The once-popular New Martin Hotel in Mumbai’s Colaba wears a dismal look these days. The footfall has not been the same since the Maharashtra government banned beef earlier this month. "Beef steak, beef chilly fry masala and beef chilly dry were some of our most popular dishes, but we had to take them off the menu post the ban. There has been at least a 50% drop in footfall since," says a waiter at the restaurant.
Ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2014, a newspaper report quoted then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi as saying that the only revolution that took place during the UPA’s tenure was the "pink revolution", an euphemism for the meat business. The report also cited the Ministry of Food Processing data to say that India exported 1.89 million tonnes of beef in 2012-2013, which is a 50% increase over five years ago.
The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) website quotes 2007 figures to say that the meat production in India is estimated at 6.3 million tonnes, making it the fifth largest meat producer in the world. Bovine meat constitutes 62% of the total yield. About 31% of the total bovine meat comes from cattle. All that seems set to change.
Following in the footsteps of the Maharashtra government, Haryana has also put a ban on cow slaughter and the sale of beef. While most people glimpse an effort to protect Hindutva sentiments in the move to save the ‘holy cow", many non-beef eaters too are irked by government interference in what should be a personal dietary preference. "I’m a practising Hindu and I don’t eat beef. But the government shouldn’t be dictating whether one may or may not eat beef," says 35-year-old Shaswat Ghosh (name changed on request).
Meanwhile, the ban in Maharashtra and Haryana has beef traders across the nation in jitters. "Export too will be affected. The government has not thought of the thousands who have been involved in this business for generations," says a beef exporter in New Delhi, on condition of anonymity.
In Mumbai traders are on strike. "Cow slaughter has been banned in Maharashtra since 1976. Eighty per cent of the beef being sold here is bull meat, the rest being buffalo. But now they have also put a ban on trade in bull and bullock meat," explains Md Ali Qureshi, president of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Welfare Association, adding, "People here prefer bull to buffalo. Water buffaloes are mostly kept for exports." There are about 900 beef shops in Mumbai, employing some 3,600 people. "We will now have to use buffalo for the domestic market too. Demand will exceed supply and price will go up," says Qureshi.
The trader also fears a rise in illegal trade and poor quality meat. "Once a bull loses its utility on the farm, the farmer sells it for slaughter. Licensed beef sellers bring these bulls to government slaughter houses where a veterinarian checks whether the animal is fit for slaughter. The slaughter takes place in hygienic conditions after which an expert again checks the quality of meat. In a state where crops often fail and farmer suicides are common, how will these people feed bulls which are no longer fit for farm work? They will be sold and butchered illegally without any check on the quality of the meat. And those who can’t afford mutton or buffalo meat, will be happy to buy it," says Qureshi. This may be especially true for small eateries serving a satisfying meal on a modest budget. "Mutton is priced at Rs 450 per kg, where as beef is only Rs 160 per kg. Mutton and chicken prices may go up further because of the ban," says Qureshi.
The ban has also hit allied industries. "My business has come to a standstill," rues Haji Tahir, who buys hide, blood, bones and offal from butchers to supply to other industries. "Most of the hide goes to tanneries and leather industries in Kanpur and Kolkata and is used to make car seats ad hoods, purses and shoes. The hide of every animal is different in texture and toughness. Hides of other animals can’t be put to the same uses as bull hide. Blood, offal, bones and tallow are used in making chemicals, medicines and soaps," says Tahir.
If the beef and allied trades in Mumbai were organised to almost a clockwork precision, the business in Haryana is informal. "There are no beef shops here. Almost every house has cows and bulls and the animals are killed for meat. If one family kills an animal one day, they will share the meat with neighbours in exchange for something. The ban will not stop people from eating beef here. It will just give the cops another excuse for extortion," says a researcher who works in Haryana’s Mewat area. Mewat has some of the biggest consumers of beef in the state. The APEDA website insists India has the potential to become the number one meat and leather producer in the world. As far as beef is concerned, though, the present government seems unlikely to support this ambition.