition of cattle? The camel population of India is concentrated in Rajasthan and one district of Gujarat. Camels are critically endangered in parts of Jammu and Kashmir. Their numbers have been declining: there were 10 lakh head in 1992, but the number shrunk to 4 lakh in 2012. In 2014, Rajasthan declared camel the “state animal” and a year later promulgated the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration) Bill. However, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a prominent expert who has worked among Rajasthan camel breeders and herders, points out that “this does not provide a solution to the key issues behind the crisis”.
Article 48 of the Constitution reads thus: “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.” (emphasis added).
The directive principles leave it to the respective states within the federal set-up to deliberate and decide whether to impose an unqualified and absolute ban on cattle slaughter or not. Amid all the cacophony, it might be forgotten that an expert committee, nominated in 1954, had come to the conclusion that, “a total ban on slaughter of all cattle will not be in general interest of the country, since its impact would be more negative than positive” (Agriculture Ministry, 1955).
In 1987, there existed virtually a total ban on cattle slaughter only in seven states in northwest India. In 12 states, cattle could be slaughtered under certain conditions. In three states from south India, cattle could be slaughtered unconditionally. A German researcher, J Lensch, in his book Problems and Prospects of Cattle and Buffalo Husbandry in India with special reference to the concept of “sacred cow” (1987), estimated that “not more than 20 percent of all cattle population in India live in areas with a total ban on slaughter” (page 171). Lensch also estimated that the officially recorded contribution of meat due to such slaughter in India in 1987 amounted to 80,000 tonnes of beef and veal and 1,32,000 tonnes of buffalo meat, and goes on to say that this was far behind the worldwide average slaughter rate for cattle (5.2: 1) and for buffaloes (13: 1).
“According to 1982 statistics, the slaughter that was reported was 1 million in the case of cattle and 9,40,000 in the case of buffaloes. In other words, this means one slaughter per every 182 head of cattle and one slaughter per every 66 head of buffalo. In neighbouring Pakistan – which didn’t practise restrictions on cattle slaughter – the proportion was as follows: one slaughter per every 10 head of cattle and one slaughter per every 5 or 6 head of buffalo. In Western Europe, one cattle gets slaughtered per every 2.8 head of cattle. Worldwide average slaughter rates are one slaughter per every 5.2 head of cattle and one slaughter per every 13 head of buffaloes.” (Lensch added a caveat that these numbers were obtained from the 2,800 ‘organised slaughterhouses’. When supplemented by estimates from around 9,000 ‘unorganised slaughterhouses’, the number of slaughtered animals may increase by three to four times.)
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since even in states where slaughter is permitted, Indian peasants do not rear their livestock primarily for slaughter and the offtake mostly happens when the animal has reached the age when it can no longer be humanely used to obtain milk and draught.
Stories from rural cattle markets show that the latest rules have had a chilling effect on cattle transactions. When a farmer in distress wishes to sell her cattle (which could also be buffalo and camel) finds it hard to get a willing buyer at traditional markets, where will she turn next? If she abandons the animal on the streets, this would add to the number of animals that are labelled as ‘stray’, and thus should logically end up being taken care of by a gaushala or a pinjrapole. However, the question that overzealous animal rights activists need to answer is: Does India have enough shelter homes for cattle, and how would their upkeep be financed?
In his paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts on June 21, 1946, Datar Singh reported that “there are at present about 3,000 gaushalas in India, with a population of over six lakh head of cattle, which are being maintained at a cost of over 80 million rupees per annum” (page 478). Robert Orr Whyte quotes in his book, Land, Livestock and Human Nutrition in India (1968: 169) that “in the year 1955-56, average annual cost of maintaining a cattle in a pinjrapole worked out to be Rs 18-19, compared to which an average per capita expenditure per annum on education was Rs 4.9”! This flies in the face of the accusation that Nehru and his planners neglected the gaumata. An article published in Down To Earth (March 21, 2017) estimated the cost of maintaining 5.3 million stray cattle at Rs 11,607 crore at current prices. Add to this the number of buffaloes and camels that will not be traded at animal markets for slaughter and hence end up as strays, and the estimate will climb further.
This also means that the overzealous drafters of these rules have not at all engaged with the numbers in the Livestock Censuses that India carries out every five years. They have no understanding of how the nation has been witnessing the trend of soaring milk prices, making farmers take up dairying not merely as an ancillary operation within their livelihood options and how these farmers have been making the culling decision regarding their herd.
Some estimates suggest that “a cow has a natural lifespan of, if properly taken care of, and in the absence of predators, between 15 and 25 years and of these years, the productive life of a milch cow in a dairying ranges between four and five years in the case of a crossbred cow, and 10 to 11 years in the case of an indigenous cow.” An illustration put out by NDDB (National Dairy Development Board) for the economics of a dairy farm whose herd size is 10 crossbred cow suggests, “The total net profit over seven years is Rs 11.6 lakh, but 47 percent of this net profit would accrue only if a farmer can sell old animals” readily at the nearest animal market that she has been familiar with.
What would happen if this option becomes unavailable – and as a study of the animal market transactions in the last couple of years would show, the prices gained by farmers who came to sell their unproductive animals have been dwindling and the probability proportion of a willing buyer has also been witnessing a nosedive? (See, for example, Hoskote Nagabhushanam’s report from Anantapur.) How much does that farmer have to bear as out-of-pocket expenditure on the food bill of maintaining the unproductive milch cow? An estimate suggests that it would cost Rs 3.6 lakh to maintain unproductive cows over a further seven-year period. So, if the dairying enterprise would have to be kept an economically viable proposition, the milk producer would have to pass on this burden to consumers, thereby making the milk a luxury good and depriving many vegetarian households in northwest India of an essential protein intake in their diet.
Overzealousness that defies all logic is also seen in clause 12 (9), which specifies that “The veterinary inspector shall ensure that the provision for emergency euthanasia of animals that have irreparable severe injury or are terminally ill and cannot be uploaded on vehicles because to do so would cause unnecessary pain or suffering, are available in a market and that all carcasses including those of naturally dead animals shall be incinerated, and shall not be sold or flayed for leather.”
Does flaying a dead animal – including one which has met with a natural death or has been given euthanasia in a non-cruel way – for leather amount to being cruel to an animal? Why does the state want to ensure that carcasses are not available to be picked up from traditional animal markets, by those who evince an interest in the cheap protein and leather obtainable from them?
Just like demonetisation, the new cattle rules are going to hit the rural economy very hard. States where beef is traditionally consumed, especially Kerala, West Bengal and the northeastern states, have opposed the new rules, and called the move an affront to federal governance. A court has also stayed the matter for now. All that has prompted union environment minister Harsh Vardhan to clarify that, “the centre may consider revisions to this notification and it is not a prestige issue”.
What our cattle need is someone like Gandhi, Satish Chandra Dasgupta and JC Kumarappa, who would delineate a non-fanatic version of how to serve a cow and would champion the cause of cattle and people who derive their livelihood from them. It is the need of the hour that genuine gauseva throws the self-appointed gaurakshak hooligans out of their business of milking the holy cow for electoral gains.
Upadhyaya is with Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. His doctoral research explored the impact of green and white revolutions on agriculture-livestock interrelations..
(The article appears in the June 16-30, 2017 issue of Governance Now)