A meaty problem

| Updated on January 24, 2018

A blanket ban on cattle slaughter threatens the viability of India’s livestock sector

Beef has always been a politically contentious issue in India, reflected in the multiplicity of laws in different States regulating the slaughter of cows and cattle and the consumption of beef. While the States in the North-East have no ban, as many as 23 others have some kind of restriction on the slaughter of cows or cattle. The storm kicked up by the Maharashtra government’s recent decision to ban the slaughter of all types of cattle reflects the emotiveness of the issue. Two decades after it was first cleared, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 1995, has now become law, placing a blanket ban on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves, in addition to cows (whose slaughter has been banned since 1976). Even possession of beef is now an offence; however, water buffaloes can still be legally slaughtered in the State.

While most of the criticism of the Maharashtra government’s move has been centred on the imposition of a majoritarian choice on the food habits of the minority, the real argument is economic. India may not be the largest consumer of beef in the world, but it is the world’s largest bovine meat exporter. Most of the exports consist of buffalo meat, which is legally classified as ‘beef’. In 2012-13, India had exported 1.3 million tonnes of bovine meat, worth over ₹26,457 crore. In April-December 2014-15 (the period up to which export data is available), exports had already crossed 1.1 million tonnes. More importantly, bovine meat is now India’s single biggest agri export, overtaking basmati rice exports. India has the largest livestock population in the world. It accounts for about 58 per cent of the world buffalo population and 14.7 per cent of the cattle population, with over 300 million cattle, over 200 million goats and sheep, and over 10 million pigs.

This huge pool plays a significant role in the rural economy and livelihood. According to the 19th Livestock Census released by the ministry of agriculture, the sector contributes nearly 25.6 per cent of the total value of output in the agriculture, fishing and forestry sector. The overall contribution of the livestock sector in total GDP was 4.11 per cent in 2012-13. A blanket ban on cattle slaughter will significantly mar the economics of the livestock and dairy sectors since it removes the ‘exit option’ for farmers, who will be unable to dispose of non-yielding milch animals, and will be forced to rear unproductive male cattle and buffaloes. Such animals are likely to be abandoned, leading to starvation and misery for the animals, and significantly increased disease risk for the viable bovine population.

Banning cattle slaughter, without providing a solution to the farmer for non-yielding or non-productive assets, amounts to a hidden tax on the farmer. And allowing buffalo slaughter — apart from the lack of logic in such a distinction — only leads to the increasing ‘buffaloisation’ of the livestock population. Regardless of the politics, it is poor economics.

Published on March 08, 2015

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