In the wake of the Supreme Court upholding the stay imposed on the newly notified livestock market rules by the Madras High Court, it may be relevant to critically understand the various dimensions of the matter in question from a human perspective.
The 19th Livestock Census of India, 2012, puts the total bovine count, which includes cattle, buffalo, Mithun and Yak at 299.9 million, a per capita bovine figure of 0.25 per person for a population of 1.2 billion, making India second only to Brazil. The Foreign Agricultural Service/United States Department of Agriculture puts the October 2017 estimates for India at 303.35 million. India also is the highest producer of milk at 332 gm/capita/day (2014) well above the world average of 294 grams/capita/day (2013). Though the figures are from different sources, they substantiate the argument that bovine population sustenance and growth is fairly robust.
At the same time, India also accounts for the world’s highest levels of beef production, with domestic market consumption estimated at 2.42 million tons and export at 1.92 million tons (Jan-Oct 2017). The export market is valued around $4.8 billion (2014). The healthy livestock growth, milk production, beef consumption and export, means that changes in the livestock market rules prohibiting cattle slaughter are devoid of all economic rationality requiring no or little government intervention.
Surprisingly, this growth in beef export and consumption in recent years has taken place without any mention in the National Livestock Policy, 2013. The policy thoroughly refrains from using the word beef and bovine meat, with a complete absence of any direct reference to the consumption or export. This cannot be set aside as a mere coincidence and, indeed, brings underlying religious and political sensitivities on the subject matter.
There is also a total silence on the bovine population’s contribution to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. With nearly 68% of GHG accumulations coming from bovine species in developing countries, climate change concerns are one strong argument against a policy that allows for unrestricted growth of the bovine population. Annually 27% more GHG will be emitted in 2050 with respect to 2010 levels by India’s bovine population, mostly due to the growing dairy and meat-based demand. The existing policy, devoid of any concrete strategy and mitigation measures, merely mentions taking up research work to reduce GHG emissions and changes in feeding patterns.
This impetus towards livestock population growth and disregard to the climate change discourse brings us to the quality of life of the existing livestock. Increasing urbanisation and rising intensity of land use, including open areas and agricultural land, have reduced the amount of pastures around the urban and rural settlements, pushing the bovine population into human settlements. Exposure of bovine population to urban waste and plastic has serious health concerns and repercussions along the food chain, including in humans. A consistent lack of research towards understanding the effect of this exposure and the psychological effects of cattle going astray in human settlements raises serious concerns about the quality of life of the existing and future bovine population. The existing policy again is silent, with a mere mention of environmental pollution from the emission perspective.
From the legal standpoint, barring Haryana, which passed the Haryana Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act in 2015, and states Sikkim, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya which have no act related to bovine slaughter prevention, all other states have some law providing a complete or partial ban based on the animal’s productive lifecycle. These acts have been passed between 1932 (Kashmir) and 1994 (Delhi), even before the BJP-led coalition government came into power at the Centre for the first time in 1997. Gujarat is the only state which has revised its 1954 act in 2011 and 2017, making it more stringent when a BJP government is in power.
But the rise of right-wing politics after the 2014 general elections, the formation of right-wing governments across various states and the subsequent ban on slaughterhouses, with the central government’s attempt to pass the said rules, might have fuelled the confidence of cow protection vigilantes.
The question therefore is not about banning or revising the proposed rules or acts for restricting slaughterhouse activities, but about understanding all the dimensions of the argument. The right approach might be to not allow religious sentiments to drive the agenda. It should not be forgotten that the cow, and all other ‘sacred’ animals, were domesticated for the purpose of commoditisation only. Religion has also been a tool to do so in the past: when technology to improve livestock quality and quantity was not available, safety and survival of livestock was ensured through religious doctrine, making the animals ‘sacred’.
The best ‘Gau Raksha’ strategy, therefore, would be to ensure humane treatment of the existing livestock. Immediate short-term action would require restricting their exposure to urban waste, improving the quality of fodder and to work towards removing plastic from the urban environment.
In the long-term, improving the quality and productivity of the bovine breeds through a more pragmatic livestock policy that takes into account beef production, consumption, export and slaughterhouse management in an integrated manner, along with developing and safeguarding pastures, should be the legislative goal. A recent complete ban on use of plastics across states and Aadhaar card-style tagging and tracking of cattle seems to be the right approach, incidentally satisfying religious sentiments, too.
It should be understood that ensuring a better quality of life for fewer bovines will be more meaningful than safeguarding all of them. Such a pragmatic approach would be more meaningful for all the dimensions of the ongoing bovine debate. After all, as they say, “in the end, it’s not birth or death that matters, but everything in between.” Having a good life and one bad day is always better than having a painful life as well as a painful death.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Business School, Sonipat)