Though prime minister Narendra Modi has made the occasional statement condemning self-styled gaurakshaks vigilantes, who have killed people alleged to be killing cows and has called them criminals, he has, so far, not done anything about the main problem. Slaughter of cows is, in any case, prohibited in most states in the country, but the government made things far worse with its Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Market) Rules of 2017. This effectively prohibited the sale of, not just lactating cattle, but even buffaloes, steer, heifers and camels since both the seller and the purchaser had to give an undertaking that the animals sold in various cattle fair wouldn’t be slaughtered. With such a blank cheque, vigilantes had a field day and harassed even dairy farmers looking to get rid of bullocks or cows that were no longer lactating. While this spelt trouble for the leather industry, it also made life difficult for dairy farmers who now had to bear the expenses of looking after animals they no longer needed.
The fact that the share of male buffaloes declined from an already low 19% of the total buffalo population in 2007 to 15% in 2012 at an all-India level—it is 8% in Gujarat —makes it clear that slaughtering is an integral part of the sector’s economics. With over 9 million buffaloes killed for meat in 2012, this means over 8% of the population is killed every year. Even in the case of cattle, the male population has fallen from 42% at an all-India level to 36% in the same period, suggesting culling is taking place. If these 13-15 million cattle and buffaloes are not to be killed, this means dairy farmers need to look after them—at Rs 60 per day, this implies an annual cost of Rs 28,470-32,850 crore, and we’re not even counting the losses suffered by farmers who no longer get adequate compensation for the animals from the meat/leather trade.
Not surprising then, that, according to a report in The Indian Express (IE), there has been a dramatic fall in the number of cattle being brought to cattle fairs in Rajasthan and those being sold. At one point, some in the government even talked of Aadhaar-type tags on animals with details about them on the tags—while that may have been a good idea under normal circumstances, this would have meant that farmers who abandoned their aged or useless cattle to escape the burden of looking after them would be identifiable and then either be legally prosecuted or harassed by various vigilantes/animal-right groups. While sections of the government were quick to condemn those who abandoned their animals—“after a lifetime of service”—the government never offered any compensation to the dairy farmers, nor did it have a solution for how they were going to improve their herds without culling; nor did it have any plans to increase capacity in existing gaushalas to take care of 13-15 million extra animals every year.
The good news, according to the IE, is that the law is now being changed to what it should have been in the first place—so, no unfit animal or one that is about to give birth is to brought to a cattle market. It is, however, too early to celebrate and it is best to wait for the rules to be changed. After all, it was in November last year that the IE first reported the government’s likely change of heart.