The bottomless pit that is Karnataka's new cattle Bill

The bottomless pit that is Karnataka's new cattle Bill

Karnataka risks being blindsided by the financial implications and other fault lines of the new slaughter ban

Bengaluru is the biggest market for beef in the state. The state capital accounted for nearly 40% of beef produced in the state in 2019-20. Credit: AFP Photo

Chowdaiah, a farmer from Ramasamudra in Chamarajnagar district, had to sell a pair of bullocks he bought by paying Rs 76,000 recently, to spend on his wife's medical emergency. He sold them for Rs 60,000 at the weekly cattle fair at Gundlupet due to the lack of buyers. 

The fair in the border district used to see regular buyers from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who have stopped coming ever since Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill (2020) got approved in the Assembly, thereby reducing the market for the cattle that farmers are forced to sell for various reasons. The Bill explicitly bans inter-state and intra-state transport of cattle without authorisation.

Mahadevappa, another farmer from Kothalavadi in Chamarajnagar district, recalls how he was made to run around to court recently, to get back the pair of bullocks he purchased to till his land when the police seized his vehicle and took the cattle away. "Let them bring any Bill, but why trouble the farmers?" he asks.

These are just two of the unintended effects of the Bill which is going to affect many sections in myriad ways. It has added bulls and bullocks to the list of cattle that must not be slaughtered. It has also increased the age of buffaloes that can be slaughtered to 13 years.

“If we are not allowed to sell them when they become unproductive, is it not a loss for us?” asks Gundappa, a farmer from Raichur district. 

"Maintenance of each milch cow costs about Rs 100 a day for a farmer like me who has land and green fodder," says Rajesh, from Santhemarahalli in Chamarajanagar district. This cost becomes untenable when the cow runs dry. Unproductive cows are sold, and the money is re-invested in buying a new cow, and the cycle repeats.

In the changed situation, Rajesh will be left with little alternative but to turn the cow loose.

Karnataka seems to be headed in the direction of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan—two states with some of the most stringent provisions against cattle slaughter—which account for nearly half of the 50.21 lakh stray cattle running loose in the country.

The slaughter of non-milch cattle is an unpleasant reality in India's rural economy. Official figures indicate in 2019-20 at least 30.55 lakh cattle and 4.62 crore buffaloes were slaughtered across the country; in Karnataka, 1.81 lakh cattle and 56,332 buffaloes were culled.

India's export of 'buffalo meat', which includes all bovine animals, generated Rs 22,688 crore in revenue, second only after Basmati rice. The fate of the leather industry, which exports goods worth Rs 35,950 crore, is also at stake.

The government proposes gaushalas or cattle shelters as a solution to the problem of non-milch cattle. In Karnataka, there are just 159 gaushalas registered with the Department of Animal Husbandry, on which it spent just Rs 4.5 crore.

Official sources say the state needs an additional 1,500 gaushalas to house all the cattle that will be saved henceforth. The government says it plans to open one gaushala for each district, in addition to relying on those run by NGOs and religious institutions.

However, the government does not know the exact capacity of existing gaushalas. Despite repeated requests, DH could not get complete data on the current capacity of registered gaushalas.

Harsh realities 

The implementation of the law in Karnataka is a challenge, where it runs aground of economic realities.

Karnataka produced at least 20,382 tonnes of cattle meat in 2019-20. In Belagavi, Haveri, Raichur, Koppal and Yadgir districts, cattle and buffalo meat account for more than 30% of meat produced. Belagavi and Vijayapura send at least 20-25 tonnes of beef to Goa each day, where the meat is in high demand.

Other than the cost of housing non-milch cattle, the new law will also upend the livelihoods of farmers and traders who are engaged in the meat business.

In 2019-20, before the bill was passed, the Department of Animal Husbandry was allocated Rs 1,362 crore.

Capital concerns

Bengaluru is the biggest market for beef in the state. The state capital accounted for nearly 40% of beef produced in the state in 2019-20. 

The city has just one official slaughterhouse for large animals, located in Frazer Town, where bulls, bullocks and buffaloes are brought for slaughter.

