Focus on regulating slaughter

Published : Sep 12, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. A. Vaidyanathan.

Dr. A Vaidyanathan, Professor Emeritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, has been studying the bovine economy and the relation between animal husbandry and farming for over three decades. A former Planning Commission member and Chairperson of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Dr. Vaidyanathan has written extensively on India's livestock issues. In an e-mail interview to Asha Krishnakumar, he explains the role of bovine animals in the Indian economy and the impact the Prevention of Cruelty to Cows Bill, 2003, would have on the bovine economy.


Can you briefly describe the bovine economy of India? For what purposes are bovine animals used?

India has around 285 million bovine animals. Most of these are reared and used by farmers as part of a mixed crop-livestock system of agriculture. Some 83 million are used as draught animals in agriculture; 100 million are milch animals, and the rest are young animals.

There has traditionally been a strong symbiotic relation between animal husbandry and farming. The animals, apart from giving milk, also provide the draught power and manure for agriculture, and feed on the recycled crop residues and byproducts of farm output.

Cattle (cows, bulls, steers and oxen) comprise 70 per cent of the bovine population. A majority of adult cattle are bullocks used for draught purposes. Cows produce calves and milk. By contrast, buffaloes are reared primarily for milk - male buffaloes are much fewer than females, and contribute to a small fraction of draught power. But, compared to cows, the contribution of buffaloes to milk production is considerably high considering their numbers.

What changes have taken place in the bovine population and what has been their impact on the farm-animal symbiosis?

In the last few decades, there has been a proliferation of small holdings, limiting the capacity of farmers to maintain animals. This, and the rapid spread of tractors, pumps and motorised transport have led to a progressive reduction in the number of bullocks.

The number of milch cows has increased. More than as producers of calves, their role as a source of milk has increased, strengthened by cross breeding and improved marketing and processing facilities. At the same time, the milch buffalo population has risen much faster than that of cows and the share of cows in the total milk production has declined.

How important are bovine animals as a source of food for humans and when are they slaughtered for food? What is the mortality rate of the bovine animals and what is its impact on the availability of beef?

Of the bovine population, only a small fraction is eaten as beef, and organised slaughter of cows and even buffaloes, is limited. Nevertheless, there are systematic differences in the mortality in different age groups between male and female animals and between cows and buffaloes. Differential mortality reflects partly the difference in feeding and care (more common among young animals), and partly selective disposal of different categories of animals (pronounced among older animals).

It is well documented that farmers dispose of old and decrepit animals in large numbers. Studies also show that there is an organised trade to buy such animals, which are transported to regions where there is a high demand for beef or to areas where raw hide is produced for the tanning industry. For example, in the 1970s, as many as one million head of cattle were brought into Kerala from the other southern States. That there is a huge trade across the Rajasthan border into Pakistan and the West Bengal border into Bangladesh is also well known though not quantified. It is also important to note that most of this trade is in cattle.

What would be the impact of the recent Bill banning cow slaughter on the economy?

Letting animals die because of calculated neglect by farmers or selling them fully aware that they will end up being slaughtered are both inconsistent with religious veneration of the cow. But the fact is that this contradiction exists.

These practices will continue with or without the anti-cow slaughter law. Attempts to stop them will have to contend with opposition and resistance from those engaged in the trade, the tanning industry, which gets a substantial part of its raw material by this process, and the sizable number of people employed in these industries directly and in supporting activities.

It will also have an adverse effect on the export of leather and leather products. Nor will the farmers (mostly subsistence farmers) take enthusiastically to shutting out the possibility of earning some modest amounts by disposing of their old animals.

Mere legislation, which ignores the forces underlying the present situation, is unlikely to be effective. Effective enforcement in a situation where violations are so widespread and involve such large numbers of actors is both practically difficult and prohibitively costly.

One can confidently predict that, as in so many other cases, the law will not be enforced and those involved will defy it with impunity or find ways round it. The wiser course would be to recognise that the behaviour of farmers is only an attempt to manage their cattle and buffalo stock to their best economic advantage, unmindful of the contradiction with their religious attitude to the cow.

On the other hand, it is a waste of a valuable resource, the products of which have a potential demand in significant sections of the population within and outside the country. If properly managed, the economic value of these resources can be greatly increased.

The focus should, therefore, be not on banning slaughter, but on regulating it and creating an environment which permits and encourages the realisation of its potential for increased supply of beef protein to those who want it within the country or for export and for improving the quality of leather and leather products for both domestic and export markets.

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