As has been widely reported, the notification number 396, called Regulation on Livestock Rules 2017, imposes a ban on sale of cattle for slaughter all across India. Cattle in this notification are defined as bulls, cows, bullocks, buffaloes, steers, heifers, calves and camels.
What are the implications and consequences of this notification?
The jurisdiction to decide on policies related to a ban on cattle slaughter lies with the state governments. It is for this reason that in January this year, a bench headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had stayed the order of the Himachal Pradesh High Court which, through a judgement in 2016, had directed the central government to enact a national law against cow slaughter. The Supreme Court did not accept that the central government has the jurisdiction to do so. The case is still before the top court.
However, the present notification by the central government circumvents the Supreme Court stay order. Instead of a national ban on cow slaughter, it imposes a national ban on the sale of all cattle for slaughter. This includes the six states where there is no law at present against cow slaughter. If, for example, at a cattle fair in Bengal or Kerala, owners of cattle bring their cattle for sale and the buyer buys it for slaughter, the sale will be considered illegal according to the notification, even though there is no ban on slaughter of cows in these two states. Secondly, no state has a ban on slaughter of buffaloes. But the notification will have the effect of a virtual ban. What other reason would there be to sell an unproductive buffalo, if not for slaughter? Thus the notification is a direct encroachment on the rights of the States and on the federal structure of the constitution.
The notification sets up a draconian system which not only criminalizes the cattle trade, but puts the burden of responsibility on the seller of cattle to ensure that the animal sold is used for agricultural purposes and not for slaughter. How could a farmer coming to sell his animal at a cattle fair be expected to know what the intentions of the buyer are? As far as the buyer is concerned, even if there are urgent reasons, he cannot sell the animal for at least six months. It is hypocritical that a regime claiming “minimum government” and putting an end to “inspector raj” should set up a highly bureaucratized maze where there is intense government scrutiny on the sale and purchase of animals. The thought of inspectors snooping outside the cowshed would be laughable, had it not had such serious consequences for farmers who will be vulnerable to harassment and corruption.
At a time when there is rampant goondaism in the name of cow protection, this notification will act as a shot in the arm for cow vigilante groups. Now in the name of prevention of cruelty to animals, they will have a license to terrorize. The notification is also going to result in a serious loss of livelihood for millions of cattle traders and dairy farmers.
Over the years, as far as milch cattle are concerned, there has been a shift in preference to keeping buffaloes rather than cows. It is interesting to note that the states with the most stringent anti-cow slaughter laws are precisely those which have seen a shift in preference for the buffalo. For example, take the states of Haryana or even Gujarat. Here, milk production from buffaloes is far higher than that from cows, reflecting the shift in preference in the animals that farmers keep. It is in these states that the number of stray cows is far higher, uncared for and turned out by their owners. On the other hand, in both Bengal and Kerala, the production of milk from cows is far higher than that of buffaloes. The number of stray cows is also far less.
The Ministry of Animal Husbandry, which also conducts a cattle census every five years, has a detailed statistical profile of the bovine population on its website which provides the explanation for such a shift. According to its estimates, indigenous cows, the original gau mata, produce on an average 2.5 kgs of milk a day. The exotic/cross breed variety produces 7.15 kgs, but its cost and upkeep is very high. The female buffalo produces 5.15 kgs of milk on an average. In this case, economics trumps other considerations, and therefore, there has been a shift in the preference of most dairy farmers to the female buffalo over the gau mata. Moreover, once the buffalo gets dry, it is sold easily for slaughter.
However, Notification 396 now criminalises trade in buffaloes too. Thus all those farmers who had shifted to keeping buffaloes will find it difficult to sell the animal. This has long-term implications for the dairy industry.
Farmers in India are already in considerable distress. In the last three years, farm suicides have gone up to over 36,000, making it an average of 32 suicides every day. With the government reneging on its promise of implementing the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, agriculture for the majority of kisans is a loss-making enterprise. The Swaminathan Commission had recommended a minimum profit over and above the cost of production to be the basis for fixing a remunerative procurement price for agricultural produce. Without such a backup, animal husbandry and trade in cattle is an important alternative source of income for kisans. As it is, the stringent laws against cattle slaughter, which includes even bulls in most states, has led to a steep fall in the prices of cattle. It costs a farmer a minimum of 35,000 to 40,000 rupees a year, excluding the cost of family labour, mainly that of women, to care for a single animal. If the animal cannot be sold for slaughter after it becomes unproductive, the farmer will have to bear the entire burden.
Along with farmers, those involved with the export of beef, mainly buffalo meat valued at 30,000 crore rupees, will take a huge hit. Lakhs of meat shop owners will also be affected. The entire chain of the leather industry, also worth thousands of crores of rupees and providing jobs to around 2.5 million people, will be further affected.
There is also the impact such regulation will have on nutrition. It is commonly thought that it is only minority communities who eat beef. But the NSSO shows that there are substantial numbers among the majority Hindu population who eat beef. For poorer sections of the population, it is a cheaper source of nutrition which will now be stopped. This at a time when India has unacceptably high levels of malnutrition and Anaemia.
Those who use grounds of religious belief and sentiment to justify the imposition of a food code against the consumption of beef have always sought to hide the reality that in India, in any case, it is mainly buffalo meat that is consumed and that the definition of beef includes buffalo meat. In the frenzied campaign of the bhakts, where man slaughter is justified against cow slaughter, facts are always concealed. The website of the Ministry shows that the number of slaughtered cattle (bulls and cows) is just 1.6 per cent of the cattle population. The percentage of buffaloes slaughtered is 10.2 per cent of the total numbers of buffaloes. This shows the utter falsity of the hate campaign that is terrorizing minority communities and is leading to the destruction of the livelihood of millions of people across caste and creed.
The Kerala government has taken the lead in opposing the notification. The Central Government should withdraw it.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha