Export of frozen buffalo meat from India is almost a 45-year-old trade. Since the mid-2000s, the country’s annual foreign exchange earnings from it has gone up more than ten times to over $ 4 billion and can, with some policy focus, even double in the next five years.
Buffalo meat processing can, moreover, be the backbone of the dairy industry, if it isn’t already. Like the latter, it has a direct connection with the farmer. It ensures that he gets 30-40% of the cost of his animal as terminal value once its active lactation/reproductive age is over. This money he, then, invests upfront in a new milk-yielding animal.
There’s no better evidence of the above symbiotic relation than Uttar Pradesh , which is India’s largest milk producer and also houses more than half of the country’s 80 standalone and integrated abattoir approved by the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). Roughly two-thirds of frozen buffalo meat exports from India is accounted for by UP.
What is striking is that out of the 80 modern abattoir-cum-processing plants, at least 75 have come up in the last 20 years or less. And they have been set up just on the strength of private enterprise, with hardly any government support or concessional bank finance. Unlike dairy, which has received substantial government assistance, including through the World Bank and European Economic Community commodity aid, the buffalo meat processing and export industry hasn’t benefitted from any Operation Flood programme.
Ironically, the dairy industry is today going through an unprecedented crisis, with procurement prices of milk for farmers falling by 25-30% in the last one year. Yet, no thought is being given to the role that the livestock meat industry can play to improve the situation. A country like Australia does not have even a tenth of India’s livestock population, yet its value realisation from meat and live animal exports is more than ours. We as a nation are seriously neglecting our livestock treasure. This, when the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that more than 300 million poor families globally survive on the income from just small ruminants, viz. sheep and goat.
It is about time that the government nurtures the real potential of our livestock wealth. Indian buffalo meat is currently exported to about 70 countries. There is much that the government can do to improve market access. If India can sign an agreement with China to get the latter to open up its market for our rice, why not extend this to buffalo meat as well? A lot of Indian buffalo meat is, in any case, making its way to China through Vietnam.
Why cannot this meat be directly shipped, rather than being routed via a third country — thereby improving our export realisations and enabling our farmers to be paid more for their spent animals?
Similarly, the government can negotiate with Iran, Philippines and Russia, to allow us access to their wet (fresh meat) markets, as against sales only to processors. Also, there should be more aggressive programme for eradication of Foot and Mouth Disease, which can be a game-changer for our exports of both dairy and meat products.
Besides, the Salvaging and Rearing of Male Buffalo Calves Scheme must be revived. We have millions of male buffalo calves coming into the system every year. These animals are, at present, simply allowed to die, when farmers can be incentivised to rear them till they are 23-24 months for sale to abattoir. The scheme started by the Centre, which is currently defunct, was a truly revolutionary one with huge potential to create rural livelihoods and supplement the income of farmers. It is unfortunate that far from promoting an industry, which can help farmers in these times of depressed realisations in most crops, the policy approach is, in fact, negative and counterproductive.
A major byproduct of the setting up of state-of-the-art abattoir in recent times has been the increased availability of good-quality buffalo hide that is freshly flayed, fleshed, salted and folded for supply to the leather industry. But unfortunately, there is a 60% duty on export of raw salted hides produced from even APEDA-approved abattoir. Not only is such a duty unheard of in a world, it forces abattoir to sell this most valuable byproduct of their operations only to domestic tanneries and leather product manufacturers.
The latter, in turn, are permitted to import raw hides and skins duty-free. Isn’t this forced sale of raw hide, at two-thirds of the international price, nothing but subsidisation of the leather industry by meat processors and farmers? And with tanneries in many parts — whether in UP’s Kanpur-Unnao belt or Vellore, Dindigul and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu — closing down due to environmental pollution issues and also being shut during the Kumbh/Magh Mela season in January-February, the effects of a perverse duty are only compounding.
If the government is serious about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of doubling farmers’ income, it should allow the livestock sector to play the role of a genuine facilitator. Milk is today India’s largest crop by value and everyone agrees that dairying is fundamental to doubling farmers’ income. But it is time to recognise that dairy farming cannot sustain itself without a vibrant livestock processing industry. No one knows it better than farmers themselves.