Cattle sale for slaughter: Centre is fighting losing battle, but can still save face with course-correction

It isn't remotely surprising that the Narendra Modi government has trapped itself in a legal mire with respect to the rule on sale of cattle for slaughter in livestock markets. Given 1) the extent of impact the new rule will have on the meat trade industry and connected sectors, 2) the public perception about the law being a cleverly-executed backdoor cattle slaughter ban and 3) the allegations that the government is slowly pushing its 'Hinduvta agenda' by forcing vegetarian food habits on the country, the Centre was asking for trouble sooner or later on the issue.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Modi government on a petition challenging the notification banning sale and purchase of cattle at animal markets for slaughter. The apex court has given a fortnight’s time for the Centre to file its response within two weeks and will hear the case next on 11 July.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

But, remember, this isn’t the first intervention of judiciary in the controversial issue. Last month, Madras High Court issued a stay on the Centre’s rule on cattle sale for slaughter in markets. States like Kerala and Meghalaya passed resolutions against the Centre’s law asserting that they will not implement it. Karnataka, West Bengal and Tripura governments too have said the rule will not be implemented in these states citing constitutional rights on states.

The Centre too has realised the mess in which it has landed. It has promised to be open for suggestions on the issue and has reiterated that the idea is not to alter food habits of people and hit the businesses (read here and here).

The core of the current problem is the part where cattle sale for slaughter is banned in animal markets, not the rules stipulating discipline and transparency in cattle trade and slaughter. Livestock markets are where 80 to 90 percent of the slaughter cattle sale happens in the country, according to meat traders’ body. Farmers bring their unused cattle to small, neighbourhood markets from where traders take the cattle to bigger mandis. Stopping this and imposing the farm-to-fork model overnight would have paralysed the industry since the availability of cattle will become a problem.

It is not practical for small traders to get the stock to supply to slaughter houses. This scarcity will not only hurt the slaughter activity but also connected industries such as tanning and leather.

Also, logically when the supply of cattle for slaughter is reduced, the consumers will naturally face steep price hikes and business could take a hit on account of lower demand. Particularly for states like Kerala, where meat consumption is high (according to the state finance minister, over 70 percent of the population eats beef), people saw this as government encroachment on their food habits and individual rights.

Adding to the problem, the Centre also included 'buffalo' in the banned meat list. Earlier, this wasn't the case. Even when the cow slaughter ban was in place, the meat that many hotels serve as 'beef' was buffalo meat, not cow meat. The inclusion of this category came as a double shock to the meat eater and meat trader in all those states.

The Centre is probably fighting a losing battle both in the court rooms and against the states since it is on weak ground on the matter. Essentially, regulating livestock markets and cattle trade is a state affair, while the Centre has the right only to intervene on matters of animal welfare. But, as reported by The Indian Express, Fahim Qureshi, the Hyderabad-based lawyer who moved the petition in the Supreme Court, has pointed out that Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act does not categorise slaughter of animals for food as cruelty on the condition that it is not accompanied by pain and suffering.

The Modi government will likely be left with no option but to review the ban on cattle sale for slaughter at the livestock markets.

Secondly, a government that has farmer welfare as a high priority and wants to double the farmer income by 2022, would not want to cripple the farm economy (poor farmers would be stuck with their unused cattle when markets disappear. They typically sell them in these markets and invest the money in buying new cattle) and the meat trade industry (India is one of the biggest meat exporters in the world).

But, the Modi government can save face without getting into a deeper mess by doing one simple thing: Restore the sale of cattle for slaughter in livestock markets and bring in stringent rules to prevent cattle theft, the sale of unhealthy cattle and ensuring the quality of meat sold to the public.

The government can stipulate minimum infrastructure and cleanliness requirements for market places and perhaps, bring in a new licensing system to weed out those who are non-compliant. Most of these rules are already in place in the notification under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act of 1960. By doing this, the government can avert major embarrassment. With at least five major meat consuming states turning against it and the promise of a long legal battle ahead, a course correction seems to be the only way out. Retaining cattle sale for slaughter in market places will bring life back to the meat industry while the government can simultaneously bring in rules to achieve the intended objectives.

The current course of action will only lead to bigger problems.

Updated Date: Jun 15, 2017 16:25 PM

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