Karnataka cattle slaughter ban: An Act of bias

Print edition : December 03, 2021

B.S. Yediyurappa, the then Chief Minister, worshipping cows and feeding them at his residence on February 9, the day after the cattle slaughter Bill was passed in the Legislative Council. With him are Prabhu B. Chauhan (left), Minister for Animal Husbandry, and Basavaraja Bommai (right), then the State Minister for Home. Photo: The Hindu ARCHIVES

Nine months after Karnataka passed an Act completely banning cattle slaughter and empowering cow vigilantes, a report looks into how the law has impacted lives, livelihoods and the diet of marginalised communities, who are the main consumers of beef.

Last December, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Karnataka introduced a Bill in the Legislative Assembly that sought to replace a 1964 Act banning cow slaughter in the State with a draconian law that had a wider ambit. The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act (KPSPCA), 2020, was initially promulgated as an ordinance in January this year before it was passed in the Legislative Council in February (where it was introduced in December 2020) by a voice vote amid opposition protests (see “Fallout of a slaughter ban”, Frontline, January 29, 2021). Under the Act, a person can be imprisoned for up to seven years for cattle slaughter. It prohibits the slaughter of all bovine animals (except buffaloes over the age of 13 years), severely penalises transporters of cattle for slaughter, and empowers cow vigilantes.

A complete ban on cattle slaughter has figured in BJP manifestos in Karnataka. With the passage of this law in February 2021, the BJP in Karnataka has emulated similar laws passed by BJP-ruled States across the country.

Two Bengaluru-based independent researchers, Sylvia Karpagam, a doctor who works in public health, and Siddharth K.J., civil society activist, have compiled a detailed report on the adverse impact of the law. Titled “Criminalising Livelihoods, Legalising Vigilantism” (CLLV), the 71-page report provides a sense of how devastating the ban has been for a variety of stakeholders—farmers, transporters, slaughterhouse workers, skin- and hide-curing units, butchers and street vendors and beef consumers—who are part of the value chain underpinned by cattle trade. The report has relied on government data, field surveys in Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka, and questionnaire-based responses to understand the consequences of the law. Through this, the report attempts to “challenge the claims and ‘facts’ used by the Karnataka government to justify the KPSPCA, by placing in the public domain, the overt and covert impact of the cattle slaughter ban...”.

Cattle play an important role in Karnataka’s agricultural economy. Relying on National Sample Survey Office data, the report states that 86.94 per cent of households that owned livestock were of landless, marginal and small farmers. They use livestock for milk, manure and as draught animals. But what happens when a draught animal becomes unproductive? Before the KPSPCA came into effect, aged cattle were sold in cattle markets where they were slaughtered for meat. According to data from the Karnataka Animal Husbandry Department for 2019, 20,000 cattle were slaughtered in Karnataka, accounting for 6.83 per cent of meat production in the State. The ban has effaced the cattle meat industry and affected the incomes and lives of farmers.

While latest data after the KPSPCA came into effect is still unavailable, the reduction in the number of cattle markets is a pointer to the recent decline in cattle trade. According to J.M. Veerasangaiah, State working president of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), there were around 3,000 cattle markets in the State earlier, which have reduced to “around 100 after the passage of this law [KPSPCA]”. Speaking to Frontline, Veerasangaiah said: “Farmers are already in a dire economic situation. This law makes owning cattle itself a problem, especially for dairy farmers.” These cattle markets have now become spaces only for the sale and purchase of productive bovines for milk or draught animals, and the ban has made unproductive cattle useless. “An animal bought for Rs.40,000 used to have a resale value of Rs.25,000. Who is going to give us Rs.25,000 now?” Veerasangaiah asked.

The report states that the number of farmers participating in the surviving cattle markets has come down significantly. There were only a third of the usual number of farmers at a cattle market in Ginigera in Koppal taluk of Koppal district, the report states. According to testimonies included in the report, both farmers and traders are suffering. A farmer called Gajagandra from Nedungudu village in Hosapete taluk said: “We bring sick, old and lame cattle to the market. From seven years, the animal can start getting unproductive and by eight or nine years, many are not productive. They keep telling us to protect these animals. Now who will take care of these animals when they are sick? The cost of everything is going up. Even to take the cattle for short distances for treatment, we have to pay a minimum of Rs.500.”

A clause in the KPSPCA offers impunity to “persons acting in good faith” in implementing the law. The authors of the report argue that this is “mischievous” and has emboldened self-appointed cow vigilantes belonging to Hindu right-wing organisations. According to Khasim Shoaiburrehman Qureshi, the Bengaluru-based president of the All India Jamiat-ul-Quresh (Karnataka), which is a representative organisation of beef butchers in the State, harassment of transporters has increased considerably since the KPSPCA came into effect. Even the transportation of legitimately procured cattle from other States, which is not illegal under the Act, has been affected. “We incur huge losses when our vehicles get seized even when we have the required documents,” Qureshi told Frontline. According to the report, 58 cases have been registered for various offences, including “illegal” transport of cattle, since the KPSPCA came into effect four months ago.

Impact on jobs

The report has also looked at the impact the ban has had on jobs. People working in slaughterhouses have lost jobs. Employment in ancillary industries dependent on cattle slaughter has been affected because of the dearth of hides, animal skins and carcasses. Khaleemullah is the owner of a curing unit in D.J. Halli, the densely populated hub of skin-curing units in north-east Bengaluru where Muslims and Dalits live. He said: “There used to be 250 [curing] units here [D. J. Halli and neighbouring K.G. Halli] about two years back. Now there are only 10-15 units. Skins of at least 250 animals would be brought every day earlier. Now it is 10-15 a day.”

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According to data from the Department of Animal Husbandry, the estimated market value of cattle meat produced in Karnataka in 2018-19 was Rs.270.6 crore. With the slaughter ban, hundreds of beef butcher stalls and streetside eateries which thrived in areas like Shivajinagar and D.J. Halli in Bengaluru have shut down. Since only buffalo meat of animals older than 13 years is allowed to be sold now, there has been a considerable decline in the sale of beef in Bengaluru. This is corroborated by evidence such as that provided by the Shivajinagar chapter of the Beef Merchants Association: there were around 150 beef stalls in the area before the ban, but more than 50 shops have permanently shut down now.

Impact on consumers

In the section on the impact on consumers, the report points out that 15 per cent of India’s population, or 180 million people, consume beef. Beef is one “of the cheapest nutrient dense foods and … 100 gm of lean beef provides 54 per cent of the daily protein requirement,” the report says. According to data from the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS, 2019-20) for Karnataka, only 12.8 per cent of children within the age group of 6-23 months received an adequate diet, while 35.4 per cent of under-five children were stunted and 32.9 per cent were underweight. In these circumstances, the authors of the report ask if it is justified to deny adequate nutrition to consumers of beef, considering that they usually belong to the marginalised sections of society such as religious minorities, Dalits and backward castes. The price of beef, at Rs.250 a kilogram (before the ban), was also cheaper than that of mutton, which was around Rs.700 to Rs.800 a kg in the State.

The report draws attention to the discriminatory nature of the KPSPCA. “The politics around beef by the current BJP governments at the Centre and the State should be viewed in the larger context of targeting minorities economically, socially and politically…. The cattle slaughter ban in Karnataka is perceived by many as a concerted effort by a right-wing government to bring the Muslim community to economic destitution,” the report states.

R. Mohanraj, State convener of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Bheem Vada), who offered his insights in the preparation of the report, told Frontline: “The law is an encouragement for murdering people by vigilantes. It is encouraging communal unrest. The targets of the law are the religious minorities, but it has affected Dalits the most.”

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