A case for lifting the ban

Print edition : September 02, 2016

A tribal woman grazing cattle in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu on July 5. Photo: M. PERIASAMY

At a food store in Texas, U.S., that sells Indian buffalo meat. Photo: Ranjeetth Nair

The ban on cattle slaughter is a story of missed opportunities for economic development and withdrawing it will have a salutary effect on farmer incomes, cow productivity and beef and leather exports.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the implications of the ban on cow slaughter, consumption of beef and its sale for the development of India’s economy, particularly its cattle economy.

Except Kerala, West Bengal and a few eastern States, a partial or total ban on cow slaughter has been imposed by the respective State governments.

However, the law governing cattle slaughter is not uniform across the States, with total or partial bans. While slaughter of cows and calves is uniformly banned, in some States slaughter of old bullocks (above 15 years of age) is permitted with a fitness certificate issued by the authority designated by the respective State governments. Besides, in States where a partial ban exists, the storage and consumption of beef is not banned. The quantum and severity of punishment for breaking the ban also varies from State to State. The cattle population in regions with a total or partial ban accounts for about 96 per cent of the country’s total cattle population.

Historically, India had developed interregional trade in cattle to balance the requirement of cattle in various agro-ecological regions, but in recent years restrictions have been imposed on trade-related movement. In order to protect wandering cattle and aged cows, many State governments and voluntary agencies have been running gaushalas. In comparison with cattle, buffalo may be slaughtered irrespective of age, sex or type and the meat may be traded in the domestic and international markets. Whether the ban on slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef would result in an increase in the number of cattle maintained and their productive efficiency has been a subject of debate in the past. Distinguished economists such as K.N. Raj, V.M. Dandekar, C.H. Hanumantha Rao, A. Vaidyanathan and S.N. Misra have shown through analytical and empirical work that neither religious values nor bans can affect the number of cattle, their sex composition or productivity.

It has been shown that the main determinants of the size and composition of cattle are the agro-ecological conditions, levels of technology in agriculture, and size distribution of landholdings on the one hand and pattern of demand for livestock products such as milk, meat, skin and hides on the other.

Some economists have also argued that a policy of systematically eliminating unproductive cattle can result in an increase in productivity among the remaining stock and maximise the aggregate output of products and services derived from the cattle stock. However, these scholarly studies seem to have made little impact on shaping India’s cattle development policy, as is evident from the fact that in the past three decades more States have banned cattle slaughter.

Declining cattle population

Whether the ban on cattle slaughter has impacted the size and composition of cattle is an interesting question in the broader background of the cow slaughter debate. Data from the Indian livestock census conducted at different points of time show that the rate of increase in the cattle population has been declining in recent decades. In 1961, the total cattle population was 176 million and by 2012 it had reached 190 million. Also, in the last decade or so, the population of cattle has shown a declining trend. However, the number of female cattle has shown a continuous increase, whereas the male population has been declining in recent years (Figure 1).

Disaggregated analysis of the cattle census data show that in many States, the absolute size of the cattle population has been declining. For instance, in the southern States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it has been declining in the past two decades. In the northern and central States, the male cattle population has declined, but the female cattle population has been increasing. It is only in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam that the total number of cattle has remained fairly stable.

Apart from the proliferation of small and marginal holdings and changes in cropping patterns, it is the increase in the intensity of agricultural mechanisation that has contributed to the replacement of bullocks with mechanical power in cultivation.

In all agricultural operations, starting from tillage to transportation of produce to the market, bullocks are being replaced with different types of farm equipment. Estimates of the changing pattern of farm power use in agriculture reveals that there has been a sharp fall in the share of draught animals (Figure 2). There is widespread hiring of farm equipment by marginal and small farmers who are unable to afford to own their own farm equipment.

The increase in the intensity of mechanisation has resulted in a reverse form of tenancy where small and marginal farmers lease out their land to large holdings, resulting in an increase in the concentration of operational holdings. Increasing scarcity and cost of hired labour, shortening of the ploughing window owing to the unpredictable nature of the monsoon and increasing opportunities for undertaking dairying as a supplementary source of income were found to be some of the other important factors contributing to the increasing acceptance of agricultural mechanisation.

