Why India Must Not Disrupt its Balanced Bovine Economy with a Ban on Beef

The average value of a healthy live animal is anywhere between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 100,000 and the loss of this income consequent to the proposed ban can reduce the landless, and the small and marginal farmers, to penury.

India produced 3.7 million metric tons of beef in 2012, of which 2.0 million metric tons was consumed domestically and 1.7 million metric tons was exported mostly to countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippians, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. The Director General of Foreign Trade routinely publishes data on the number of livestock that are slaughtered in India. This data suggests that up to 10 per cent of the country’s cattle and 14 per cent of buffalo population is slaughtered each year, amounting to about 34 million bovines  – 20 million heads of cattle and 14 million buffalos – yielding 2.1 million tonnes of cattle meat and 1.9 million tonnes of buffalo meat.

India ranks fifth in the world in beef production, seventh in domestic consumption and first in exports. The exported worth of bovine meat in 2013 was $4.5 billion. Between April-November 2014, the sale of bovine meat and meat products was worth $3.3 billion compared to $2.8 billion in the same period the previous year, registering a 16.7 per cent increase. Virtually all Indian beef exports are labelled ‘buffalo meat’ since the export of cow meat is banned in India. It is useful to understand the above amounts in the context of India’s annual trade deficit.  For April 2014-March 2015, the deficit was estimated at $137 billion, which was higher than the deficit of $134 billion the previous financial year.

On the home front, the domestic demand for animal-based energy and protein has been increasing in tandem with the increase in per capita and household level incomes.

Such a spurt in demand has increased meat prices to prohibitive levels. In the absence of a comprehensive nutrition survey, NSSO data can be explored to understand the changing food habits and levels of nutrition in India. At the national level, for example, daily protein consumption dipped from 60.2g per capita in 1993-94 to 56.5g in 2011-12 in rural areas and from 57.2g to 55.7g in urban areas.  As is expected, future income growth in India will surely push up demand for high value added food items, especially meat, milk and other dairy products. Demography is also a factor: the number of Indians consuming meat is increasing each year while the country’s livestock population appears to have stabilized at about 300 million, as per the 19th Live Stock Census of 2012.

Livestock distribution more equitable

Indian agriculture is still at the mercy of vagaries of nature. An essential strategy of insurance against declines in farm income, especially for marginal farmers has always been to tend cattle and other livestock. The states where livestock tending and associated income generation is crucial are Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Since the distribution of livestock is more equitable than the ownership of land, the bovine economy has a greater poverty alleviating impact than farming. About 10 per cent of the rural labour force is employed in livestock rearing and related occupations and this constitutes about 26 percent of the total agricultural value added. Any change in the time-tested balance of India’s livestock economy will create huge unemployment. Lately, the use of livestock for direct agricultural purposes such as ploughing and transportation has drastically declined.

Over the years, India has seen balanced bovine population growth in India; any legally-imposed limitation could create unmanageable problems such as overpopulation, further escalating overgrazing and desertification, as well as the increased production of greenhouse gasses.

India has a long tradition of undertaking livestock censuses; the latest was conducted in 2012. Accordingly, there were 191 million heads of cattle in India (average weight 500 kgs); and 109 million buffalos (average weight 600 kgs). It is estimated that livestock constitutes about 26 per cent of the value in the agricultural sector; and the total monetary worth of livestock-produce is higher than the value of food grains. On an average, a mulching cow/buffalo produces about 1200 kgs of milk per year, which is worth about Rs. 24,000 at the place of production. Further, the hides and skin extracted from slaughtered cattle yield better leather than those extracted from dead animals. There are other uses of leather extracts from cattle such as cricket balls of high quality. In several cases since 1959, the Supreme Court of India has held that, ‘A total ban [on cattle slaughter] was not permissible if, under economic conditions, keeping useless bull or bullock be a burden on the society and therefore not in the public interest.’

Hurting India’s growth by 2 per cent

A considerable amount of social and ideological baggage has sprung-up since the BJP assumed power which potentially can pull down and derail the economic growth and social development prospects of India. India has come a long way since the 1980s. The recent demands, in the wake of recent bans in Maharashtra and Haryana, for an all-India ban on the culling, consumption and sale of cattle meat is a case in point. Such a ban has the potential to pull down India’s annual GDP growth rate by about 2 per cent.

India is a diverse country with innumerable cultural, social and lifestyle differences. There is tremendous variation in  food habits across the country. India is predominantly a non-vegetarian county; up to 70 per cent of its population consumes meat and meat products of some variety, including beef, mutton, poultry and so on, albeit many of them many not consume these due to the high market price. There are a number of tribal groups who consume many types of meat from forest and desert based animals such as rabbits, rodents, frogs, snakes and other minor animals.

Before taking any further step on the basis of their personal ideological convictions, our leaders should remember that beef is a cheap source of protein and fat for India’s malnourished masses, mainly those cohorts who already have a high incidence of anaemia and malnutrition like women and children. Beef sourced from buffalo or other bovine varieties is relatively cheap, costing  about 30 per cent of  lamb and goat-based mutton. Malnutrition amongst the overall Indian population itself is far too high, and is in fact higher than in many African nations which are traditionally considered relatively less developed.

The global experience suggests that ‘specified animals’ are better protected if their economic value is properly assessed so that a market is developed through which the animal species is well protected, respected and used. The Australian alligator was almost at the verge of extinction during the 1970s due to illegal hunting and the smuggling of its leather. The Australian government then legalised the use of alligator meat and leather, which triggered alligator farming. Today, the Australian alligator is thriving and it’s farming is also a big industry. A similar Industry thrives in Louisiana in the United States.

The average value of a healthy live animal is anywhere between Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 100,000 and the loss of this income consequent to the proposed ban can reduce the landless, and the small and marginal farmers, to penury.

A complete ban on the slaughter of cattle is bound to cause overpopulation of these animals, causing hardship for farmers who cannot afford their upkeep,  putting pressure on grasslands, leading to degradation of local farm lands, and altering the local environment. Further, there are international concerns, since cattle overpopulation contributes to higher methane production due to the unique bovine bodily constitution and digestive process.

As they age, the accumulating cattle population will pose a health hazard too. If not properly disposed of, the deceased animals can cause disease and contribute to higher human morbidity and mortality. For India’s small and marginal farmers, the burden of either burying or cremating 20 to 30 million animals per year will be an expensive proposition.

Abusaleh Shariff is an economist who is currently working at the US-India Policy Institute, Washington DC