Ever since the central government prohibited, last week, the sale of bulls/cows/bullocks/buffaloes in animal markets if they were going to be slaughtered by the buyer, many have criticised it and said the move will hit both the meat as well as dairy industry. Dairy farmers, after all, need to cull their herd to keep them healthy—9 million buffaloes, or 8% of the population, were killed in 2012. Add the cattle slaughtered and, as this newspaper has pointed out, feeding 13-15 million cattle/buffaloes will cost farmers around Rs 30,000 crore a year, apart from depriving them of the money got from the meat.
While various groups, including state governments, will approach the country’s courts citing fundamental rights, keep in mind the Supreme Court has weighed in favour of partial and complete bans in the past. In a 1958 judgment involving Hanif Qureshi and the state of Bihar, it ruled in favour of a ban on the slaughter of cows and their calves until they stopped producing milk; and in the case of a bull or a bullock, it ruled against killing till they were useful for draught purposes. In 2005, in the case of Gujarat versus Mirzapur Moti Kureshi Kassab, a seven judge bench ruled 6:1 in favour of a more complete ban while relying heavily on Article 48 that talked of the government endeavouring to prohibit ‘the slaughter, of cows and calves and other such milch and draught cattle’.
The majority judgment cited various reports and judgments to argue that, while it was true Article 48 was a directive principle, these were put in the Constitution so that the government would strive to achieve them. It then cited studies to show the useful life of cattle/buffalo was almost indefinite. One set of data was cited as saying the dung/urine provided an income of Rs 20,000 a year; another said the dung was more valuable than even the Kohinoor since each old bullock could provide enough manure for four acres of land.
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Since it concludes that “cow and her progeny constitute the backbone of Indian agriculture and economy …increasing adoption of non-conventional energy sources like bio-gas plants justify the need for bulls and bullocks to live their full life”, it had no hesitation in ruling “there is no apparent inconsistency between the Directive Principles which persuaded the State to pass the law and the Fundamental Rights canvassed before the High Court by the writ petitioners”.
Given this, the question is whether SC would rule differently if the facts were different? So, if beef was not just 1.3% of all meat groups as SC said in Mirzapur but 25% as all-India data show today, would it matter? If farmers do not use bullocks for draught purposes or don’t use natural fertilisers, would that matter? While that is not clear, nor is it clear that if the issue of fundamental rights—the right to eat beef and the right to practise a trade—can be easily reversed since a seven-judge bench has already ruled on it.