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Beef on my plate

Beef on my plate
My tryst with beef was much like a first kiss -- furtive, momentary, and over before you know it. As a first-year college student, I bit into a classmate's beef keema sandwich with trepidation. "Don't worry it tastes just like regular mutton keema, only better," assured my friend. The meatiness of the meat immediately struck me. The taste and texture were different from the goat meat that I ate aplenty. Meat dishes were a daily accompaniment in our household, and any meal without it wasn't palatable to my young taste buds. But beef was never cooked at home. Over the years, my culinary tastes have broadened to include a variety of foods, including vegetables and non-meat options, but my love affair with meat, especially red meat, continues till date; it's the longest and most loyal affair I've had.

The first experience with beef was just a flirtation. The love took years to develop. After the first experience, I met my lost love on the streets of Chennai three years later. The country was engulfed by the bird flu epidemic. Large-scale culling and looming fears had made the supply of healthy chicken undependable. As a journalism student in the southern city, I was on a shoestring daily budget. It was also necessary that my meat urges were met. A street vendor on Ellis road would push his cart laden with a tiny mound of succulent beef fry past me every evening. A plate of the meat along with an 'appam' cost a meagre Rs 10! Beef biryani coming out of a cast iron pot were a few rupees more. This was perfect.

South India gave enough leeway to beef. Fries, curries, steaks, kebabs -- you name it and I ate it. Back home in Kolkata, Mocambo and Oly Pub, kept the embers burning and even strict Delhi with its buff was appetising enough. The current government's propensity to enact various sleeping laws isn't heartening news for me. But keeping the little matter of my dietary needs aside; the ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter has hit the meat industry as a whole.

States such as Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, and certain northeast states have moderate or no laws banning the meat. But the crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh and the recent ban on cattle sale for slaughter, have delivered a nasty blow to meat supply. The country's only electrical abattoir in Kolkata has suspended operations following poor supply.

The dwindling supply has increased the cost of chicken and mutton by almost 20 per cent. Beef or buffalo as a source of cheap protein for the economically underprivileged has also been affected. The ban on the trade of cattle for slaughter will impact the USD 4 billion beef exports and lead to loss of livelihood for millions, suggest reports. India exported 1.3 million tonnes of buffalo meat in the last fiscal, and around 35 lakh people are directly or indirectly employed by the meat and leather industries. No business chamber that quickly puts out its view on government policies has spoken up. No figures to assess the economic loss to meat and leather traders as well as to the exchequer have been made public either. The loss, when calculated, could be colossal over time. Yet another blow for the trading community already debilitated post-demonetisation. More monies will be spent by the government for the upkeep of old cattle, not to mention that sorry state of the cattle themselves.

The social fallout of this ban is serious as well. 14.2 per cent Muslims and 2 per cent of Hindus' (including SC/STs and OBCs) consume beef. According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, around 80 million Indians eat beef; of which 12.5 million are Hindus. The message is clear - the Centre is telling a minority of beef eaters that they have no freedom of food. The rest of the country is being taught that it is okay to impinge on the rights of the others as long as it's the majoritarian way.

We are far removed from transitioning into a developed nation from a developing one. Let us discuss and argue the environmental risks from meat. Let's talk about the health implications of consuming red meats. But let us not tell our fellow citizens what we should or should not be eating. Religion can't be the basis of dictating to citizens of a democracy what should be on their plate. As a nation, we should step on the road to development equipped by our unique diversity and freedoms, not battered into submission just because the government can. The government cannot.


Shutapa Paul

Shutapa Paul

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