One must welcome the Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan’s statement that the government is “carefully studying” the objections over its new rules on regulation of livestock markets and not making this a “prestige issue”. His government actually should go further and withdraw the May 23 notification that bans sale of cattle and buffaloes meant for slaughter in animal markets across India. Merely clarifying that there is no intention to prohibit bovine slaughter or target the country’s multi-billion dollar meat and leather processing industries isn’t enough. Truth be told, the rules would end up killing not just these two businesses, but even undermine the White Revolution by rendering dairy farming unviable.
Those backing the new notification — both within and outside the government — claim that disallowing trade in animals for slaughter in markets will make no difference to abattoirs and meat processors. They can get their bovines straight from the farms, while the livestock markets would deal only in animals meant for milch and agricultural purposes. That logic may sound fine, but it betrays total ignorance of the way animal farming happens in India. In the West, there are distinct categories of “beef cattle” and “dairy cattle” farmers. The animals reared for meat are also typically Aberdeen-Angus cattle, which are different from the regular dairy cow breeds, such as Holstein-Friesian, Jersey and Brown Swiss. In India, the farmer who milks a buffalo till it is about nine years old sells the same animal for slaughter. The buyer is often a trader who aggregates the spent animals from other similar farmers in the area and takes these to the local livestock market. The trader is obviously doing a service by not only paying for the farmers’ unproductive bovines, but also saving them the cost of fodder and labour resources, which can be deployed towards animals that yield milk and incomes.
If markets for spent buffaloes and cattle cease to exist — which is what the Environment Ministry’s rules effectively do — the ultimate victim would be the farmer. The ordinary dairy farmer who may need to dispose of one or two unproductive animals a year has no means to supply these directly to a slaughterhouse. The latter, in turn, cannot economically source from hundreds of scattered individual producers, each selling one or two animals a year (unlike the 5-10 litres of milk they would sell daily that also makes direct procurement a viable proposition). The institution that makes trade in unproductive bovines possible is the market, which brings together the sellers (whether farmers or primary aggregators) and buyers (butchers or agents of slaughterhouses) for these animals on a single platform. The loss to the country from closing down these thousands of markets extends beyond “prestige”.