To be fair to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, his crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses in the State could be seen as a fallout of a May 2015 order issued by the National Green Tribunal, which the previous administration in the State had done little to act upon. The NGT had ordered immediate closure of all illegally operating slaughterhouses in the State. The Tribunal had also directed the UP government to ensure that existing ones were properly regulated, and that environmental norms relating to water use and disposal of animal waste were strictly adhered to. One could argue that Yogi Adityanath was simply following court orders — which would be specious, since banning illegal and mechanised slaughterhouses and imposing a total ban on cow slaughter were part of the BJP’s poll manifesto. The ban is clearly a political move, aimed at underscoring the party’s commitment to carrying out its stated agenda. The political nature of the move is also evident from the fact that there is no accompanying move to improve regulation, or a roadmap to transition existing unauthorised slaughterhouses to compliant and regulated ones which meet legal, environmental and hygiene standards.

Illegal slaughterhouses are undoubtedly a huge environmental and public health hazard. Informed estimates put the number at over 7,000 in the country, not counting small backyard operations. There are only 75 government-approved integrated abbatoirs-cum-processing plants, of which nearly half are in UP. One of the reasons for the proliferation of illegal slaughterhouses is that the official machinery has been quite lackadaisical in its approach so far. Most civic administrations have not prioritised the development of modern abbatoirs, despite soaring population and demand for meat. Further, a strong customer preference for freshly slaughtered meat from wet markets, and lack of proper cold chain and storage facilities have also contributed to the illegal slaughterhouse trade, which has thrived despite regulatory efforts. Under the Food Safety (Licensing and Registration of Food Business) Regulations 2011, for instance, all slaughter houses were required to be licensed and registered with the FSSAI, a provision observed more in the breach.

There is also the economic cost of banning slaughterhouses. UP is India’s largest meat-producing State, as well as the biggest exporter of meat, and a blanket crackdown will harm livestock farmers, the meat trade and consumers alike. As it is, growing pressure from cow protectionist groups, as well as bans on beef in several parts of the country, have seen India’s meat exports decline for the past couple of years. The cow slaughter ban has also skewed the cattle population in favour of buffaloes, since farmers do not get any subsidy for maintaining unproductive cattle. Instead of worsening the situation further with knee-jerk actions, governments — both at the Centre and in States — need to work on coming up with workable solutions which take into account the interests of all stakeholders.