The total male cattle population according to the 2012 livestock census was 68 million. Of this, 6 million belonged to cross-breeds and the rest to indigenous breeds. Given the current pace of agricultural mechanisation, a large proportion of the male cattle population would become redundant as a source of draught power. Since slaughter of male calves and bullocks is banned in much of India, the only way to eliminate them is through a process of deliberate starvation or neglect from birth onwards. Interestingly, if we go by the 2012 census, about 19 million male calves would be joining the adult male stock. In the absence of a programme of elimination of these stocks, it would be highly difficult for farmers to maintain them.

Sources of income and nutrition

In rural India, a milch cow or a she buffalo serves as a source of regular cash income for a household that owns them. This income comes from the sale of milk. It is also a source of nutrition for the family and an effective way of using their crop by-products and idle family labour.

With the expansion of commercialisation of dairying and the reach of dairy cooperatives into every nook and corner of the country, marketing of milk is no more a constraint. The overall growth and diversification of agriculture since the mid 1960s has resulted in a substantial increase in the supply of crop by-products to support the livestock sector.

Besides, the production of manufactured cattle feed has increased manifold. Milch animals are now fed with manufactured feed, cultivated green fodder and crop by-products. The improved feeding of milch stock with better management has resulted in a sustained increase in the milk yield of cows and buffaloes (Figure 3). The growth in the productivity of milch animals has boosted the country’s milk production in recent decades. India was a leading global producer of milk with an estimated production of 146.3 million tonnes in 2014-15. Although the she buffalo accounts for more than half of the total milk production, the milk contribution of cows has increased over time. From its primary function of producing male calves and thus ensuring supply of bullocks to agriculture, the cow has been transformed into a source of milk production, especially in States where it dominates the bovine species. This transformation has been facilitated by the enhancement of the quality of milch cattle by cross-breeding indigenous cattle with exotic breeds. Data from the 2012 livestock census showed that about 21 per cent of the cattle population belonged to exotic breeds; the corresponding figure in 1992 was only 7 per cent.

There exists considerable interregional variation in the adoption of cross-breeding technology. In Kerala, 95 per cent of the cattle are cross-bred; the percentage is 70 in Tamil Nadu and 20-30 in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In West Bengal and Odisha, the share is 26 and 27 per cent respectively.

A comparison of milk yield of cross-breeds and indigenous breeds of cows and buffaloes shows that it is much higher among cross-breeds. However, they need better quality feed and better care and management. On the other hand, buffaloes are efficient converters of crop residues into milk; the fat content of milk is much higher and the animal is less prone to diseases.

Thus, in regions where historically the buffalo was the main milch animal, it has retained its position. Overall, the ratio of the buffalo to milch cows has increased over time across the country, reflecting the increasing importance of the buffalo as a source of milk production.

The progress made in breeding, feeding and productivity of milch cows has also contributed to the increase in calving rates. More cows are now available to meet the replacement and growth requirement of adult stock.

For instance, in 1961, 100 breeding cows produced only 46 calves, but by 2012 the number had increased to 74. Since the male cattle are getting redundant, there is hardly any question of farmers raising them as work animals. However, in the case of females, farmers have been exercising this choice since they have a larger stock of young animals from which the selection can be made. In order to ensure this, a system of elimination of inferior young or adult stock by permitting their slaughter is a necessary requirement.

Low percentage of slaughtered cattle

Estimates by the Ministry of Agriculture show that the number of cattle slaughtered in 2012-13 in the country was only 3.2 million out of a total of 190 million as reported by the 2012 livestock census, or about 1.6 per cent. The estimated production of beef was about 320,000 tonnes. It is significant to note that the estimates of beef production are done only from States where there is no ban on cattle slaughter. If we take into account the clandestine slaughter taking place in States where there is a ban, the figure is likely to be higher. On the other hand, the number of buffaloes slaughtered in the same year was estimated at 9.01 million (8.3 per cent of the buffalo population), giving an estimated output of 1.1 million tonnes.

As the data show, since the percentage of cattle slaughtered is very low, unproductive cattle are discarded and they wander the streets and public grazing lands as stray animals. According to the 2012 livestock census, the number of stray cattle was 5.3 million, 4.3 million in rural areas and 1 million in urban areas. Uttar Pradesh and Odisha together accounted for about 1 million.

