Barely three months after the Bharatiya Janata Party was reelected in Assam, the state government moved the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill 2021 to protect cows, a sacred animal for most Hindus.

On July 12, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma introduced the Bill to replace the Assam Cattle Preservation Act 1950, claiming that the older legislation does not have sufficient safeguards to regulate the slaughter, consumption and transportation of cattle. The Bill was passed on August 13, the last day of the Budget session.

The new legislation prohibits the sale and purchase of beef in areas inhabited by non-beef eating communities and within a 5-km radius of a temple or a satra (as Vaishnavite monasteries are called). The legislation further specifies a ban on interstate transport of cattle to and from Assam, without valid documents, ostensibly to stem smuggling of cattle to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The newly passed legislation has also banned the slaughter of cows of any age, as opposed to the age of 14 years specified in the earlier law.

Declining livestock sector

Many fear that the passage of the legislation will make cattle trading virtually impossible because law-enforcement agencies are likely to interpret it arbitrarily and that ambiguities in the clauses will encourage vigilantism.

With the passage of new legislation, Assam became the latest entrant to the growing list of states to amend or introduce laws to protect cows since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014.

Assam is the latest entrant to the growing list of states to amend or introduce laws to protect cows since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. Photo credit: Anivesh.agrawal, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Between 2001-2013-’14, the livestock sector was a major driver in the growth of farmers’ income, registering an annual growth of 4.5% over the period. However, the fortunes of the sector have taken a nosedive since the mid-2010s. IndiaSpend detailed the adverse effects of such laws on the livestock economy.

The growth of beef and leather exports has come to a halt since 2014. The growth in beef exports fell from 35.93% in 2013-’14 to 3.06% in 2017-’18. India is responsible for 13% of the world’s leather production, but the growth in the export of leather and leather products declined from 18% in 2013-’14 to 1.4% in 2017-’18.

As more than 70% of the state’s population is still dependent on the agriculture sector for livelihood, compared to less than 50% for all of India, the new law could have a particularly adverse effect on Assam’s rural economy.

The latest round of National Sample Survey data shows that the state has experienced negative growth in overall farmer income (-0.34%). The livestock sector is one of the few bright spots in the state that has registered a growth rate of 9.47% in income. The sector’s contribution to the rural income is 12%, next to agriculture (63%) and wage/salary (21%).

‘Demonetisation of assets’

The new legislation is set to change the role that the livestock sector plays in Assam’s beleaguered rural economy. In the state, more than 97% of livestock is in the unorganised sector. Most farmers in the state report that though the cattle they own are of indigenous breeds that have low milk yields, they rely on the additional income they obtain from selling the cattle after they become fallow and stop producing milk, typically after 10 years-12 years of a cow’s life.

As per the 19th round of Livestock Census conducted in 2012, the state has a cattle population of 1,03,07,700, of which only 3.84% is exotic or crossbreed. The figure at the national level is 20.81%. However, indigenous cattle still account for 54.41% of total milk production in the state.

A recent study by Go Anusandhan Sanstha, a cow research institute in Mathura, reported that a milch cow yields an economic return of Rs 85 per day. Unproductive cattle, on the other hand, yield a loss of Rs 60 per day.

Unable to dispose of such cattle after the expiry of their productive period, farmers are left with no option but to abandon the cattle. Such disruption, in the words of environmentalist Sunita Narain, amounts to “demonetisation of farm assets as farmers cannot sell the livestock to traders, causing severe loss to his income from such endowment”.

The economic burden of fallout from such laws will fall disproportionately on smallholders, many of whom belong to disadvantaged communities. In the state, small and marginal farmers together account for 93.62% of households reporting major sources of income from self-employment in the livestock sector. Many of them belong to disadvantaged communities such as the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. In Assam, these communities account for 22.73% of households compared with 4.42% at the national level.

In India, the growth of beef and leather exports has come to a halt since 2014. Photo credit: PTI Photo

Shift towards buffaloes

The evidence from the latest livestock census shows that the new legislation in Assam is also unlikely to achieve its much-avowed goal of protecting sacred cows as the states with more stringent laws against cow trading and slaughter have witnessed a sharp decline in their cattle populations.

Stuck with cattle that cannot be disposed of, farmers are increasingly moving towards buffaloes, which is, as in other states, kept outside the ambit of The Assam Cattle Preservation Bill 2021. However, such a shift towards more expensive livestock such as buffaloes and hybrid breeds would more likely get concentrated among relatively better endowed rural households, leading to increased rural inequality.

The shock to the livestock sector in the state has come at a most inopportune time. A recent World Bank Document titled “Assam: Poverty, Growth and Inequality” prepared for the state notes that rural poverty is stubbornly high in the state at 34%, which changed little from 36% in the previous decade.

The state has also recently secured the ignominy of one of the worst-performing states along with Bihar and Jharkhand in the third edition of Niti Aayog’s Sustainable Development Goals that was unveiled in June.

Most rural areas in the state under duress have increasingly witnessed resource-poor rural households undertaking seasonal migration from rural to urban centres, many even outside the state to support their fragile livelihoods.

If shock from the Covid-induced lockdown is not enough, the new legislation on cow protection could deal a final nail in the coffin of the already-battered rural economy in the state.

Rajib Sutradhar teaches Economics at the Christ Deemed to be University, Bangalore. His email id is