Destructing rural economy in the name of ‘cow protection’


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India's livestock population (2012 Livestock census). Courtesy
India’s livestock population (2012 Livestock census). Courtesy

Livestock has played a crucial role in the Indian economy since pre-historic times. The cow and cow products like milk, ghee, meat and hide are mentioned in almost all religious texts of Hinduism. In the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna is shown to have a close association with cows. In the Rigveda, there is description of a yagna to increase wealth generation from cows.

In modern times, livestock continues to be the mainstay of the rural economy. In our country, approximately twenty million people are dependent upon livestock for their livelihood. Being a reliable source of income for households in rural areas, livestock contributes a substantial portion of the income of all rural households. The importance of livestock as livelihood is even more significant for small farm households, as their incomes from land are lower due to the small size of landholding. Thus, livestock is a crucial component of the income of smaller farm households in the rural economy.

Overall, livestock provides livelihood to a majority of the rural community. In return, it also contributes significantly to National Income. In 2012-13, the livestock sector contributed 4.11 percent of the total National Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 25.6 percent of the total agriculture GDP. As is evident, livestock is a critical part of our rural economy, which is already struggling due to the crisis in agriculture.

Therefore, it is crucial to examine the impact of the recent developments pertaining to the hue and cry which has been raised in the name of protecting the cow. Recent events such as killings and beatings of several Dalits and Muslims in different parts of the country under the pretext of cow protection have created a sense of fear among the rural populace. To add to that, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government’s recent crackdown on abattoirs has impacted the rural economy in a very direct way by cutting off a substantial source of income for cattle traders. Further, a Central Government order in May on ban of sale of cattle for slaughter also served to add to the woes of an already suffering cattle economy.

It is generally believed that the Government’s recent interventions will hurt the Muslim community the most as they are dependent on cattle not only for beef (food), but also in the business of slaughter houses as butchers, commission agents, owners of slaughter houses and exporters. As per available statistics, eighty million Indians eat beef or buffalo meat. Amongst them, sixty-three million are Muslims, which constitutes forty percent of the Muslim population. So, any restrictions on the meat industry will hurt Muslims because of their food habits and due to a loss in employment opportunities. India’s meat industry employs approximately twenty-two million people, which included nearly fifteen million from UP. The economy of the UP meat industry was worth Rs 22,000 crores before the meat crackdown.

In India, unlike other countries, cattle are reared chiefly for milk production. Fragmentation of agricultural land and an increase in demand for milk on account of rapid urbanisation, made the dairy business popular among the unskilled/semiskilled workforce in rural areas. Farmers as well as landless labourers found the business profitable. In 2013, the Akhilesh Yadav government in UP started the Kamdhenu Yojana in which interest free loans were provided to milk producers. The scheme proved to be immensely popular and UP became the top producer of milk in the country. The cattle economy was working well for the farmers, and the recent developments pose a serious threat.

Now, let’s look at the patterns of cattle ownership to decipher the religious and economic linkage with cattle business. National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) conducted the All India Debt and Investment Survey in 2013 on 110,000 households in rural and urban areas. Headline data suggests cattle ownership is highest among Sikhs with forty percent of Sikh households owning cattle. This is followed by Hindu households, where thirty-two percent own cattle, followed by Muslim households at eighteen percent. The all India average stands at thirty percent.

Cattle ownership patterns differ across regions. In Kerala, where the employment rate is high, only seven percent of Hindu and five percent of Muslim households own cattle. In an agrarian state such as UP, the corresponding figures are fifty-two percent for Hindu households and twenty-one percent among Muslim households. In Jammu and Kashmir, fifty-seven percent of Muslim households own cattle, compared with thirty-seven percent of Hindu households. We can see that patterns of cattle owning are region specific but not religion specific.

The study also revealed two other important findings:

  1. In different economic quintiles, the likelihood of owning cattle is the same among Hindus and Muslims.
  2. As regards the ownership ratio between milching and non-milching animals. Only fifteen percent households own non-milching animals, which is half of the overall cattle ownership figure of thirty percent. The pattern is almost the same across different religions.

