Beef without borders

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

In Kerala, a major beef-consuming State, prohibition of cattle slaughter could cause more economic, political and social problems than it would solve.

THE meat trade in Kerala evokes images of a savage cattle trail: cows and bulls jammed into trucks and box cars coming from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh, or tied horn-to-horn in small groups, trudging across the inter-State border. The crossover is often done surreptitiously, the animals going without food, water or rest and with broken tails and bones, dislocated necks, chilly-peppered eyes and horn-gouged body parts.

Thanks to animal rights activists, such cattle trains have attracted worldwide attention. In 1998, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, engaged locally in livestock development, estimated that a total of 11 lakh head of cattle "migrate" thus to Kerala every year. The figure could be higher today. Only 4.16 lakh head of cattle pass through government checkposts, the rest are smuggled in. Eventually, all of them end up in slaughterhouses lining the State's towns and villages. There are 774 authorised abattoirs and, according to government officials, over three times that number of unauthorised meat stalls.

Kerala is one of the few States (including West Bengal) where the slaughtering of cattle is not prohibited. State Animal Husbandry Department statistics indicate that nearly 4.83 lakh head of `white' cattle (excluding buffaloes) are slaughtered legally in the State, producing 24,278 tonnes of beef every year. The Department estimates that three times the number are actually killed every year, the rest in the unauthorised sector, the total beef production thus being 72,834 tonnes. Beef costs around Rs.50 a kg in the main markets in Thiruvananthapuram, which, according to State Planning Board officials, is only half of what it costs in many other parts of the country. Yet, paradoxically, Kerala's majority small and marginal livestock-owning farmers and government-run farms have shown a singular disinclination for rearing and fattening cattle exclusively for their meat.

The State's livestock sector has been facing a crisis for sometime now. Earlier, cattle rearing had been an adjunct of rice farming in the State. Of late, however, there has been a drastic reduction in the availability of straw for feeding cattle. The State produces only 60 per cent of the roughage required for its 34-lakh, and declining, cattle population, which accounts for a mere 1.75 per cent of the total cattle population in the country. Also, Kerala does not produce even half its requirement of cattle-feed concentrate.

As cheap, quality feed and fodder became scarce and the price of "imported cattle feed" climbed, farmers responded by trying to restrict the number of cattle. The male ones, especially, were of little use in ploughing non-existent paddy fields. Increasingly, livestock farmers began to concentrate on milk production, and preferred high-yielding crossbred female animals. In three decades after a major cross-breeding programme was launched with Swiss assistance the proportion of crossbred animals in the total cattle population in the State rose to 68 per cent. Livestock census figures from 1977 also show a drastic reduction in the numbers of bullocks, indigenous female cattle and male calves. A recent trend that government agencies have noticed is the farmers' disinclination to maintain even high-yielding crossbred cows during their dry period.

"Those who argue for a ban on cow slaughter do not understand the economics of cattle-rearing in Kerala," said Dr. N. N. Sasi, Director, Animal Husbandry Department. "Given the high input costs and the non-availability of cheap fodder, only female cattle can be raised to adulthood, for profits through the dairy sector. It is uneconomical to raise male calves or to continue to support bullocks and cows past their utility value as draught or milch animals. The farmers cannot afford to let them share the scarce, and increasingly costly, subsistence inputs. That is why they are sent to the meat traders."

According to Dr. P. N. Rajasekharan, head of the Agriculture Division of the State Planning Board, rearing of cattle for meat is a losing proposition, though it may appear to be a contradictory phenomenon in a State where over 70 per cent of the population is understood to consume beef. Farmers are reluctant to keep male calves, as they find value only as a source of meat, and fattening them with purchased inputs is unviable.

Moreover, milk production in the State has been in surplus since 2001 compared with the situation in the early 1980s when it produced only about 50 per cent of its requirement. The availability now is 27.18-lakh tonnes, nearly four-lakh tonnes more than what is required. Said Dr. K. Narayanan Nair, Fellow at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, who has done extensive research on livestock economy: "It was mainly the result of an intensive programme implemented during the past 30 years for upgrading and maintaining the genetic quality of the cattle in the State. It required continuous monitoring of the process of genetic selection and regular culling of the cattle stock." Kerala's achievements in milk production have thus been largely the result of genetic upgradation attained through artificial insemination and, importantly, selective culling of unproductive, aged or diseased stock.

