What India is witnessing today is not about cow protection, but a devious convergence of the interests of the state, religion and big business.
Three of the 11 demands of protesting farmers from Sikar district, Rajasthan, who virtually brought the entire state to a grinding halt between September 1 and 13, concerned their right to trade in cattle: the withdrawal of restrictions on sales of bovines in animal markets, reduction in the age of sales of calves and cows, and total protection for everyone involved in the trade and transportation of animals. The farmers were protesting the fallout of a series of legal restrictions on trade and transportation of animals, culminating in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rule, 2017 (Gazette 396), banning the trade of animals for slaughter in animal markets.
The stray cattle problem
The new rules announced in May 2017, coupled with the growing climate of violence unleashed by emboldened bands of cow vigilante groups, has resulted in a chakka jam of animal markets, fairs, jatras and animal transportation across the state, and as forewarned, has forced farmers to abandon their non-productive cattle, resulting in burgeoning numbers of ‘stray cattle’ in every village. The farmers’ leaders of Sikar speak of 300-400 stray cattle in every village. These stray cattle have been grazing on farmers’ fields, destroying standing crops and attacking farmers. Farmers, in desperation, are spending huge quantities of money to keep the cows at bay: fields fenced with barbed wire spiked with nails, electric fences, night-long vigils to chase away starving cows, herding stray cows into village schools and much more. The story of stray cows and angry farmers repeats itself in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh – in fact pretty much every state where cow slaughter or the transportation of animals intended for slaughter is already banned, and has been intensified by these most recent rules.
Rajasthan and states with similar stringent cow slaughter and inter-state transportation bans topped the list in stray cattle populations even in 2012, five years prior to the current crises. States like Kerala on the other hand, with no cattle slaughter bans, have a minuscule numbers of strays. This data undeniably reaffirms the centrality of slaughter to balance the cycle of production, disposal and replacement of domestic farm animals in farmer livelihoods – which otherwise translates into rising populations of disowned uncared for stray animals.
What has markedly changed between the current and pre-2014 political context has been the vicious clamping down on citizens engaged in the transportation of animals, as they are immediately being suspected of ‘smuggling’ animals out of the state to states with no slaughter bans. Inter-state transportation of in-milch and draught animals has always been accompanied by inter-state trade of non-productive animals, which in the case of states that have banned inter-state transportation of animals intended for slaughter, is termed ‘illegal trafficking’ or ‘smuggling of animals’. While there is scant substantive evidence of ‘smuggling’, farmers in states with stringent slaughter bans desire and benefit from such ‘illegal’ transportation of their ‘non-producing animals’, as this enables them to recover between 30-40% of their original investment, which is utilised to purchase replacement stock, and facilitates a disposal mechanism for their old and non-producing animals, and thus precludes them from having to turn loose their cattle, or simply hand them over to gaushalas, in many instances having to pay the gaushala a fee.
The recent uproar by farmers across North India clearly brings focus to the swelling numbers of cast-off cattle in wake of the clamping down on slaughter, trade and transportation and the growing climate of violence and impunity of cow vigilante groups, who enjoy the protection too of state laws – be it in Rajasthan or Maharashtra.
Where are the cows going?
Whilst stray cattle population data and gaushala cattle populations for which there is no data, save reports of gaushalas bursting at their seams with rapidly mounting numbers of stray cattle, partially account for the non-productive animals, the illegality of cow slaughter across vast stretches of the country has obviously pushed an entire economy underground and created successive generations of hypocrites in positions of policy planning and power. Reports clearly point to the desperation with which farmers trade and traders risk their lives, to help farmers sell their unproductive cows. It may also have contributed to other coping mechanisms such as in Punjab, where farmers’ production is largely based on breeding and selling first lactation cross-bred Holstein Friesan cows, or selling cows in their fourth lactation, making it easier (until 2014) for traders to transport cows out of the state, as these females are clearly ‘lactating’ and not non-productive, and continue to be purchased by farmers in other states. The ‘missing numbers’ of male cattle to female when we analyse overall cattle populations also clearly point to male cattle having been slaughtered. How else does one account for a sex ratio of adult (>2.5 years) indigenous cattle female: male being 1:0.6, and for cross-bred cattle being 1:0.08? The tragedy of banning cattle slaughter and its transportation has been the heightened cruelty, pain and discomfort cattle have been forced to undergo, as compared to their sister buffaloes. Ill-treated as strays, living in badly maintained cow-shelters, transported in overcrowded vehicles over long distances and probably slaughtered under more painful conditions – all because of a false notion of cow worship, insisted upon by law makers, who continue to be in complete denial of the centrality of slaughter in sustaining the production cycle of cattle (and other domestic farm animals), in farmer livelihoods.