The end use of the non-milching animal is in the meat industry. It is the Muslims which are primarily dependent on the meat industry for food and employment. And this is where the noise around the cow created by the BJP gets communal in nature.

Now, let’s analyse the recent happenings and its impact on the livestock economy and religious discrimination. On May 23, The Centre’s Environment Ministry issued a notification banning sale and purchase of cattle from markets for slaughter. First, it was stayed by the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court upheld the stay in August. When Harsh Vardhan took charge of the Environment Ministry after the demise of Anil Dave, he first indicated that the notification could be withdrawn. Probably, he was new to the ministry and did not know what transpired behind the doors to issue such a notification. Thereafter, there has only been silence from the minister on this issue. In the Supreme Court, Additional Solicitor General, P S Narasimha, had said that the government is looking into the objections from various stakeholders on the ban and rules are under scrutiny after which it will be tabled in Parliament.

There are some basic flaws in the notification. How does a seller know that the cattle (both cow and buffalo) he is selling will be used for certain purpose, other than slaughter? Suppose someone runs out of money to maintain a cow or a buffalo, what is the harm if he sells them? Is it not better to sell rather keep them starved and allow to die?

The Chhattisgarh incident where cows died at a shelter run by an influential BJP leader, should also remind us of our duties. We, as a society (including the government), are not making enough efforts to help the farmers manage their cattle and are shifting the entire burden on to cow shelters. The Centre’s animal husbandry department launched the National Gokul Mission in December 2014 after the BJP assumed power. The focus is to dole out money to cow shelters while no help is provided for individual farmers. The aid provided to cow shelters should instead be diverted to individual farmers who can, and will, do a much better job of managing cattle.

With rapid urbanization and declining population of indigenous breeds of cows, many states have kept the grazing land exclusively reserved for that purpose and have not been changing the land use policy. Since almost seventy percent of our population lives in rural India, and almost each family owns cows or buffaloes, cattle rearing is still a traditional form of livelihood. It is closely linked to the agricultural economy. India has about 199 million cattle, which accounts for 14.5 percent share of the world’s cattle population. Of this, about 166 million are indigenous breeds.

It is a humongous job to manage 199 million cattle and if a ban (such as the one proposed by the Environment Ministry) is made effective, it would be disastrous for the dairy industry. First, the bovine population will increase very rapidly and secondly, there will be a feed scarcity as country’s food production is limited. Then, as dairy farmers are forced to rear unproductive animals, their cost of production of milk will also go up.

The proposed ban will also impact trade. Export of buffalo meat, mostly controlled by Muslims, will be hit hard. The buffalo meat industry is already suffering after the UP government’s crackdown on abattoirs in the state. The country’s beef (buffalo meat) exports fell by 7.62 percent to $257.06 million in April, after the Yogi Adityanath government closed several slaughterhouses across the state.

The ban would also mean that India will have to import hide from the United States to meet its demand. The Calcutta Leather Complex Tanners Association has already expressed its apprehension that American cattle hide may come to India in the long run. The government needs to exclude buffaloes from the ban when the rules are framed again. Otherwise, Indian exporters will have no option but to look to the US to import hide to meet their commitments. Buffalo hides form more than 50 percent of total leather demand.

The result of the recent interventions of ‘social organisations’ and the government is an increased population of stray animals. These animals can be seen on the urban streets, and in farmers’ fields. Several breeds of cattle are not useful for the farmer in his field and the restrictions on sale of cattle, and the closure of abattoirs, has arm-twisted the farmer to release these animals, and leave them to fend for themselves. The released animals are often found grazing on fields, and end up destroying valuable crops of farmers. Ironically, the ‘revered’ cow has now become a menace, due to the actions of its ‘protectors’.


Sudhir Panwar is Professor of Zoology at the University of Lucknow. He founded and is President of a grass roots farmer organisation, Kisan Jagriti Manch. He is an expert on economic issues related with the farm sectors and has represented the cause of farmers at various national and international forums. He was member of the           Uttar Pradesh Planning Commission from 2013 to 2017 and formulated various farmers’ welfare policies including Kamadhenu Yojana. He was the Samajwadi Party’s candidate from the Thanabhawan constituency in the 2017 UP assembly election.

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