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Livelihoods at stake

Jitendra and Ishan Kukreti report on the economic implications of the Uttar Pradesh government’s recent crackdown on slaughterhouses.

Livelihoods at stake
Livestock rearing forms an integral part of the village economy, with both large and marginal farmers keeping animals to supplement their income and secure them against crop losses and other contingencies. According to the National Sample Survey Office report on agricultural households released in 2014, 12 per cent of the farmers' average monthly income of Rs 6,421 comes from livestock.

With no takers for his buffalo, the farmer whose wife killed herself may now have to let the animal go astray. "Feeding a cow or buffalo is an expensive affair. It requires at least five kg of dry straw worth Rs 50 every day," he says. The cost of keeping a buffalo, excluding manual labour and costly feed, comes to around Rs 30,200 a year, which is just half of a farmer's annual income of Rs 77,112.

Fearing that government action will make the sale of animal more difficult in the future, other farmers have begun distress-selling of their livestock, which means selling them off at throwaway prices. A 70-year-old marginal farmer from a village in Banda district walked 7 km to the weekly market only to find it "empty". He had come to sell his cow and calf for as low as Rs 2,500. "It is time to harvest the crop. We require cash to pay for labour and the transport of grains. But there are no buyers," he says.

Once the farmers sell animals, they pass through several hands before they land on our dinner plate. The largest group of those employed in meat sale consists of traders and intermediaries, who buy the animals from farmers and sell them to slaughterhouses.

Though the BJP government in UP insists it is following court orders, local media reports suggest that the ban has affected the licensed slaughter of buffaloes, goats, and chickens too. All is quiet at the weekly "Sunday" market in Banda town which sees a weekly trade of 150-200 buffaloes and some milch animals worth around Rs 20 lakh. Traders sit in groups and discuss news reports of violence against animal traders. "When the new government came to power, business first slowed down and then stopped," says the owner of the market. Another weekly market in Bakarganj in Fatehpur district is also empty on a Friday. More than 800 animals worth around Rs 2 crore is traded at the market every week. "I took a buffalo from a farmer in Himmatnagar village and walked 20 km to the market," says a 32-year-old trader from the district. "But there were no buyers. I gave it back to the farmer and asked him to wait till the situation improves."

The ban has affected some of the poorest and most oppressed communities in the Indian caste hierarchy. For instance, men of the Kaparia community, whose traditional occupation is broom making, are now mostly involved in the animal trade. On March 24, a Kaparia group claimed that the police had seized their buffaloes and extorted Rs 40,000 without returning the animals. Now, other community members from a village in Banda district have decided to stay clear of animal markets. "We do not have money to pay the police. We will be sent to jail," says a Kaparia animal trader.

Shunned by most communities, the job of slaughtering is relegated to those who are at the lowest end of the social hierarchy. A slaughterer from the Muslim Qureshi community in Fatehpur district used to slaughter four to six buffaloes every week for Rs 500 each. But now, he fears the police will nab him. "On March 24, I was robbed by goons of Bajrang Dal while returning from the market. They were shouting and accusing me of cow slaughter," he says. There are 25 Qureshi households in his village. The village head did not allow Down To Earth to enter the village and claimed that all Qureshis had fled their homes. "I don't think the situation will improve soon, so I am asking them to look for another source of livelihood," he says. Yet, he admits that buffalo meat is an important part of the village diet. "It is cheaper than mutton, chicken, and fish. We cannot afford any other meat in our wedding feasts," he says.

Animal slaughter is practised by Hindu communities too. A Khatik slaughterer and meat shop owner says, "My shop was closed down even though I have a licence. There are rumours that I also sell cow and buffalo meat. But I sell only goat meat." The Chikwa community also slaughters sheep and goat for a living. And given India's peculiar caste system, the Chikwas can be either Hindu or Muslim. A Hindu Chikwa slaughterer and seller says, "My licence has not been renewed though I applied for it six months ago." A Muslim Chikwa slaughterer says business has collapsed since the ban. "We used to earn Rs 500 a day by slaughtering goats. Now our earnings have stopped."

Overall, the meat industry provides direct employment to more than 2.5 million people, according to the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association. The number of those indirectly affected by the ban is estimated to be much higher.

Incidents of vandalism and harassment have also affected those involved in the trade of milch animals. For instance, two trucks carrying 26 milch buffaloes were seized by vigilantes and shifted to open cowsheds on the outskirts of Banda town. The caretaker of the buffaloes says, "There is no facility of fodder and water for the animals at the shed. It will affect their milk yield and buffaloes will fetch a small price." The animals would have sold for more than Rs 12 lakh.

The slaughterhouse ban has impacted even tanneries. A man, who works at a tannery in Kanpur, cycles 60 km to and fro from Unnao every day. "There are no jobs in Unnao, and I have a family of six to feed," he says. All 50 households in his village in Unnao depend on Kanpur's tanneries, some of the oldest and largest in the country. The Small Tanneries Association estimates that illegal slaughterhouses provide around 40 per cent of all leather to small and medium enterprises and 10-20 per cent to big leather industries. The leather industry employs nearly half a million people in Kanpur alone.

A reality check

While the government must ensure that the meat industry meets all food safety and environment norms, it must caution against misinformation. BJP's election manifesto for Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections 2017 had stated that livestock numbers had fallen during the previous government because of illegal slaughterhouses. But the 19th Livestock Census of 2012 shows that Uttar Pradesh's cattle population increased by 2.4 per cent and buffalo population by 16 per cent compared to 2007.

Livestock is a major source of livelihood for the state's poor and curbs on animal trade will reduce the income of the rural population. A farmer from Banda says, "When the animals become unproductive, farmers replace them with productive animals. If the atmosphere of fear persists, the whole state will face the problem of stray animals and farmers will shy away from keeping milch animals. This will lead to a decrease in the state's milk production." With the Yogi Adityanath-led government promising to double the income of farmers in the next five years, it is the livestock economy that can provide the much-needed momentum.

(The views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth.)
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