As has been discussed at length: domestic (farm) bovines which include cattle (cows, bulls and bullocks) and buffaloes are reared by farmers until they are productive and economical, and then sold. These non-milking, non-reproducing, non-draught worthy cattle, will not be purchased by another farmer, but would be bought for slaughter alone. The animal continues to have a resale value, due to the post slaughter products: beef, leather, offals. The National Dairy Development Board described the economic value of an animal in its seventh lactation as being a mere 30% of an animal in its first lactation. It talks of the youngest animals produced in the herd replacing the oldest animal, and assumes that animals other than in their first, second or third lactations are sold to maintain constant herd size. They estimate how 40% of a dairy farms income is derived from the sale of unproductive cows.
Indian farmers do not rear cows and buffaloes for beef (in contrast to the industrialised beef producing countries such as Brazil, Australia, the US et al). However, Indian farmers rely on the beef-leather by-product market, to dispose of their unproductive animals, sustain their livelihoods and the dairy-draught-insurance-manure-role of animal in Indian agriculture, for which slaughter is a prerequisite. In turn slaughter exists because of the economic values of beef and leather, or else people would not be economically invested in these enterprises, supporting million livelihoods.
Deadlines set by the UP government to herd stray cattle into sheds, court orders in Himachal Pradesh to keep roads stray cattle free, fining farmers who let their cattle out onto roads in Haryana and proposals in Haryana and Punjab for cow taxes to finance stray cattle care in gaushalas constitute economic and ecological harakiri. Bottom line, they are not going to address the ‘problem’ of stray cattle, nor the unaddressed issue of disposal of mounting carcasses of dead cattle once they die (which they will at some point in their lives). There also appears to be an unspoken underlying assumption amongst those who govern us that the hoary traditions of India’s unconstitutional caste system will take care of those dead cattle in gaushalas. There is only one solution: legalise cow slaughter.
Talking about cow slaughter
The centrality of slaughter to sustainably operationalise Article 48 of the Directive Principles of State Policy – “The State shall endeavour to organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular take steps for preserving and improving the breeds” – has either been consciously ignored or perhaps not wholeheartedly comprehended. The constitutional debates on slaughter largely became a religious Hindu vs Muslim debate, rather than one grounded within cattle livelihoods and animal science, wherein would have unambiguously emerged an assertion of the fundamental role of slaughter to balance domestic cattle populations and preserve the species. Erroneously, slaughter was implicated for driving down cattle populations and thus, Article 48 concludes with an inherent contradiction on how the preservation of stock would be achieved through “prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”. A catch 22 that continues to haunt us to date and be manipulated to serve dreadful ends.
Fortunately, having placed decisions pertaining to slaughter laws under the jurisdiction of states, nine states (West Bengal, Kerala and the seven states of the northeast) chose to have no cattle slaughter bans or require animals to be certified ‘fit for slaughter’. Nine states (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Goa) have bans on cow slaughter, but slaughter permissions for aged bullocks and bulls certified ‘fit for slaughter’; the vast 11-state cow belt heartland of India have slaughter bans on all cattle. At the same time, the upper-caste Brahminical cultures of the cow laid bare their caste driven decisions, manifesting in a different set of rules for buffaloes, which was largely excluded from slaughter bans across the country. Thus the buffalo species thrived and buffalo-rearing farmers and buffalo beef eaters mercifully spared scrutiny, until the recent government ban, which defined cattle to include buffaloes and camels. Historically legislations on slaughter bans emerged gradually across the country, with the degree of punishment too steadily increasing over the years. The last 25 years, coinciding with India’s tryst with economic reforms and liberalisation, has ironically witnessed a tightening of state laws on slaughter bans, inter-state transportation of cattle, clampdowns on slaughter houses and enhanced punishments which today extend to life sentence, as in the state of Gujarat. This intensified in the last three years, culminating in criminalising the sales and purchase of animals intended for slaughter within the space of animal markets.
No sooner had protests against these rules erupted, than there were reports of the Ministry Of Environment and Forests considering removing buffaloes from the purview of the rules. Meanwhile, based on a petition in the Tamil Nadu high court challenging the new rules as contradicting the parent act, the Tamil Nadu high court ordered the suspension of the rules. In July 2017, the Supreme Court responding to a series of PILs on these rules, extended the Tamil Nadu high court’s order to the entire country until the Centre reverted with a fresh set of rules, which was supposed to happen end August. Nearly three months on, it is apparent how most states have failed to inform animal market officials about the not-applicability of the Centre’s rules, and have de facto encouraged a continued climate of fear and violence.
