Meat exports

Height of hypocrisy

Print edition : October 30, 2015
A ban on beef is being debated at a time when beef is the food item that earns the largest export revenue for the country.

INDIA is the world’s largest exporter of beef. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government he heads know this.

Yet, in a clear case of hypocrisy, they insist that the “pink revolution” must end as it is unethical and irreligious to slaughter cows. And there is no word on the consequences of a ban on cow slaughter on the economy and livelihoods of thousands of people.

Ironically, in 2015, a year after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, there was a spurt in meat exports. In 2014-15, India’s meat industry exported 14,75,526 tonnes of buffalo meat earning Rs.29,282.60 crore in revenues. The Agricultural and Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), India’s apex food export agency, says buffalo meat exports have been growing at an average of approximately 14 per cent every year since 2011. It says that in 2015, India earned more from beef exports than from the export of Basmati rice, so far the country’s top export item in the food category.

A report released recently by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says India is the world’s top exporter of beef followed by Brazil and Australia. India accounts for 23.5 per cent of global beef exports, a substantial increase from 20 per cent in 2014, the report says. It should be noted that buffalo meat is also classified as beef for international agencies and the global market. The beef India exports is carabeef (the meat of the water buffalo), a leaner meat that is now in great demand.

An APEDA official said: “By all accounts the meat export industry is doing very well. A ban on beef and all this talk of the cow being ‘sacred’ will affect the meat industry and the government cannot afford to forgo such a huge revenue. Not only will the economy take a hit but the livelihoods of thousands of people will be affected.”

The total animal product exports from India in 2014-15 was Rs.33,128.30 crore. This included buffalo meat (Rs.29,282.60 crore), sheep/goat meat (Rs.828.11 crore), poultry products (Rs.651.21 crore), dairy products (Rs.1,205.38 crore), animal casing (Rs.19.32 crore), processed meat (Rs.14.21 crore), and other meat (Rs.2.67 crore) (see table).

During the campaign for the parliamentary elections in 2014, Modi missed no opportunity to lash out at the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for promoting the “pink revolution” by giving subsidies and tax concessions.

India’s meat exports saw a significant rise during the UPA’s regime (2009-14). Modi said the Congress encouraged an industry that disrespected and made money off gai maa (mother cow). The issue of beef export was a major theme in his campaign speeches, which were heavily loaded with the Hindutva agenda.

At a meeting in Nawada in Bihar he had said: “The Union government does not want any kind of revolution but is only interested in a pink revolution. Those backing the UPA should consider whether they want to back a revolution in which livestock is killed or a government that will care for farmers and cattle grazers. There is no subsidy for farmers or for rearing cattle, but the Congress gives subsidy to those who slaughter cows.” In another speech, he evocatively asked: “What is the crime of my mother cow that you are slaughtering her and selling her products in the international market just to earn money?” Modi’s opposition to the meat trade has made his supporters campaign for a ban on cow slaughter and the sale of beef in several States, all in the name of cow protection. One of the first moves of the BJP soon after it assumed power in Maharashtra was to ban the sale of beef in the State in March.

“They are running a big risk by targeting a booming trade. These political shenanigans have a spiralling effect. An Indian farmer traditionally sells his cattle that stops performing in dairy and farming for slaughter. It is an age-old practice. The sale gives him an income and probably allows him to invest in more cattle,” an owner of a leading meat exporting company in Mumbai said. He did not wish to reveal his name for fear of becoming the target of rampaging Hindutva mobs.

“Do they not understand that it has nothing to do with cows and religion? It has to do with people’s livelihoods. It is also an affordable meat/protein for a large section of the population. If farmers have voted this government to power, they have themselves to blame,” he said. Maharashtra has reported several incidents involving Hindutva mobs. Anti-slaughter groups have attacked and torched trucks carrying cattle in the belief that they were being taken to nearby States for slaughter.

The main markets for Indian buffalo meat are Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other parts of Africa. Essentially, Indian meat is in demand in Islamic countries because the halal method, as prescribed by Muslim law, is used in the slaughter.

An industry analyst said the demand for Indian beef began to grow after 2010 with greater investment in buffalo processing. Carabeef is cheaper than cow’s meat. Carabeef is mainly used by fast food chains and in processed foods and hence required in large quantities. India’s proximity to its international customers also works to its advantage. More importantly, India’s meat prices are competitive.

An export company owner said: “Indian meat is of very good quality compared with Brazilian meat. Our farmers look after their cattle well. It is traditional practice to treat animals as part of the family. We are getting more orders and, therefore, plan to expand our processing plants. Hopefully, the banks will continue to give us loans and we won’t be considered a blacklisted industry.” Will the industry survive? Will the BJP cut off its nose to spite its face? An investment banker said it was still unclear whether the international business would be affected. The domestic market would bear the brunt of these political games, he said. “Given that India is predominantly an agrarian economy, it is a natural corollary to have a thriving meat industry. If this industry is negatively affected by government policy, it will have a huge adverse impact, first on those who are directly involved in the industry, and in the medium term on farmers who will find it unviable to raise cattle.”

The meat industry largely comprises small- and medium-sized private companies. There are 64 meat companies in India.

An investment banker said: “There will be an increase in this number with the increase in the demand for Indian meat. Of course, if Modi carries on in this manner, the global market will shy away from India.”

“It needs to be understood that this is part of agriculture. The BJP is not known to be pro-agriculture and hence it does not give the sector enough importance. Companies are investing a fair amount in machinery and technology. We have to see this [meat business] beyond the perspective of religion and vegetarianism,” he said.

Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab top in buffalo meat production. According to the APEDA, there are 24 meat-processing plants, 13 of which are 100 per cent export-oriented units. Besides about 3,600 slaughter houses, there are live modern abattoirs and one integrated abattoir meat processing plant for slaughtering buffaloes for export and domestic consumption. India’s livestock population includes 88 million buffaloes, which is 58 per cent of the world’s buffalo population. Beef has been the staple protein source for several communities. A New Delhi-based exporter says a ban on beef will mainly affect the domestic market. “Poultry, mutton, fish and pork are expensive. Many families live off beef and many give it pride of place in their cuisine, as in Kerala and the north-eastern region. It is these markets that will be hurt.”

When Maharashtra announced its ban on beef, it created panic. Deonar abattoir, one of Asia’s largest abattoirs, shut down, fearing trouble from Hindutva elements. But, as soon as permission for the sale of carabeef was given, the abattoirs opened and business resumed, albeit on a smaller scale. Deonar was slaughtering approximately 400 bullocks and buffaloes a day. A complete ban would mean that the government would lose about Rs.80,000 a day by way of slaughtering fees. Besides, close to two lakh members of the Qureshi community, whose traditional occupation is butchery, will be rendered jobless. “For many months [since the BJP formed the government] our earnings have been reduced to half because of the controversy surrounding beef,” says Iqbal Qureshi, who runs a local meat shop. “Business has resumed now after restaurants finally put beef back on their menu. In any case, we never sold cow’s meat. It has always been buffalo meat. But these are misconceptions that the politicians make use of.”

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