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The Uttar Pradesh government’s current crackdown on buffalo slaughterhouses, meat processing plants and retail outlets in the state — which doesn’t seem to be limited to just “illegal” establishments — is seen by many as threatening the livelihoods of a particular community. The fact is that it goes beyond that, while having the potential to undermine the country’s dairy economy. The cow in traditional agricultural systems was much more than just a milch animal. It was the mother of bullocks that helped the farmer plough the field, draw water from wells for irrigation, thresh grain by trampling and pull his cart. The cow and its progeny were also the source of dung, which was composted into manure for fertiliser application as well as dried and caked for use as fuel. But with the advent of tractors, electric/diesel-powered tubewells, chemical fertilisers and kerosene/LPG cylinders, the cow’s utility has largely reduced to being a milk-producing machine. Male cattle have become increasingly redundant, more so with artificial insemination taking the place of breeding bulls.
One way to view the above transition, which is a product of the last 50 years or so, is through the lens of nostalgia and sentimentality. But whether one likes it or not, the farmer today rears cattle and buffaloes essentially for milk. The viability of milk production, in turn, is a function of herd management: Maintaining only high-milking animals or young heifers and calves that will produce in future. But that is not possible if there is no mechanism available for disposal of unproductive bovines or animals that happen to be male. The farmer simply cannot afford to spend money on feed and fodder for these animals that generate no income for him. One reason why UP’s buffalo population has grown by around 61 per cent between 1997 and 2012 — and, within that, female buffaloes by over 82 per cent — is precisely because of an avenue for their disposal in the form of slaughterhouses. The “Muslim” butcher, in a sense, has created a market for the redundant buffaloes of the “Hindu” farmer, allowing the latter to invest in new productive animals.
The current environment — of closing down abattoirs and so-called unlicensed meat shops, while not applying the same standards to other food processing and retail establishments — could well upset the above ecosystem that is essential to the working of the dairy economy. The increasingly draconian anti-slaughter laws have already left farmers with little incentive to rear cattle, which includes high milk-yielding crossbreds. With that same intolerant fervour now being extended to buffaloes, it could eventually hit the country’s milk production and force reliance on imports similar to edible oils and pulses. Is this what Yogi Adityanath’s government in UP wants?