An industry in crisis

Controversial policy decisions and the activities of cow vigilantes have hit the abattoirs in the country hard, adversely affecting not only meat exports but the entire rural economy.

Published : Jun 21, 2017 12:30 IST

Butchers play cards at a slaughterhouse in Lucknow during a strike to protest against the crackdown on abattoirs and meat shops in Uttar Pradesh, on March 31.

Butchers play cards at a slaughterhouse in Lucknow during a strike to protest against the crackdown on abattoirs and meat shops in Uttar Pradesh, on March 31.

SLAUGHTERHOUSES across India are under severe duress. The once-thriving meat industry has been pushed to the edge. Three key policy decisions of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can be held responsible for this state of affairs. First, the demonetisation initiative in November 2016 placed severe constraints on the cash-based rural economy. Despite the tall claims of the Digital India programme, the reality on the ground was that there was no connectivity. “The nearest ATM is seven kilometres from our village and that too does not have cash half the time,” said a farmer from Bihar who used to sell his old or infirm cattle in the cattle market which would then make their way to one of the many abattoirs in north India. But demonetisation brought such trade to a halt for several months, reducing even middle-income farmers to penury. The National Sample Survey Organisation’s latest estimates pegged the monthly average income of a farmer in the country at less than Rs.6,500 a month. Selling a buffalo used to bring in Rs.20,000 to Rs.30,000. This enabled the farmer to have access to several months’ income in one go. With the new rules, a farmer will not only lose this income but will have to spend more to feed unproductive cattle. “We don’t have money to feed our children, how will we take the burden of feeding cattle?” said a farmer from western Uttar Pradesh.

Second, fulfilling his election manifesto, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath led a crackdown on Uttar Pradesh’s illegal slaughterhouses in March, bringing the entire meat business in the State to a grinding halt. There were reports of licensed units not being allowed to function. Those who applied for renewing existing licences were shown the door by the authorities without giving any reason. Lakhs of people associated with the trade were left in the lurch. The worst hit were the poorest of the poor—daily-wagers who transported cattle, cleaned abattoirs and were involved in other menial labour around the trade. While thousands of butcher shops without licences shut down, those that were perfectly legal operated at less than half the capacity as the supply of raw material dried up. As cow vigilantes, animal rights activists and the police patrolled the streets, fear of harassment and physical violence spread, and farmers, transporters and buyers were wary of carrying on the trade. In the past one year, more than 10 cases of lynching of cattle traders by Hindu right-wing mobs have been reported. In many of the cases the police were mute spectators.

Abattoirs in other States too were affected. As the supply of buffaloes stopped, an abattoir in Kolkata had to shut shop. Set up by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, it was touted as the first fully automated abattoir in the country. States such as Jharkhand that did not have a single abattoir were badly hit. Farmers in these States were left with the choice of either taking their cattle across State borders and risk being lynched or postpone the sale indefinitely. As it became dangerous to travel with cattle, transport costs went up. If the supplier had to pay off a vigilante, the police or animal rights activists for safe passage, the cost was built into the buyer’s purchase price, making the entire exercise costly. As a result, consumer prices in several places shot up. The fallout was that consumption of chicken soared. Reports indicated that several wedding parties had to be cancelled because of the unavailability of meat.

Ill-thought-out move Third, the BJP government at the Centre banned the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets through a notification under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. The definition of “cattle” was expanded to include buffaloes, bulls, cows, bullocks, steers, heifers, calves and camels. And, cattle could only be sold to another farmer. This decision might turn out to be the most ill-thought-out one by the BJP government after the demonetisation drive, feel experts. India is a key player in the international market for buffalo meat, and its entire economy stood threatened with this decision. The major buffalo meat-producing areas are Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab. Buffalo meat was exported to more than 70 countries across the world, with Vietnam, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) being the main markets.

There are about 3,600 slaughterhouses in India, according to the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). There are 24 meat-processing plants, with 13 export-oriented units engaged in the export of meat products. In addition, there are a few animal casing units engaged in collecting, cleaning, grading and exporting sheep, goat and cattle guts.

Before the brouhaha over the ban on selling cattle for slaughter, the government acknowledged that the export of animal products (buffalo meat, sheep and goat meat, poultry products, animal casings, milk and milk products, honey, etc.) made an important contribution to the Indian agricultural sector. Citing Ministry of Food Processing Industries data, Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of State in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, said in December 2015 that the meat-processing industry was worth $5,026 million. “The recent trend in India is to establish large abattoirs-cum-meat processing plants with the latest technology. India has already established 10 state-of-art mechanised abattoirs-cum-meat processing plants in various States based on slaughtering buffaloes and sheep,” said an APEDA statement. In 2015-16, India earned Rs.26,685 crore and in 2014-15, Rs.29,289 crore from buffalo meat export. In 2016-17, the earnings fell to Rs.26,307 crore. The exporters either bought carcasses from abattoirs or purchased unproductive buffaloes directly from weekly animal markets. India was also a leading supplier of halal meat to Islamic countries. With 57 per cent of the total buffalo population of the world in India, the country was considered home to some of the finest breeds of buffaloes. It figured among the largest exporters of bovine meat, sending competitively priced frozen buffalo meat to 65 countries, claimed exporters.

With the onset of Ramzan, meat exporters had to deal with delayed and slumped exports in what is otherwise the busiest and most profitable season for them. The Allana Group, one of India’s largest exporters of processed food products and agro commodities, exported its products to over 85 countries and claimed to be one of the largest net foreign exchange earners in the country, with a turnover of Rs.3,500 crore during 2008-09. It had been exporting halal meat for 45 years. For the first time in decades, this year its business suffered a setback of Rs.700-800 crore compared with the previous year. Speaking about global competition, Fauzan Alavi, spokesperson for Allana, said that despite costs going up, the company was unable to sell at a higher rate abroad. “Business is down by 11 per cent, which is huge for our industry. Overseas, the Brazilian and Australian currencies have devalued, and therefore we are unable to sell at a higher price,” said Alavi. He also wondered how the government intended to double farmers’ income without providing an impetus to livestock farming. “It is said that 300 million poor families in the world survive on income generated from sheep and goat. India has so much livestock potential, which we must not overlook. The government waiving loans of farmers cannot be a permanent solution. If the government really wants to give freebies, they should give sheep, goat and lamb. There is 100 per cent buyback there. Livestock is like a cash crop today and animal husbandry is the way to go.”

Mohammed Aqil Qureishi, president of the Buffalo Traders Welfare Association in Delhi, said that the business had suffered a 40 per cent slump after the announcement on the ban of sale of cattle for slaughter. An abattoir in Ghazipur, run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, had the capacity to handle 2,000 buffaloes and 3,500 sheep and goats a day but was functioning much below capacity, he said. “The abattoir was renovated by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi with an investment of Rs.200 crore, but look at it now,” he said. Farmers who come from all over north India to sell their cattle would be the worst hit by this move of the government, followed by consumers in Delhi, he said. “Contrary to popular belief, 80 per cent of the people in Delhi are meat eaters. If the supply to slaughterhouses stops, where is the meat going to come from to cater to these customers?”

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