The new rules on the regulation of livestock markets may have noble intentions behind them, but they may end up doing more harm than good.
On paper, technically, the new Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified a few days earlier, is not a ban on cow slaughter brought in through the back door. It is about regulating the sale of all bovine animals (including camels) in markets. It is about humane treatment of animals. It is, as this article by animal rights activist Nuggehalli Jayasimha points out, about improving traceability of animals which will help in disease control; this will ultimately help people who eat meat/poultry. Above all, it is giving effect to a Supreme Court order from some years back.
If traceability was the larger goal, then it might have been worth looking at the Livestock Identification and Traceability System. Think of it as an Aadhaar for cattle. A universal roll-out of this system could enormously help traceability amidst other advantages in documentation (How do you identify a particular cow in the sale documentation now?).
The rules, meant for both buyers and sellers, stipulate that the latter will have to state that the animal has been brought to the market for sale for agricultural purposes and not for slaughter. The buyer also has to give an undertaking that the animal will not later be sold for slaughter or religious sacrifice (there is a six-month moratorium on re-sale). Animals cannot be sold outside a state without express permission. And then there are rules about how animals are to be kept at the markets. Cattle markets should not be located less than 25km from a state border and less than 50km from the international border. Cattle meant for slaughter can be sourced directly from farmers.
In effect, the rules will be an unofficial ban on cow slaughter. How? Because nearly 90 per cent of livestock-related transactions take place in animal markets. The numerous conditions that the Rules stipulate will all but kill these transactions. Buffalo are also covered by these rules, which means that, forget beef, even buffalo meat will be near-impossible to get. This article by Harish Damodaran in the Indian Express shows how the rules could lead to enormous confusion. If traceability and hygiene were the drivers of these rules, why have goats been exempted from this; surely those consuming mutton also have the right to get hygienic meat?
These rules will deal a crippling blow to the meat and leather industries, and to farmers. The meat industry has an annual turnover of Rs 1 lakh crore and employs lakhs. India is the world’s top buffalo meat exporter, and, according to this report by ICRA, grew at a CAGR of 29 per cent between 2007-08 (Rs 3,533 crore) and 2016-17 (Rs 26,682 crore). According to this Reuters report, meat exports fell 13 per cent in the April-December 2016 period itself. Things are only likely to get worse.
These rules will also hit the leather industry at a time when the government is pitching for it in a big way under the Make in India programme. India accounts for 13 per cent of global production of leather, and provides direct and indirect employment to nearly two million people.
The Modi government has a huge employment crisis staring at it in the face; having a few million more people unemployed is only going to hurt it more.
Worse, this move is going to put farmers, already in a stressed situation, into further distress. What are they going to do with cattle which are past their economic value? Earlier they could sell these at cattle fairs, not always very easily, but this option will now become highly restricted. As it is, the lack of fodder due to drought was forcing them to sell cattle at near-throwaway prices. Now they will be forced to incur costs on an animal which brings them no revenue. Does this make sense?
What these new rules are certainly going to do is increase inspector raj and petty corruption, given the enormous paperwork involved. Illegal trade will flourish. And that will only lead to a step up in the activities of cow vigilantes, who will target even legal transactions. The new rules may have noble intentions behind them, but they may end up doing more harm than good.