Cattle Trade

Big backlash

Print edition : July 07, 2017

At a cattle market in Erode, Tamil Nadu, where drought was driving farmers to resort to distress sale. The centre’s May 23 notification comes as a severe blow to such farmers. Photo: M. GOVARTHAN

The Centre’s notification imposing restrictions on cattle sale leads to widespread resentment and charges of undermining States’ rights and interfering with the dietary habits of specific communities.

THE May 23 notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act proscribing the sale and purchase of bovine species has caused widespread anger in the farming community, which is already reeling under huge levels of debt. The notified Rules (Regulation of Livestock Market Rules 2017, and the Care and Maintenance of Case Property Animals Rules 2016) are the latest challenge to livestock owners and cattle traders who have been at the receiving end of self-styled vigilante and cow protection groups since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in 2014.

The most recent incident of cow vigilantism happened in Rajasthan’s Barmer district on the night of June 11 when officials of Tamil Nadu’s Animal Husbandry Department were accosted and beaten up by around 50 vigilantes for transporting livestock, all legally purchased and accounted for. The animals—cows, bulls and calves—had been purchased from villages in Jaisalmer for breeding purposes. The miscreants attempted to set fire to some of the vehicles and a few of the officials suffered serious injuries.

The memory of the April 1 murder of a Mewat agriculturist by cow vigilantes as he returned from a cattle fair in Rajasthan was still afresh in people’s minds when the Centre’s notification came, followed by the vigilante attack. The closure of slaughterhouses and abattoirs in Uttar Pradesh on flimsy grounds had already impacted the sale of cattle for slaughter, compounding the distress of people, especially in the northern region, whose livelihood depended on agriculture, livestock and the meat industry.

The notification was challenged in various courts, including the Supreme Court. The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court granted a four-week stay on the notification on May 30. The State Assemblies of Kerala and Meghalaya passed unanimous resolutions demanding the withdrawal of the notification. The governments of West Bengal, Karnataka and Tripura also declined to abide by it.

The resolution passed by the Meghalaya Assembly on June 12 stated that the notification would “impact the economy of the State and the food habits of its people”.

Meghalaya resolution

Tabled by Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, it said: “This House takes a strong note of the shortcomings and infirmities in these Rules” and “resolves that the same may be withdrawn by Government of India with immediate effect so as to maintain the federal and secular character of our Constitution or be faced with a situation where the law prohibits some activity while the everyday life practices it on a large scale due to harsh economic realities, a situation surely to be avoided at all costs.” The notification, the resolution stated, went way beyond the scope of the preamble of the PCA, 1960, and thus infringed upon the rights of States to regulate the items that are in the State List.

Media reports quoted Mukul Sangma as saying that “beef was an integral part of the dietary habits of tribals of Meghalaya” and that prohibition of the sale and purchase of cattle for slaughter would affect the livelihood of 79 per cent of households in the State.

On June 15, the Supreme Court, hearing a clutch of pleas challenging the notification, sought a reply from the Centre within two weeks. During a brief hearing, the Central government, through the Additional Solicitor General, said the notification was aimed at the “regulation of cattle trade” and that there was already a stay on the notification granted by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.

Assurances

Perhaps sensing the negative feedback from farmer organisations and protests in various States, including in the north-eastern region, Union Minister for Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad clarified that the government would not bring any law that would interfere with the eating habits of any community. Similar assurances were made by Union Ministers Rajnath Singh and M. Venkaiah Naidu.

Farmers’ representatives told Frontline that in Punjab and Haryana almost every farmer kept livestock. Even some landless labourers owned cattle. In Punjab, an All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) functionary said, in cattle fairs that were held every month in every district the sale of unproductive cattle had gone down drastically. Traders who used to come from Meerut and Kolkata to pick up unproductive livestock stayed away fearing vigilantism at the State border, he said.

Farmers’ representatives have pointed out that while cow vigilantism has been on the rise, cow protection laws have been strengthened in BJP-ruled States with strict penalties, and slaughterhouses have been closed for lack of proper licences. The Central government, they added, had no plan to deal with the menace of wild animals and stray cattle, both of which caused great harm to standing crops and human beings.

Some of them termed the notification as ridiculous. Inderjit Singh, vice president of the AIKS in Haryana, said the price of the much-valued high-yielding Murrah buffalo had come down because of the slump in bovine trade. It is common knowledge that the male calf is not of much use except for insemination purposes. It made practical sense for livestock owners to keep the best stock for breeding and sell the rest for slaughter. “The clauses are outright stupid. One of them says medicines cannot be given orally without consulting a veterinary doctor. Where are such doctors in villages today? There are several traditional experts who treat animals based on local knowledge and such treatment has been found effective,” said Inderjit Singh.

The notification also had sections that prohibited decoration of the animal or colouring of the horns, both of which were part of traditional celebrations during festivals.

In Rajasthan, the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat-led BJP government in 1995 enacted a law that banned the sale of male calves that were over three years old. A male calf ceases to be one after three years, maturing into a full-blown bull, and was of little use to farmers apart from being unaffordable. Subsequent Congress governments did little to revoke the ban. Commercial farming was a hitherto unknown concept for farmers in Rajasthan and 95 per cent of the State’s agriculture was of the subsistence type. Livestock rearing and selling was the only way the farming community stayed afloat. AIKS president Amra Ram said most of the Congress leaders did not say anything against the Central government notification.

