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

A partial ban on the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in apparent support of Hindu nationalists  has reduced production of some meats at abattoirs by one-third and raised doubts about long-term export targets.

Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht ordered the closure of illegal abattoirs and halted slaughtering at animal markets in 2017, amid warnings that it would hurt tens of thousands of poor farmers, as well as meat and leather traders. Most of the traders are minority Muslims.

Owners of farmland are still allowed to sell their animals, but only at registered abattoirs and after submitting a list of complex forms and documents  in what seems to be a deliberate ploy to thwart the mostly illiterate small farmers. Many have been forced out of the business.

Regarded as sacred by many Hindus, cows have become the center of a political storm since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, with states under the control of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rushing out laws to punish anyone slaughtering the animals. Many saw the move as a deliberate attempt to stir up Hindu nationalism, especially as vigilantes began to target Dalits and Muslims.

After taking over as chief minister in March 2017, Bisht ordered public officials to identify cow smugglers and beef sellers and take the toughest possible actions against them to ensure there was an effective implementation of bans on the sale of beef.

Attacks by vigilantes have badly disrupted meat supply chains as it becomes difficult to transport animals to markets. Lynchings of some Muslims suspected of slaughtering cows have forced many to abandon the industry.

Vigilantes interrupting supply chains

In September 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq was killed in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, by a mob that suspected him of possessing beef. This was followed by a string of attacks on cow traders and meat transporters within the state and across India. Most of the victims were Muslims or belonged to  minority groups like the Dalits; the peak year for such incidents was 2017.

In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, the clampdown has created a huge over-supply of cows, with as many as 800,000 said to be roaming wild.    There may soon be similar numbers of buffaloes, goats and pigs as well, because production of meat has plummeted.

Output of buffalo meat in registered abattoirs fell to 41 million kilograms in 2017-18, from 114 million kilograms in the previous year, according to figures from the Animal Husbandry Department. Production had reached 845 million kilograms in 2015-16 and 750 million kilograms in 2014-15 as the industry thrived. Similarly, goat meat production dropped by 35% in 2017-18 16 million kilograms, after reaching 130 million kilograms in 2015-16 and 177 million kilograms in 2014-15. Mutton and pork meats registered output falls of 43% and 53% respectively in 2017-18 as abattoirs closed.

“Out of 42 integrated abattoirs, 15 are shut at present. Only three of the 14 meat processing industries are functioning now,” Dr KK Chaudhary, joint director of the Uttar Pradesh Animal Husbandry Department, told Asia Times. Nine of the shut abattoirs are in Aligarh, seven in Unnao and three each in Ghaziabad, Meerut, Sambhal and Bulandshahr.

Responding to the strays problem, the state government has tried to control the bull population by ensuring that only female calves are born. This has led farmers in some villages to herd stray cows into schools and other government offices to save their stock.

Since animals can still be purchased privately for consumption, there are no reports of shortages of buffalo or goat meat in local markets, according to residents, butchers and public officials. Industry insiders said the large integrated meat plants were feeling the brunt of the downturn, as about 90% of their trade takes place in animal markets.

Export shipments not yet affected

“If the issues are not addressed soon, this industry will be further affected,” said a member of the All India Meat Exporters Association.

Dr Chaudhary admitted: “Many abattoirs are shut in the state due to non-compliance of the norms. However, skewed supply of raw material (animals) is another major reason leading to less meat production. Fewer number of people are into cattle rearing and trading these days.”

There has been no census of livestock in Uttar Pradesh since 2012, though one is currently underway. At that time the state had 19.55 million cattle, of which one million were not considered to be productive animals. The census found there had been an average 28% growth in the number of buffalos and 10% growth in cows since 2007.

Buffalo meat exports from the state have not yet been affected, with shipments rising three-fold in the past year from 2.1 million kilograms to 6.6 million kilograms, according to Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority figures. The value of exported buffalo meat rose to US$1.96 billion in 2017-18, up sharply from $1.46 billion in the previous year, while there were smaller increases in exports of other meats.

Asked why exports were unaffected by the output cuts, a government officials suggested that “meat export units of Uttar Pradesh might be procuring meat from other states”. If so, Uttar Pradesh could lose its title as India’s largest meat processing state. The industry employs more than 2.5 million people in the state, with most exports going to Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Some impact is inevitable at a national level once stocks of meat decline, as Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest meat processing state and biggest exporter, with a share of about 45% in each. Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Telangana are the other main producers. 

“The massive drop in meat production is also linked to job losses, especially for poor Muslims working in small abattoirs and the leather industry,”  said Manzur Ali, a professor at Giri Institute of Development Studies, Lucknow. He said the export trend indicates that small abattoirs have suffered the biggest impact from the slaughter bans.

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