Given this situation, if cattle from within Kerala are being sent to the butchers, it is largely a matter of economics; farmers cannot afford to keep them, not even for religious reasons. "Rehabilitation of such animals is a difficult proposition, as farmers are struggling to support even the useful dairy stock. Also, land is not available as in some northern States. It is important that Kerala has a regular system for culling cattle for maintaining the quality of the cattle stock," said Narayanan Nair.

In truth, however, Kerala's beef is not its own. Cattle from local homestead farms account for only a very small percentage of the total beef produced in the State. According to the State Animal Husbandry Department, of the 4.83 lakh head of `white' cattle slaughtered in the authorised centres, 4.16 lakh are cattle imported from neighbouring States. Such legal trade is a mere one-third of the total beef business in Kerala and there are no reliable statistics on the unauthorised trade.

The cattle that migrate from other States, too, are not `beef cattle' - those fattened exclusively for meat. Often what come in are gaunt, unproductive, sickly, culled cattle, rejected from farms in States where slaughter, sale and/or transport for slaughter are prohibited by law. Yet, Kerala continues to experience a shortfall in the availability of meat. According to Dr. Rajasekharan, sample surveys have indicated that 97 per cent of the rural population and 85 per cent of the urban population in Kerala are non-vegetarians. Beef is said to account for between 40 and 70 per cent of the meat consumed in the State.

"Beef has become an important component of the poor man's diet. It is the cheapest source of animal protein available for the common man. Over 10,000 families are engaged in the State's slaughterhouses alone," said Dr. Ani S. Das, managing director, Meat Products of India, a State government meat-marketing agency.

On a small scale at least, beef is now regularly exported from Kerala to West Asia and countries like Malaysia. There is also a roaring business in the byproducts of the meat trade, like hide, blood products, bone meal, calcium and gelatin. The State government also has plans to promote the export of beef, and is currently working on a Rs.30-crore project with the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) to create "disease free zones" for cattle, aimed at the export market.

Agriculture Minister K.R. Gouri Amma has announced that the government is preparing a report on the likely impact a countrywide ban on cow slaughter will have in Kerala. Dr. Sasi told Frontline that his department considered such a ban impractical in a State where the majority of the population, Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike, consumed beef. "I do not consider it a sanctify-or-slaughter issue. A ban would be unwise for practical, economic reasons. Kerala will not be able to look after its unproductive cattle. The State's farmers are finding it hard to maintain even their milk stock. A ban will affect milk production and the purity of the genetically improved stock in Kerala. It will affect fodder availability. It will make cattle diseases difficult to contain. The case of the only shelter for cows in Kerala, run by the Guruvayoor Sree Krishna temple authorities, should be instructive for the likely economic impact such shelters would have on a cash-starved State," he said.

"The bottom line is that farmers cannot support these animals for ever. Even if a ban is imposed, cattle will still be slaughtered for this very reason. It will lead to a mushrooming of illegal slaughterhouses in Kerala. The implications need only be imagined. Prohibition would create more misery for the animals," Narayanan Nair said.

Chief Minister A.K. Antony has refrained from commenting on the proposed ban, even though his party colleague and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh has been trying hard to steal the BJP's thunder, donning the robes of a champion of the cause. But in Kerala, where the Congress(I)'s coalition partners include parties representing the interests of prominent beef-eating communities, the opportunity to make political gains out of the proposal was more or less cornered entirely by the BJP-RSS-VHP combine. For some months now, VHP vigilante groups have been surprising dreary cattle herds from the neighbouring States with never-before affection, offering garlands, fodder and water and forcing their keepers to walk them back, obviously prolonging their agony in exchange for some media attention.

And, in many temples in Kerala, every possible religious occasion is being converted by BJP-RSS cadres into an opportunity to encourage devotees to offer gopooja, or worship the cow. Surely, yet another facet has been added to an eclectic collection of emotive religious rituals that the Hindutva forces have herded into Kerala in recent times for political ends.

But, as Kerala's meat industry illustrates, the plight of the animals is unlikely to change by garlanding them or by imposing a blanket ban on cattle slaughter.

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