Destroying India’s Livestock Economy in the Name of Cow Protection

March 20, 2019
Vikas Rawal

Mobilisation in the name of cow protection has been one of the most vicious and communally-charged campaign that Hindutva forces have run during the current NDA government’s rule. While many BJP governments in the States had already been taking stringent measures against cattle trade and cow slaughter, formation of BJP government at the Centre provided an opportunity to turn this into a national campaign, backed by legal and administrative interventions as well as a machinery of organised gangs of cow vigilantes to create terror. This campaign has specifically targeted persons from minority and dalit communities who are engaged in cattle rearing, cattle trade, skinning and leather work, and slaughter and sale of meat.

Laws for Cow protection

Apart from Kerala, West Bengal and some of the north-eastern States, most States have laws restricting cow slaughter. While many States have had these laws from as early as 1950s, some of the most stringent provisions have been introduced in recent years in the BJP-ruled States. The Madhya Pradesh Prohibition of Slaughter of Cow-progeny (amendment) Bill enacted by the BJP government in 2011 not only banned cow slaughter, it made involvement in selling or transporting cattle that may be slaughtered punishable. In Chhattisgarh, slaughter of all types of bovine animals including buffaloes has been banned. There are restrictions on transport and a ban on export of cattle to other States. Haryana government passed the Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Bill in March 2015 banned slaughter of all cows and bullocks including disabled, diseased or barren cows. Sale of beef and beef products, and export of cows for slaughter were also banned by this law. In Maharashtra, the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act, 2015 introduced by the BJP government banned slaughter of all cattle and transporting cattle out of the State. There have been several incidents of mob attacks in name of cow slaughter in Maharashtra. In Rajasthan, the law against transporting livestock out of the State for sale and slaughter of bovines was enacted by a BJP government in 1995. In 2015, the State cabinet decided to amend the act and provide for the rights to seize vehicles used for transportation of cattle and arrest the accused. Although the amendment came into force only in February 2018, between 2015 and 2017, over one thousand cases were registered in Rajasthan and over 2000 people were arrested in name of “smuggling” of cattle. In Uttar Pradesh, the UP Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955 was amended in 2002 to ban any slaughter of bulls and bullocks along with cows. In many of these states, possession or consumption of beef has also been made illegal. A draconian aspect of the law in many of these States is that the burden of proof is put on the accused.

On May 23, 2017, Government of India notified new rules that placed restrictions on sale of cattle and required seller of livestock to certify that the cattle being sold will not be slaughtered by the buyer. An uproar followed and the new rules were challenged in the courts. These rules were stayed first by the Tamil Nadu High Court and then by the Supreme Court. Finally, in April 2018, the government was forced to withdraw and modify the notification. Although the central government notification was modified, restrictions on sale, slaughter and consumption of meat of livestock imposed through various State laws have continued to be in force.

Violence by Gau Rakshak Gangs

In addition, the Central government and the State governments in BJP-ruled States have given patronage to Sangh Parivar’s organised gangs of cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks as they have come to be known. These gangs have unleashed the worst kind of terror against persons engaged in cattle trade and transport. Since September 2015, over 160 persons have been assaulted and 33 persons killed in incidents of attacks by cow vigilante groups. Most of these assaults have been against persons from minority and dalit communities who are engaged in cattle trade and in tasks related to skinning and disposal of dead animals.

These gau rakshak gangs have been operating under state patronage. State police forces work in close coordination with these gangs and provide support during their raids. In many cases, incidents of attacks by these gangs were followed by legal and administrative action against the victims of violence while perpetrators of violence were provided support. For example, in case of Pehlu Khan’s murder, the police botched up the case and then moved court for getting the accused discharged. In the case of lynching of cattle trader Alimuddin Ansari in Jharkhand, a union minister personally felicitated eight gau rakshaks when they got bail. In October 2015, when a mob led by Shiv Sena attacked Asraf Ali and Pairu for possessing hides, the police arrested both of them under the UP Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act while no action was taken on attackers. Following an incident of attack in Bulandshahr by a mob of Sangh Parivar goons in which a police officer was killed, Adityanath called for stringent action against cow slaughter and people involved in trading of cattle. While murderers roamed free, the police investigation focused on finding out who slaughtered the cows. When Rakbar Khan was beaten up by cow vigilantes in Alwar, the lynching capital of India today, police ensured safety of cows and had tea, while Rakbar Khan bled to death. Every other incident of cow-related violence has seen similar response from administration in the BJP-ruled States.

