A farmer with a pair of bulls at a weekly cattle market. Photo: Reuters

India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests has banned the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter — a move that could harm not only farmers and beef eaters, but a host of other industries, including pharmaceuticals, leather production and meat exports. Significantly, for the first time it has also brought buffalos within the ambit of its definition of cattle.

The Ministry’s “extraordinary” notification, drafted under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, bans the sale at cattle markets of bulls, cows, bullocks, buffalos, steers, heifers, calves and camels for slaughter. It stipulates that cattle can be sold only to farmers and only for agricultural purposes.

The trade will now involve a lot of paperwork. Only “agriculturalists” can buy cattle and will have to prove their occupation with “revenue documents”. That means either land records, or tax returns: farmers who do not own their will find it very difficult to buy a milch cow.

“The definition of cattle now involves buffalos too, which wasn’t there so far. It will hurt the sector badly,” said D.B. Sabharwal, secretary of the All India Meat & Livestock Exporters’ Association, told the Firstpost news website. “Secondly, slaughter houses get only 10% of the cattle directly from farmers. The [remaining] 90% is from mandis (markets), which is banned now. This is going to put the whole industry at risk.”

The new notification gives the federal government powers over animal welfare. The committees overseeing animal markets will seek undertakings from traders that “animals are bought for agriculture purposes and not for slaughter.

“The definition of cattle now involves buffalos too, which wasn’t there so far. It will hurt the sector badly”

Animal rights activists have welcomed the new rules. “The idea behind these new rules is to ensure that only healthy animals are traded for agricultural purposes, whereas animals for slaughter must be sourced directly from farms to ensure traceability,” N.G. Jayasimha, the managing director of Humane Society International India, an NGO , told Mint newspaper. He was also a member of the committee which drafted the new rules. “The new rules will also help in controlling smuggling of cattle,” he added.

The move has strong political ramifications as cow slaughter is an emotive issue among the Hindu community, with many from upper castes opposed to it. Many states have passed stringent laws of their own, but there were previously no curbs on the killing of buffalos.

As per 2016 United States Department of Agriculture data India and Brazil are the world’s joint top beef exporters, with both countries accounting for just under 20% each of the global total. However, India does not officially export meat from cows. The so-called “beef” it exports is buffalo meat, also known as “carabeef”.

Ever since Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister three years ago, attacks from so-called “cow vigilantes” have been increasing, with the victims mostly Muslims or lower caste Hindus. Critics fear the new rules will further embolden vigilante groups.

The move is also expected to affect India’s leather exports, which stood at US $5.85 billion in the year 2015-16, with the European Union accounting for more than 50% of those exports.

In addition, beef fat is used in producing industrial oils and lubricants, tallow for tanning, soaps, lipsticks, face and hand creams, some medicines, and ingredients for explosives

Bones, horns, and hooves also supply important by-products. These include buttons, bone china, piano keys, glues, fertilizer, paper, wallpaper, sandpaper, combs, toothbrushes, and violin strings. Beef by-products are also used in making numerous drugs, with the most well known being insulin.

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