Regulating India's Cattle Industry: A Socio-Economic Assessment

08 Mar, 2018    ·   5443

Ayan Tewari contends that if ideology-driven policy is inevitable, it is crucial to think of mitigating the negative effects during the formulation stage

Ayan Tewari
Ayan Tewari
Research Intern, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)

On 23 May 2017, a notification issued under the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act was passed, placing new regulations on the cattle industry. The livestock sector (consisting of meat, dairy, and eggs) now makes up 28 per cent of the agrarian economy and the immediate negative effects of the notification, during a period of increased agrarian distress, soon became apparent. It affected landless peasants and land-owning farmers, while exacerbating animal cruelty and simultaneously expanding the parallel economy. Consequently, it was reported that the notification is set to be withdrawn in 2018. However, given the state of cow politics in the country, a recurrence of such regulation is inevitable. Should the government again choose to enact ideological policies, what protections can be built into such policy to mitigate its negative effects?

As much as 70 per cent of livestock market in India is owned by 67 per cent of small and marginal farmers and by the landless. Landless grazers rely on common lands for grazing and then engage in livestock trading. While these animals are mostly used for draught and milch purposes, the end of their productive life or economic circumstances sees them sold off in the livestock market. Importantly, this particular segment of the livestock economy is controlled by women (60 per cent of labour is provided by women). The first most significant casualty of such regulation therefore is this particularly vulnerable section of society.

Going up the income ladder, ideological livestock regulation does not spare land-owning farmers who primarily rely on crops. The economics of crop failure means that livestock is held as backup, to be sold during the lean periods to make ends meet. In effect, the implementation of such regulation means that a whole safety net of a slightly higher income group could be wiped out overnight.

Since the enforcement of cattle regulation affects some of the most vulnerable sections of Indian society so profoundly, the tendency to avoid unfair regulation is incentivised. This can spawn a black economy, with effects similar to prohibition. The cattle trade goes underground, exacerbating the already rampant cattle smuggling problem. This means significant additional funds enter the black market negating any illusory gains that demonetisation would have resulted in. It should also be remembered that organised crime is intersectional, and one form of illegality leads to other forms of illegality. This has been seen clearly in the case of cattle smuggling to Bangladesh becoming a segue for drugs and arms smuggling. The knockdown effects of this notification will therefore almost certainly result in increased illegality and crime.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this is that restrictions on cattle trade achieves the opposite of its intended aim - that of reducing animal cruelty. As things stand, the current state of the cattle economy has produced makeshift abattoirs and inhumane transport practices. Instead of mainstreaming the cattle trade and regulating transport and slaughter, these types of regulations makes cost-cutting and therefore cruelty far more likely, spreading worse practices. Given the size of the animals and the difficulty of killing one, doubling down on said practices is inevitable. The cost required for the upkeep of such livestock (especially non-milch and aging ones) will also result in a sharp increase in animal abandonment, most of whom will either succumb to starvation, or act as pests in other farms.

Whatever a government's ideological goals, they must be adjusted to reality. First, the livestock trade must be brought out into the open. This enables normal patterns of the agrarian economy to continue, while reducing micromanagement of their production mix, and enables the government to better regulate the sector. More importantly, it can reduce the black economy. Reinvigorating the livestock sector should be seen as governmental priority, as states where livestock contributes more to farm income have significantly less rural poverty. Crucially, the livestock market has been relatively immune to the effects of climate change while providing stability to the agrarian sector.

While mainstreaming cattle trade can drastically reduce cruelty, there are means to reduce slaughter as well. The government could set up state-run farms which can additionally be subsidised by likeminded private contributions, and be a significant source of employment while removing the social and economic burden from the most vulnerable sections of society and placing them instead on the state. Such farms would buy up cattle from the farmers at the indexed market price (especially non-milch and ageing cattle). They could also act as pilot projects, testing the economic viability of Sangh Parivar