Damage to Livestock Economy

Restrictions imposed through cow-protection laws and terror created by gau rakshak gangs have together caused havoc on the livestock economy of the country. Inability to dispose of unproductive livestock has made cattle rearing an unprofitable enterprise in these States. With increasing mechanisation of agriculture, the demand for male cattle for draught power in agriculture has been declining. Any excess calves, unwanted and unproductive old cattle must therefore be disposed off. Farmers also need to sell livestock to deal with disasters like crop failures, and to meet sudden large consumption expenses (for example, sickness, deaths and marriages). It has been estimated that maintaining the current level of milk production along with a ban on cow slaughter could result in India having to maintain a whopping 27 crore additional heads of unproductive cattle. Not only is it impossible for rural households, or even for the governments, to raise financial resources for maintaining such a large population of unproductive cattle, there is simply not enough land, fodder or water to be able to maintain such a large population of unproductive animals.

It is not surprising that in such an environment, rural households have been forced to reduce their livestock holdings. Reports in the media suggest that, with no buyers of livestock, prices of cattle in States like Haryana and Rajasthan have fallen by 20-30 per cent. The most perverse outcome of these restrictions is that, in absence of modern abattoirs, large numbers of unproductive and unwanted animals die horrific deaths out of neglect and disease. Rural livestock keepers are reportedly practicing sex selection and foeticide to prevent livestock from bearing male calves. This would have long-term implications on livestock health, breed quality and productivity.

Stray Cattle

In most of the States where cattle trade is restricted using legal and extra-legal means, abandonment of unproductive cattle has emerged as a major problem. Stray cattle have become a major menace in these States as they destroy crops resulting in massive losses to farmers. Farmers have to keep night vigil to save their crops from abandoned cattle. There have even been incidents of people being gored to death by stray animals. Increase in stray cattle populations near human habitations in Maharashtra attracted wild animals to human habitations, resulting in increased cases of wild animals attacking humans.

To deal with the huge uproar against this situation from the farmers, BJP governments have been allocating substantial financial resources for creation and maintenance of cow shelters. In the 2019 budget, the Union Finance Minister announced setting up of a Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog with an initial budgetary provision of Rs.750 crores. In Maharashtra, Gau Seva Aayog (Cow Commission) was established in 2018. In a country in which no insurance of any kind is available to a vast majority of people, Maharashtra introduced an insurance policy for cows with premium fully paid by the state government. In Uttar Pradesh, the State where children died for lack of oxygen in a public hospital, Adityanath allocated Rs. 613 crores on cow welfare in 2019. He also imposed a 0.5 per cent cess on items under excise taxation to raise resources for cow protection. Just before elections in Madhya Pradesh, Shiv Raj Chouhan announced setting up of a special Ministry for Cows. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje introduced a 20 per cent cow surcharge on liquor and 10 per cent surcharge on sale of non-judicial stamp papers to fund cow protection.

However, all this has been like a proverbial drop in the ocean of abandoned cattle that roam in these States. As per the 2012 Livestock Census, India had over 50 lakh stray cattle. With large-scale abandonment of cattle over the last few years, this population is likely to have doubled already. On the whole, the capacity of government-aided cow shelters is less than 10 per cent of this population. Consequently, in most of these States, governments have been using all kinds of bizarre ways to deal with the problems. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh tried to create cow sanctuaries to keep abandoned cattle. In many cases, school grounds and other public facilities have been turned into temporary cattle shelters. District administrations in Madhya Pradesh experimented with deploying drones to monitor stray cattle. Uttar Pradesh government declared that punitive action will be taken against people found to be abandoning cattle.

Dairy & Meat Production

This assault through the campaign for cow protection has come along with other economic pressures on the livestock economy. Not only did India’s exports of meat and meat products fall by 15 per cent between 2014-15 and 2017-18, low level of prices of milk in the international markets has meant that export of dairy products also fell by 31 per cent between 2014-15 and 2016-17. Although there was some recovery in 2017-18, the level of dairy exports remained below the level in 2014-15. In fact, given the glut in the international markets, global dairy giants have been pushing for opportunities to dump their surpluses of milk powder and other dairy products into the Indian market.

Like the rest of the informal economy, demonetisation was a massive hit on the dairy economy as well. Since milk is perishable, inability to sell it hit livestock farmers particularly severely during the period of cash crunch after demonetisation was announced. General slowdown in the economy has also put downward pressure on the demand. All of this has resulted in a stagnation of milk prices; between July 2018 and January 2019, the last six months for which data are available, wholesale prices of milk fell by 0.1 per cent.

All of this has resulted in a massive decline in incomes from livestock farming, adding to the severe agrarian distress that pervades the countryside today. Historically, livestock rearing has been a critical source of supplementary income and employment for rural households. In particular, it is the biggest source of employment for rural women.

This crisis in the livestock economy is a creation of reckless policies and politics of the current regime. In a short span of time, they have managed to undermine achievements of several decades over which India emerged as the largest milk producer in the world. Restoring the livestock economy from this crisis has to be an important component of the agrarian policies of the next government.