Whilst the Centre has yet to announce new rules, a narrative justifying the earlier rules that featured in media reports cannot be ignored and needs to be interrogated.
Why banning slaughter isn’t good for cattle
Animal rights and animal welfare activists, who played a key role in formulating Gazette 396, have justified the rules, not (as one would have expected) from a cruelty to animal position, but because it will facilitate “traceability of food from farm to fork, minimise animal health hazards and ensure food safety”. Procuring animals directly from farmers’ homes, they argue, will ensure such traceability. Apart from it being profoundly dubious as to why a traceability and food safety issue should be addressed via cruelty laws in India, more disturbingly it raises the question as to whether the traceability arguments (which really concern international trade where importing countries require exporting countries to comply with traceability and other food safety standards) is really about setting the stage for a big corporate take over of profitable sections of the buffalo beef market? Whilst currently in India some 150 export companies control the front end of the buffalo beef export industry, the destruction of local animal markets under the garb of animal cruelty could actually be a larger story of capture and monopoly of the entire animal supply value chain (from farm to slaughterhouse), currently handled by a galaxy of small traders, by a clutch of perhaps large logistics corporations, as indeed is the norm in the livestock and meat industries of the other big players: Brazil, the US, Australia.
This, of course, will successfully ensure the economic extermination of millions of lives and livelihoods that make up the complex animal market web, a majority of whom are very poor Muslims, Dalits and other backwards-caste communities. It will also make it a buyers’ market and not a sellers’ market. Farmers will be forced to forgo their power to negotiate with buyers (which they currently enjoy in the space of animal markets) and will become completely dependent on a handful of procurement/logistics corporations, who will dictate the price at which an animal shall be bought and sold. The argument already being made is how a farmer, who thus far is being exploited by a chain of small traders, will now have ‘fair choice’ with reliable and ‘regulated’ procurement agencies. This was the narrative, remember, before they liberalised the dairy sector to allow the entry of multiple private dairy companies to purchase milk from farmers. Farmers were promised choice, and certain profit. The reality of dairy markets today are a far-cry from this utopia, with farmers at the mercy of company cartels, busy consolidating and monopolising the dairy markets, where milk pricing is always set to protect the dairy processors (companies) profits, who care little about smallholder farmers.
Plausible certainly for buffaloes, this makes little sense for cattle in a context of persistent demands for a nationwide ban on cow slaughter, except for literally enabling an easy surveillance system to ‘trace’, track and punish those who trade in cattle for slaughter. With cows contributing 47% of the total volume of milk produced in India (21% from indigenous cows and 26% from cross-breds), a stubborn perseverance with such cow slaughter ban politics, as has been analysed earlier, will only serve to push farmers away from rearing cows, an aspect anticipated too by India’s largest dairy player, ironically located in the holy cow belt of India: a formal death of the cattle species and cattle livelihoods of farmers, along with perhaps near-extinct indigenous cow breeds in gaushala cow shelters minting money from the holy cow worshipper, gaumutra products and a citizens cow-rakshak tax .
On September 6, the Supreme Court directed all states to appoint a senior police official in every district as a nodal officer to take action against cow vigilantism. However, having witnessed the deliberate inertia with which states have acted on the issue of the Supreme Court suspension of Gazette 396, one is deeply sceptical on whether states will operationalise these new directives.
There can be nothing more cruel and gruesome than a nation which drives its farmers to nearly ‘lynch’ their now non-producing stray cows, which cannot be legally slaughtered or traded for slaughter, due to anti-cow slaughter laws and a climate of terror created by self-appointed cow vigilante groups, who are busy lynching citizens, including farmers, who they suspect are trading cows for slaughter. And it’s just not any citizen. According to IndiaSpend’s compilation of cow lynching reports from the English media: Muslims were targeted in 51% of all bovine violence events, and comprised 86% (24 of 28) killed since 2010, where 98%, or 68 of the 70 cases of lynching in the name of cow protection, occurred after 2014, when the current political dispensation came to power.
This is certainly not about cow protection, or animal cruelty, or bovine preservation, or farmers – but a devious convergence of the interests of the state, religion and big business, all rolled into one.
Sagari R. Ramdas is a trained veterinarian and works with the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India.