One of the main petitions challenging the notification and admitted in the Supreme Court was from Hyderabad. The petitioner, Mohammad Abdul Faheem Qureshi, president of the All India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee, contended that various State governments had spoken out against the notification. According to reports, on May 31, Tripura Agriculture and Animal Resources Minister Aghore Debbarma said that “the new cattle trade and slaughter rules are against the interests of the people. We will not implement them.” Reports also said that on May 30 Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced that it was not mandatory to follow every notification issued by the Central government and that the matter was a State issue.

The Qureshi judgment

The petition quoted a judgment of a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court ( M.H. Qure shi v s State of Bihar, AIR 1958 SC 731), which held as follows: “The maintenance of useless cattle involves a wasteful drain on the nation’s cattle feed. To maintain them is to deprive the useful cattle of the much-needed nutrition. The presence of so many useless animals tends to deteriorate the breed.”

Faheem Qureshi’s petition contended that State laws that provided for a total ban on the slaughter of bulls and bullocks had been quashed by the Supreme Court and that any freedom under Article 19 could be restricted only by a law made by the legislature and not by a delegated executive fiat that had no sanction in the parent Act. “The complete ban of sale or purchase or resale of animals would cast a huge economic burden on the farmers who find it difficult to feed their children today but would be required to feed the cattle as it is an offence under the Act of 1960 to starve an animal or to fail to maintain it,” stated the petition.

The 1960 Act provided exceptions where slaughter of animals for food was not perceived to be an act of cruelty. The Act also did not prohibit or restrict the slaughter of animals for food or for religious sacrifice or the sale of animals for the same, the petition stated. The Rules were also violative of Article 29 of the Constitution that protected the cultural identities of communities.

The petition contends that the Rules contravene the main Act and that changes to the main Act cannot be effected by an executive fiat but only by the legislature. It contends that under Section 29 of the Act the animals could be forfeited on a second and subsequent conviction only, whereas the new Rule 8 was inconsistent and overriding of Section 29 of the parent Act as it empowered the magistrate to deprive the accused of ownership of animals and forfeit seized animals to an infirmary, pinjrapole, the SPCA, an animal welfare organisation or a gaushala on first conviction or on pleading guilty. “Similarly Rules 8 (2) and 3 (b) were also inconsistent with Section 35 of the Act as they prohibited the owner to have the interim custody of his own animals during pendency of litigation and even after being acquitted he would lose the amount deposited for transporting, care and maintenance of animals which may exceed the cost of the animal due to long pendency of the case in the court,” contended the petitioner.

Equally significantly, restrictions on the sale of cattle specified under various subsections of Rule 22 “prohibited the owner of a young animal to bring to an animal market” a young animal, defined under 2 (o) of the new rules as one under the age of six months. Pointing out various inadequacies in the rules, especially those that imposed restrictions on sale, purchase and maintenance of cattle, the petitioner contended that “it was an unreasonable and illegal restriction which prohibits the cattle trader to trade for the purpose of breeding and rearing.”

Second, Rule 22 (b) (iii) “unconstitutionally” prohibited the sale of cattle for slaughter imposing an absolute ban on the purchase of the animal in the cattle market for slaughter. Third, the petition stated, Rule 22 (c) unnecessarily “imposed a condition upon the most educationally backward class community of India to furnish a declaration to the Animal Market Committee and to retain it for a period of six months from the date on which it is furnished [and] on demand made by an Inspector at any reasonable time during that period produce such declaration and allow a copy of it or an extract from it to be taken”. Fourth, Rule 22 (d) (ii) (iv) (v) (vi) (vii) imposed an “absolute ban upon the cattle trader to buy and sell the animals in the cattle markets and permitted only the agriculturist on production of their revenue records and with a declaration not to sell the animal within a period of six months from the date of purchase”.

This, the petitioner said, was an act of discrimination against cattle traders as it imposed “unconstitutional restrictions from using the cattle markets for the trade of cattle”, which was their “ancestral and traditional occupation being carried on from their ancestors with no other skills to get employed or adopt any other profession”. It was a forceful imposition (Rule 22 (v)) on the agriculturist “to maintain the cattle for a minimum fixed period of six months after purchase irrespective of his financial liabilities towards his family members”. Rule 22 (e) (i) (iii) mandated that the buyer of the cattle should be an agriculturist and could sell the cattle after six months to any other buyer who should also be an agriculturist and the purchased animals shall never be sold for the purpose of slaughtering even if it does not remain a useful animal. This was yet another imposition, as per the petition.

The petition also raises several moot points pertaining to the principle of federalism, which several State governments, too, have raised. It says that the fields of legislation concerning “markets and fairs” and “preservation or protection and improvement of stocks” fell within “entry 28 and 15 of the State List and thus it was only the State legislature that was empowered to make laws on the said fields of legislation”. The parent Act itself does not deal with the regulation of markets for sale of animals or their slaughter, and the Central government could not make the rules entering into “fields of legislation occupied by the State legislature by their respective enactments”, it contends. As an illustration, the petition points out that “States, District Municipalities Act and the Panchayat Act permit a person to hold animal markets”.

Violative of right of choice

The Rules, contended the petition, were ultimately violative of the right of choice of food, privacy and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution, and the ban on slaughter of animals for food would deprive citizens of the right under the said Article.

The matter may or may not be settled by courts, but what is eminently clear is that the agrarian community is none too happy with the notification. If the strong reactions from several State governments and BJP functionaries in some north-eastern States are a barometer of the general mood, the prudent option for the Central government seems to be to withdraw its contentious and divisive notification.

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