Since the domestic market for buffalo meat is limited, much of it is exported. In the past two decades, Indian buffalo meat has found a place in the meat markets in several developing and developed countries. The export trade has flourished over time and it is now one of the major items of agricultural exports from India.

In 2015-16, 1.3 million tonnes of buffalo meat were exported, earning Rs.26,681 crore. Vietnam was the major importer, accounting for 49 per cent. Other significant importers were from South-East Asia, West Asia and Latin America. Even in the United States, Indian buffalo meat is available in stores.

Benefits of lifting the ban

Since the structure of the cattle population has been shifting towards the female stock, lifting the ban on slaughter is unlikely to affect adversely the goods and services derived from them. At the same time, it would help to realise a large number of benefits which are currently not possible. i) Lifting the ban on slaughter of cattle (except those used for breeding and milk production and the young female calves) would help to get rid of the unwanted male and unproductive female animals and enhance the availability of feed for the productive animals. It would improve the productivity and efficiency of the herd. Since the calving rate of the cow population would increase owing to better management, the supply of female cattle to the farming population would tend to increase.

ii) The market for cattle low in productivity and unproductive cattle is negligible in States where there is a ban on slaughter and farmers do not get a substantial income from their sale. Once they are allowed to be slaughtered and export of beef is encouraged, the meat value of such animals would increase and thus help the farmers get better incomes from the sale of these animals.

iii) The increase in the intensity of mechanisation and the consequent reduction in use of draught animals in agriculture would adversely affect the livelihood of people involved in the cattle trade, who are largely Muslims. Lifting the ban on slaughter would help them sustain their livelihood and also help those members of the community who undertake slaughter of cattle.

By imposing a ban, the state has curtailed their right to work and right to livelihood and created a social environment for the anti-cow slaughter vigilante groups to commit atrocities on the people who have been involved in this trade for their livelihood. Similarly, restrictions on the consumption of beef should also be withdrawn. Nationwide data on food consumption collected by the National Sample Survey Office show that the percentage of population that consumes beef and the quantity they consume is very low and they are largely confined to a few States where there is a sizeable number of Christians or Muslims. The ban on beef consumption implies curtailing the individual’s freedom to eat the food of their choice. Given the negligible size of the population who consume beef, withdrawal of the ban is unlikely to result in the development of the Western model of beef industry in the country.

iv) The reduction in the stock of work animals because of mechanisation of agriculture has been accompanied by an increase in the energy cost in food production due to the use of petroleum and petroleum products. This has made Indian agriculture more sensitive to changes in global oil prices apart from adding to the outflow of foreign exchange to oil exporting countries. The export of beef could partially offset the exchange loss owing to the import of petroleum and petroleum products. The beef produced in India is more fibrous and free from various growth hormones used in the Western beef industry. Therefore, it would fetch good prices in a large number of countries where people consume beef and where demand cannot be met by domestic production.

v) India has a vibrant leather industry that provides jobs to some 2.5 million people, most of them from the weaker sections of society. The annual export of leather and leather products fetched about $5 billion in 2011-12. In recent years leather exports have been increasing by 5 per cent a year. However, a major constraint in the development of the leather industry has been the scarcity of raw hides and skins. Lifting the ban on slaughter could enhance the supply of hides and skins to the leather industry and lead to an improvement in the quality and quantity of leather and leather products, improving India’s competitiveness in the world market.

vi) According to the 2012 livestock census, 62.8 million households own cattle; that constitutes 31.8 per cent of the total households in rural India. Lifting the ban on slaughter could achieve higher levels of economic efficiency in cattle production and increase the income levels of the farming population. This would also help get rid of the stray cattle problem in rural and urban areas.

However, converting the underutilised cattle resources into economic opportunity requires political will to negotiate with elements in society who operate along narrow ideological or communal lines. But the scope for such negotiation is bleak in the current political scenario in the country.

K.N. Nair is an established development economist and the former Director at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. He is now the V. Ramachandran Chair Professor in Governance and Public Policy at the Centre for Management Development, Thiruvananthapuram. He was supported by Dr Mahesh Ramachandran in the preparation of this article. The author alone is responsible for the views expressed.