Members of Beef Merchants’ Association of Karnataka, that runs the slaughterhouse via a tender, are a worried lot.

Khasim Shoaib Rehman Qureshi, a community member, says that the Bill is a big blow to the beef trade in the city.

He says that in Bengaluru, and South Karnataka, the meat of bulls and bullocks is in great demand, as few people consume buffalo meat.

Data from the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike corroborates this. In 2018-19 and 2019-20, the buffaloes amounted to just 2-3% of total large animals slaughtered.

Qureshi feels that the new law will leave many families involved in selling beef on the streets.

"If the government implements the ban on cow slaughter it will spell doom for the families engaged in the beef trade. Before implementing the ban the government should provide us with an alternative source of livelihood,” said a beef trader from Dharwad.

Promoting gaushalas

The organisations running the cow shelters have largely welcomed the move. "We are prepared to accommodate more cows in our gaushalas if the government extends financial help as is being done by the Yogi Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh,” said Beerulal Jain, owner of the Shantinath gaushala in Hubballi.

Going by the department's data, cow shelters in the state will have to be prepared to house anywhere between 1.8 to two lakh cattle and baby bulls per year, a situation for which the government does not seem to be prepared for now.

Monitoring cow shelters on a continuous basis is another problem. For those shelters under its ambit, the Department makes sure there are adequate land and facilities provided, before registering them and providing grants. Registering and monitoring extra private gaushalas and running new gaushalas will involve extra expense.

The gaushalas not registered with the government are often beyond the scope of oversight. Ramesh, a farmer from Haveri district, explains the plight of one such gaushala in his district, where cows and calves are housed without proper food and shelter.

Rajender Kumar Kataria, Secretary to Government, Animal Husbandry Department, told DH that all practical problems will be taken care of while working out financial implications.

He added that the loss of meat production will be substituted by subsidising sheep rearing. Official sources peg this expenditure at more than Rs 500 crore per annum. The Department is said to require an additional Rs 2,000 crore in order to implement the bill.

An official preferring anonymity echoed the official stance, by stating that the cow is a "sentiment", one which cannot be quantified in monetary terms.

Protecting vigilantes

Bengaluru-based advocate Mohammed Tahir points out legal loopholes in the proposed law that can be misused. He says the option to constitute a special court to hear cases registered under the law equates an individual's food habit with grave offences like rape and terrorism.

The text of the Bill defines beef under the broad rubric of cattle, which includes cows, bulls, bullocks and buffaloes under the age of 13. "What do you call meat of buffaloes over 13 years? How can they determine the age of beef?" Qureshi asks.

The new Bill also has stringent provisions against the transport of cattle inside the state. This has led to apprehension about vigilante action.

"What if someone catches us when we are taking buffaloes for age certification? By the time police arrive, everything will be over,” says a beef merchant, adding that a lot of people in the profession are now worried for their lives.

Misguided priorities

The truth is that the provision banninSg the slaughter of cows and under-aged bulls has been in force in India since the 1950s. Despite the practical challenges it posed, successive governments have done little to align the law with the ground realities.

Take the case of Dharwad, where data from Karnataka’s Department of Animal Husbandry shows that no young cattle are slaughtered. A reality check by DH found an unabated slaughtering of under-aged cattle here.

Pleading anonymity, a beef seller said there is a demand only for tender flesh. “We inevitably slaughter under-aged cows because there are no takers for the meat of old cows, which is harder," he said.

There are also cases of cattle-lifting in many villages, which shows the conflict between the demand for beef and its supply. Milch cows are attractive to beef traders because they are well-fed compared to other cattle.

A FICCI report in 2013 pointed out that India has never had the habit of rearing buffaloes for meat and proposes such a step to meet the demand for beef in the country and for export.

In Karnataka, the implausibly stringent provisions under the new bill without accounting for the problems of farmers and traders have opened up Pandora's box. Will the government realise the issues and correct the course before it's too late?

(With inputs from Shrinidhi R in Dharwad, Sooryanarayan V in Chamarajnagar)