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The most intriguing part about the Union Environment Ministry’s new rules banning sale and purchase of cattle and buffaloes for slaughter purposes in livestock markets across India is the seeming absence of any stakeholder consultations. Whether it is the meat, dairy and leather industries, farmer organisations or state governments responsible for regulating “markets and fairs” under Entry 28 of List-II of the Constitution — none apparently had the faintest idea about the rules while in the process of drafting. No less interesting is that the rules have been framed under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA). While the latter subject is covered under the Concurrent List, giving the Centre the power to make laws or rules, nowhere does the Act itself, however, talk about ending animal slaughter; what is sought to be curbed is only “unnecessary pain or suffering in the pre-slaughter stages as far as possible”. It is natural to ask: How will disallowing trade of cattle destined for slaughter in markets ameliorate such pain?
Critics of the latest move, including Opposition-ruled state governments, allege that it amounts to a backdoor nationwide ban on cattle slaughter. The PCAA’s provisions being invoked, in the most tenuous manner, would indeed appear to confirm this suspicion. Ministers in the Narendra Modi government have been at pains to emphasise that the new rules aim only at “regulating” animal markets. But if cattle intended for slaughter cannot be taken to markets at all, how can this be just “regulation”? The government’s response has been that the idea is to allow only “healthy” milch and agricultural purpose animals to be bought and sold in markets. The spent cattle can go straight from the farm to the abattoir. Ergo, there’s no ban or restriction on slaughter.
There are two problems to this argument. The first has to do with the very idea of a market, as a meeting place for buyers and sellers. Cattle markets are typically weekly affairs where, say, 500 farmers come and sell their animals to 50 suppliers to slaughterhouses. This is a more efficient system than the same buyers going to each individual seller’s home; the farmer also benefits from multiple bidders, who are absent in a direct sourcing arrangement. Secondly, unlike in the West, there aren’t separate categories of “beef cattle” and “dairy cattle” farmers in India. The farmer who rears buffaloes for milk sells the same animals for slaughter when they become unproductive. By killing the market for slaughter livestock, the government may end up destroying the market for dairy animals as well.