The Beef Ban Effect: Stray Cattle, Broken Markets and Boom Time for Buffaloes

Slaughter bans and the bans on transportation across states, violently enforced by bands of gau rakshaks, deprive the farmer of any resale value for their cattle.

This is the first article in a two-part series. 

Life sentence for cow slaughter in Gujarat as maximum punishment under the Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 2017; the chief minister of Chattisgarh announces his intention to hang anyone found guilty of cow slaughter, while a BJP MLA of the same state threatens to break the hands and limbs of anyone found guilty of killing or disrespecting a cow; an aggressive re-emergence of cow vigilante groups in UP and other states have the top leadership’s blessings to crack down on ‘cow smugglers’, a green light for them to burn down meat shops, harass meat shopkeepers, consumers and kill those found ostensibly transporting cattle out of the state; responding to the VHP’s demand for a total ban on beef, a halt to cattle smuggling and a closure of all ‘illegal’ slaughter houses in Jharkhand, the BJP government in Jharkhand bans illegal slaughterhouses. All of this in the short span of two weeks. With each of these actions, the BJP-RSS-Sangh parivar only hastens the decline and demise of cattle ownership amongst farmers across India, accompanied by the ‘buffaloisation’ (or predominance of buffaloes) in bovine populations.

There is mounting evidence of how the absence of secure and robust resale values for non-productive cattle has led to decreasing cattle ownership amongst farmers, as it is completely uneconomical for farmers to rear the animal. A high resale value of an animal exists if it is still work-worthy (or has good potential for reproduction and milk yield). It is then purchased by another farmer or, if no other farmer buys the animal, farmers have always been able to rely on selling their animals to traders who supply animals to slaughter houses. The economic value of an animal, despite it not being purchased by another farmer, exists because of all post-farm downstream economic values of the cattle economy after slaughter: cattle beef as a critical part of food cultures and a cheap source of protein, cattle skin the basis of India’s thriving leather Industry valued at US $ 17.8 billion, generating 95% of India’s foot wear needs, and its offals used widely in the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries.

The cattle slaughter bans and the bans on transportation of cattle across states, which are being violently enforced by bands of cow vigilante gau rakshaks, deprive the farmer of any resale value for their cattle. Farmers therefore prefer to rear buffaloes, as even a dry (non-milking) female or a male buffalo, will fetch a good price due to their slaughter value, as buffalo slaughter is legal country-wide.

According to the livestock census 2012, buffaloes comprised 38% of India’s total bovine population. States with stringent anti-cow slaughter laws however, had much higher buffalo percentages than the all-India average: Haryana (77%), Punjab (67%), Uttar Pradesh (61%), Gujarat (51%) and Rajasthan (50%), confirming farmers’ preference to rear buffaloes in these heartlands of the holy cow. On the other hand, states without bans on cow slaughter had the highest cattle population shares: Kerala (93%), West Bengal (96.5%) and Assam (91%). Studies in 2006 by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources to identify the major reasons for the decline of the Hariana cattle breed (a highly endangered indigenous breed) in its breeding tract in Harayana, point to how farmers stopped rearing Hariana cows and bullocks primarily due to the absence of buyers for males and dry females, which they identified as the most serious factor responsible for the breeds decline. The absence of buyers puts a huge pressure on farmers’ meagre resources to maintain these animals. “Socio-religious” factors (a euphemism for cow slaughter bans), along with mechanisation and the consequent reluctance of farmers to purchase the Hariana males, were identified by farmers as key obstacles to marketing the animals, within and outside the state.

The most recent example is Maharashtra, with its total ban on slaughter of all cattle including bulls and bullocks, and a complete ban on transport of cattle out of the state. Apart from the well-documented crippling effects it has had on the Qureshi community of butchers, animal traders, transport workers and leatherworkers, the slaughter ban has destroyed the production cycles of purchase and sales of animals, crucial both for farmers’ livelihoods and sustaining cattle in the agriculture economy. Since its announcement on March 5, 2015, there have been a huge number of media reports from every nook and corner of Maharashtra, describing the complete collapse of markets for bullock and cows, causing huge losses to farmers, compromising their ability to dispose of animals and replace old stock with new. By July 2016, prices of milch cows fell from around Rs 65,000 to Rs 50,000 per animal and those of male calves, bulls and old cows from Rs 18,000-19,000 to Rs 15,000-16,000. The cycle of selling old and unusable animals, and replacing these with new animals, has been completely disrupted, creating utter havoc. By August 2016, there were estimates made by the VHP of over 750,000 ‘stray cattle’ running loose all over Maharashtra. These cattle had been turned out onto the fields by desperate farmers who were neither able to sell their animals, nor continue to care for them.

Interestingly, during this period the price of buffaloes sold in livestock markets across Maharashtra was averaging Rs 13,000-14,000 per 100 kg of animal weight, as against Rs 10,000-11,000 before the state government’s comprehensive ban on cattle slaughter. Sale prices of buffaloes rose from Rs 40,000 to Rs 60,000. Farmers connected this to the absence of buffalo slaughter bans. Buffalo populations in Maharashtra are increasing and contribute the maximum to milk production. It would not come as a surprise to see a spurt in buffalo populations in Maharashtra in the upcoming livestock census 2017, in wake of the total slaughter and transportation bans on cattle in the state.

Sagari R. Ramdas is a trained veterinarian and works with the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India.