House in shambles

Europe was outraged at the condition of slaughterhouses in the 19th century. India still isn’t .

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: September 14, 2016 12:36 am
beef ban, cow ban, beef, cow, meat, cow killing, cow slaughter, slaughter cow, meat ban, killing cows, beef illegal, cow politics, slaughterhouses, beef legal states india, beef illegal states india, beef ban, beef ban issue, beef ban controversy, hindu, beef ban india, bjp beef ban, india news, nation news, indian express opinion On slaughterhouses, the legislation only allowed for the construction of public slaughterhouses and licensing/registration of private ones.

This is a continuation of the last column ‘Who has the licence to kill (IE, September 1). An abattoir is no different from a slaughterhouse, except the use of French suggests it is more modern. “Everything is in shambles.” We have often used the word “shambles” in such contexts, to connote confusion. Before the usage changed, the word meant slaughterhouse and our slaughterhouses are indeed in shambles.

“Any urban authority may, if they think fit, provide slaughterhouses, and they shall make byelaws with respect to the management and charges for any slaughterhouses so provided. The owner or occupier of any slaughterhouse licensed or registered under this Act shall, within one month after the licensing or registration of the premises, affix, and shall keep undefaced and legible on some conspicuous place on the premises, a notice with the words ‘licensed slaughterhouse,’ or ‘registered slaughterhouse,’ as the case may be.” This is obviously from a statute. When this was said is more important than what it says. This is from the UK’s Public Health Act of 1875. The UK still has the Public Health Act. What I have just quoted is from the 1875 legislation, not the present one. The original sections (Sections 166 to 170) on slaughterhouses were repealed in 1938. They were no longer necessary because of stringent laws on food standards. For instance, if all abattoirs in India are licensed/registered under FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), you don’t need municipal governments to licence/register them.

The Public Health Act of 1875 wasn’t just about slaughterhouses. It dealt with public health and urban living conditions, sanitation, drainage, sewage treatment, water supply, housing and food. On slaughterhouses, the legislation only allowed for the construction of public slaughterhouses and licensing/registration of private ones (powers to close down unsatisfactory private slaughterhouses came later, in 1890). At the time, there were more than 1,400 private slaughterhouses in London alone. If one reads the newspapers and magazines from the period, debates about the rights of unorganised sector butchers (in private slaughterhouses), or their possible loss of employment, featured prominently. So did complaints about the lack of enforcement of extant legislation. Across the channel, if you go to Paris, you will probably visit the park known as Parc de la Villette. What you may not know is that this park resulted from an urban development project in the1980s. Before that, there used to be abattoirs there, and these were relocated in 1974. However, these earlier slaughterhouses were consciously constructed in 1867, to get away from disorganised, unhygienic and chaotic slaughterhouses to organised and centralised abattoirs.

Across the Atlantic, the changes came a little later and Upton Sinclair had a little bit to do with it. His 1906 novel, The Jungle, was supposed to be about harsh lives faced by immigrants. But most people focused on food safety and his descriptions of the meat-packing industry. There was an enquiry that led to the 1906 Meat Inspection Act and Drug Act, ancestors of the present Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In urban habitations, whether in Western Europe or North America, there was a movement from individual butchers slaughtering by hand in slaughterhouses to centralised municipal abattoirs and processing in factories. The subsequent transition of moving them out from urban areas entirely occurred much later. How many years does India lag advanced countries, in terms of number of years, measured by any yardstick of governance and development? That’s an impossible question to answer since it is a function of the indicator. India’s per capita income, using official exchange rates (not PPP), is around $1,600. Even if I leave out Monaco, Liechtenstein and Bermuda, Norway is at $94,000 and the US at $55,000. Angus Maddison’s work and PPP give us a better benchmark.

In constant 1990 dollars, India was at 2,160 in 2003 and USA was at 2,445 in 1870. That’s a gap of more than 130 years.

The legislation, and their consequent enforcement do not occur in a vacuum. They are often driven by what society wants. More than 130 years down the line, I still do not see the public outrage unorganised and unhygienic slaughterhouses led to in Europe in the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s. Not too many people know, a scheme to modernise abattoirs was launched in 2009, with financial assistance from the Union government. But this was demand driven. Local bodies, or private parties, would have to opt for it and there were few takers. In Delhi, take the Ghazipur abattoir and closing down/shifting of the Idgah slaughterhouse there. The relatively modern Ghazipur abattoir has also confronted controversies on other grounds. The Idgah one has been described as 200-years-old. It wouldn’t have closed down and moved to Ghazipur had it not been for a PIL filed by Maneka Gandhi in the Delhi high court in 1992, the case meandering through the court system until 2005. In the process, apart from closing Idgah, the new one in Ghazipur came up. In every argument and agitation, the loss of livelihood and employment came up, reminiscent of the mid-19th century in other countries. Finally, Idgah was closed down in 2009. But this is a quote from a Delhi high court’s 2015 judgement. “A perusal of the affidavits placed on record by the respondents (North Delhi Municipal Corporation and Delhi Police) shows that they have admitted that despite there being a complete ban on slaughtering in Kasab Pura, Idgah Road, Delhi, slaughtering is going on in the area.”

The writer is a member of Niti Aayog. Views expressed are personal