Beef ban

Print edition : April 03, 2015

Closed beef stalls stand inside Crawford Market in Mumbai on March 10. Photo: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

In April 2014, at an animal market in Karad, Maharashtra, bulls brought for sale by farmers from neighbouring areas where a drought made fodder and water scarce. The ban on beef will compound their problems. Photo: PTI

The BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra bans the sale and possession of beef. The cultural and economic implications of the new law can be serious.

BEEF is now illegal in Maharashtra. Under a new law, anyone found selling or possessing it can be jailed for five years and fined Rs.10,000. In 1995, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine, which was in power in the State, introduced the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill and got it passed in the State Assembly. The Bill was sent for President’s assent in 1996, but subsequent governments did not get the Bill implemented. The present Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government resurrected the Bill and got President Pranab Mukherjee’s assent in March, making it into a law. The new law prohibits the slaughter of bulls and bullocks, which was previously allowed on the basis of a fit-for-slaughter certificate, and also the possession and sale of beef. The Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act, 1976, already prohibits the slaughter of cows in the State. The stringent new law has started a public debate on the issue of beef ban. Why has a 20-year-old Bill, whose provisions are detrimental to large sections of society been brought back to life? It is a politically motivated move by the right-wing party to fulfil its election promise and enforce the saffron agenda.

As the debate unfolded on these lines, the issue appeared to have multiple layers. Chief Minister Fadnavis refuted accusations that the move was meant to marginalise the minority communities and was based on religious grounds. One point raised during the public debate was why a ban had not been enforced on the slaughter of other animals that are held sacred or considered forbidden food by some communities. Why only the cow? Besides, activists pointed out that it was unconstitutional to determine the food habits of a person or a community.

Animal rights activists claimed that even if the ban was enforced, it was unlikely that cattle would not be slaughtered. The activity would continue clandestinely, they pointed out. Investigations have shown that illegal killing of animals for meat is perhaps the worst form of death for an animal, not to mention the fact that the meat could be unhygienic.

The Bill has wide ramifications for vast sections of society. Thousands of people employed in the meat industry, including members of majority community, will lose their source of livelihood. Beef is considered an affordable source of protein for the poor man, not just those belonging to the minority communities. India is the second highest exporter of beef after Brazil. According to the Agricultural and Processed Goods Products Exports Development Authority (APEDA), Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are the top three beef-producing States. Clearly, the new law will have an impact on the export business as well. It, however, allows the slaughter of water buffaloes (whose meat is considered inferior to beef). Restaurant owners say that only buffalo meat is served ever since the ban on cow slaughter came into effect in 1976. Unless, the ban extends to imported beef, they do not think the impact of the Bill will be severe as buffalo meat is still permitted on the table.

A socio-agrarian problem arises because the new law prevents the slaughter of bulls, bullocks, and cows that have stopped producing milk. The bovine animals are used not just for their meat, but for their hides, which are processed into leather, and bones and horns, which are used in several industries, including pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and sugar. The law has the potential to affect lakhs of people employed in these sectors.

Among the worst affected by the Maharashtra government’s new law is the Qureshi community, which largely controls the beef trade in the State. Nearly 20 lakh people belonging to the community would be affected, Abdul Jameel Qureshi of the Beef Traders Association said in Mumbai.

“There are many families who have been working in this industry for generations. It is their traditional occupation. What will happen to leather workers, middlemen, workers in the abattoirs? The government has given no assurance of an alternative source of work,” Qureshi said.

Soon after the Bill got the presidential assent, the Deonar Abattoir in Mumbai stopped slaughtering bulls and even buffaloes. Approximately, 400 bullocks and buffaloes were butchered at Deonar every day, Qureshi said. The government will lose about Rs.80,000 a day by way of slaughtering fees.

The Mumbai Suburban Beef Dealers Association plans to take legal recourse to challenge the Act. “The price of meat will now shoot up and our margins will be low so it will be difficult to do business. Also, what will happen to old cattle that are actually fit for slaughter? Will they throw them by the wayside? Farmers who have no use for cattle will not be able to maintain them,” Mohammed Qureshi, president of the association, said.

