Why Modi govt’s new cattle slaughter rules will hurt India
It is easy to frame rules banning the slaughter of the cow, its progeny, its distant cousin the water buffalo, and its passing acquaintance the camel. It is much harder to think of life without buttons, soap, toothpaste, paint brushes and surgical stitches.
Only 30% of cattle slaughtered in India is used for meat – either local consumption or export – while 70% of the carcass is traded for industries that deal in the aforementioned products, along with about three-dozen other items of daily use. Most of the 30% cattle slaughtered, of course, is the water buffalo because the culling of cows for meat is either totally banned or allowed with strict riders in all but five states. What’s more: eating, selling, transporting or exporting meat of the cow genus is a non-bailable offence, punishable with up to 10 years in jail in all of northern, central and western India.
So, when the Government of India issued an ‘extraordinary’ notification on Tuesday, restricting the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets and imposing rules that put a majority of the country’s animal markets in danger, it willy-nilly hit much more than the meat industry. Sources say the meat industry relies on animal markets for 90% of its supply. The impact on allied industries is unclear.
The government may think the decision is politically rewarding at a time of easy vigilantism. But there are economic implications across the board on exports, the environment, the rural economy -- issues that should have been addressed before taking a hard line.
According to the 2012 Livestock Census, India has a total of 191 million cows and bulls, and 109 million water buffaloes. These are together roughly 25 per cent of India’s human population. Most of these end up on the streets at strays, spewing methane in this age of global warming. With culling a bad word now, the number, according to experts, will rise, “perhaps exponentially”.
India exported 2.4 million tonnes of buffalo meat to 65 countries in 2014-15, or 23.5% of global beef exports according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. It was worth Rs 30,000 crore, accounting for 1% of India’s total exports, part of the “Pink Revolution” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had so derisively talked about during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign.
As far as the bovine economy goes, however, it was only a tiny sliver.
The biggest impact of the government notification will be on India’s largely non-mechanized rural economy, in which the life cycle of bulls and bullocks provides farmers with a sustainable economic model. A couple of former colleagues and I had worked out the math in an article for India Today magazine a couple of years ago.
If a farmer buys a bullock for Rs 25,000, it remains sellable at the same price for about two years. Once it becomes unproductive due to injury or illness, the farmer sells it for culling for about Rs 10,000. This 40% return on investment then allows the farmer to raise capital for a replacement animal. If this replacement cost is taken away from the farmer, it not only makes it harder to procure a new set of healthy bullocks for ploughing, it adds the additional burden of paying for the animal’s upkeep.
In 2014, the used-cattle market in Maharashtra, for example, yielded an annual turnover of Rs 1,180 crore. When the state government banned the culling of cow and its progeny in 2015, a farmer with an unproductive bull suddenly had nowhere to go. Since the average bovine consumes about 65 litres of water and 40 kg of fodder a day, estimates put the cost of taking care of a bull at nearly Rs 40,000 per year at 2015 prices. With an estimated 1.18 million unproductive bulls in Maharashtra alone, feeding them costs about Rs 4,700 crore per year.
The ban in Maharashtra did not include buffaloes, making the new government notification all the more unpalatable.
So, when anti-culling supporters celebrate taking away the most delicious item on the menu in Lucknow’s Tunday kababs or in a Goan shack, they should consider exactly what they’re losing, and ask themselves: Is depriving other people their meat really worth the cost?