India is home to the largest livestock population in the world. The country is also the biggest producer of milk in the world, apart from being the third largest bovine meat exporter to almost 70 countries. There are links between the two sectors. The spent buffaloes are utilised by the bovine meat sector. That is why it’s extremely rare to see a stray buffalo in most parts of the country. The farmer can sell his unproductive buffalo in the open market and get almost 40 per cent of his original investment as the termination value — this he can utilise to purchase buffaloes.
In the last few years, there has been much talk about stray cattle causing distress to farmers, especially in UP and the NCR. This narrative ascribes the problem to the ban on cow slaughter. However, the ban on cattle slaughter has been in place for decades — Maharashtra allowed bulls to be slaughtered but this practice was stopped in 2014. It seems that a large number of people are ill informed — their views in favour of the farmer or against the current dispensation lacks an appreciation of the issues at hand.
What nobody is asking is why was there no such issue before 2015? Most people assume that illegal slaughtering of cows was rampant before 2015 and this cattle was being exported. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is being exported is buffalo meat. To link legitimate trade to cow slaughter would be grossly incorrect and damaging to a trade which is the backbone of the dairy and leather industry.
What has caused the stray cattle problem, then? For decades, the entire population of spent animals would move to Bangladesh and Myanmar via the country’s Northeast. According to unofficial records, almost 25-28 lakh cattle used to cross the border every year — the trade is estimated to be above Rs 20,000 crore. Since 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs has conducted operations to put an end to this illegal trade — rightly so, keeping the religious sentiments of people in mind. But no one thought about or advised on how the consequences of this enforcement would be dealt with in a country that is perennially short of fodder. About 10 per cent of the country’s livestock becomes unproductive every year. Given that the country’s cattle population is over 250 million, finding out the number of these spent animals is no rocket science. There are more than a crore stray cattle while there is shelter and food for not even 10 per cent of these animals — and no resources for this purpose. In the Delhi-NCR region, more than 200 cows and bulls die every year due to lack of such resources.
It is important that we get the correct perspective on the problem of stray cattle rather than blame a community or a trade. We should analyse the result of stopping the movement of cattle into the Northeast and Bangladesh. There are a number of reports on this aspect of the cattle trade in the public domain. It will also be pertinent for the policymakers to review the livestock policies of the country and ask why farmers are moving to buffaloes in place of cows. What must be kept in mind is that a farmer’s decision-making is guided by economic factors.
The writer is spokesperson for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association