Farmers who send cattle for slaughter will be severely affected by the ban. The cattle dealers, mainly from the Qureshi community, pay about Rs.25,000 for old and infirm cattle. “Farmers who already face an agrarian crisis owing to the vagaries of the monsoon, will not be able to afford fodder, water and medicine for the aging cattle,” Ram Puniyani of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism said. “The economic cycle in the villages will be completely disrupted. In fact, it will cause an agrarian economic disaster,” he said.

Another segment that is under distress owing to global competition and will face a severe crisis is the leather workers of Mumbai’s Dharavi belt. Mohammed Qureshi estimates that the Deonar abattoir supplies 400-450 animal hides a day, mainly buffalo and bull hides, to the tanneries. Each piece is sold at approximately Rs.1,500. The price would go up now, he said

“Genuine leather prices shot up last year. We pay approximately Rs.50 for a square foot of leather. Not only will this double, there will be a shortage, which means China, which is a competitor in the cheap bag market, will now walk away with our export orders,” Kasim Sheikh Patel, a bag manufacturer and retailer who runs a small business on Dharavi’s 100-Foot Road, said. The leather trade in Dharavi is an informal industry. It is unofficially estimated that the annual turnover of this industry amounts to Rs.50 crore. It provides livelihoods to thousands of slum residents.

The APEDA said: “Buffalo meat has emerged as India’s second highest agri-export commodity after basmati rice. Indian buffalo meat exports touched an all-time high of Rs.13,917 crore in value terms in April-October 2013, representing an increase of nearly 58 per cent over the same period last year. In terms of quantity too, there has been a 23 per cent rise in buffalo meat exports from India.”

According to the APEDA, India has 88 million buffaloes, which is about 58 per cent of the world’s buffalo population. There are over 3,600 slaughter houses across the country. India has been building a reputation for exporting reliable, risk-free, lean, nutritious and competitively priced meat. This had resulted in a consistent, high compound growth rate in export volumes, the APEDA said. Among the important buyers of Indian bovine and other meat are Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “The ban will not affect the buffalo meat aspect of the industry, but it will take a toll on bull and ox meat, which also fetches a substantial income,” a businessman in the meat export industry said.

Interestingly, at least three of the top processed meat suppliers, such as Al-Kabeer, belong to the majority Hindu community. “If there is a subtext in the ban, Fadnavis must check his facts. He will find that half the industry is owned by the majority community,” he said.

Although restaurateurs feel the ban will not affect them as they serve buffalo meat, also calling it beef, they fear that right-wing activists may vandalise their property because they see a “beef burger” on the menu. “The current government can easily shut us down on some pretext or the other using the law,” Manish Malhotra, a continental restaurant owner, said. “If a restaurant closes, many persons will lose their jobs and the tediousness and expenses of getting it started again are not worth the trouble.”

Before the ban came into effect, a band of Hindu nationalists had waylaid trucks carrying cattle from the districts to Mumbai and beaten up the truck drivers although they had valid documents. Malhotra said it was not difficult to foresee what would happen now.

The activist Ketan Tirodkar, who filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition challenging the ban, said the consumption and sale of beef should not be criminalised. “The right to eat should not be affected.” He said cow slaughter could be banned in the State, but there should be no restriction on beef being brought in from neighbouring States for consumption. “Judicial activism is absolutely necessary to strike down an enactment that surpasses the parameters laid down by Article 21 of the Constitution.”

Animal rights activists have also protested against the ban. “It’s a selective ban. Why does it not include buffaloes? Are animals really being protected or is it incidental to some other agenda?” Varda Mehrotra from the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisation (FIAOPO) asked. “This will drive the illegal trade even further. What will happen to cattle that stop producing milk? Will they be given hormones because they will be useless otherwise?”

In early March, the Fadnavis government scrapped a 5 per cent reservation in government jobs and a 5 per cent reservation in educational institutions for Muslims. He announced that the ordinance issued by the previous government had been scrapped. This was followed by the ban on beef. Fadnavis told the media that his decisions were “not driven by religion”.

Yet, he is unable to explain why a random Bill such as this was pushed through when so much else was to be done for the State. When the beef ban was announced, one of his Ministers, Kirit Somaiya said: “We had promised in our manifesto to bring this Bill and we have managed to do it.” That should sum it all up.

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