His surma-lined eyes held some vestiges of hope, but B Shahid Qureshi probably knew he may not ever return to his old job.
For decades, his hands had worked meat at the slaughterhouse in east Bengaluru’s Tannery Road. His palms toughened and coarsened from the skilled but laborious job of a butcher. He had followed the family profession – passed from father to son – since his teens.
The beef trade was the only livelihood he and others in the Qureshi community – a subgroup among Muslims – in Shivajinagar knew. Now, at 55, he is mostly unemployed – except when he finds work at a meat stall – since a new law banning the slaughter of cattle in Karnataka was enforced in early 2021. “I do not know how we will manage,” said Shahid, a father of six, three of whom are finding it hard, or have discontinued, their studies.
His cousin, 52-year-old Badar Qureshi, also a butcher, shared the same plight. “Things are not great at home,” he said. “I am not working at all. We make do with my son’s income – he works in a meat stall.” His family of six, including his wife, son, two daughters, and an elder sister, just about manage on the son’s earnings.
The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2020 passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Karnataka in February 2021, compounded by the pandemic, has decimated the business of those in the beef trade. Cow slaughter was banned even before this new law, but the new law also bans the slaughter of bulls, bullocks, oxen and calves.
Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have also completely banned the slaughter of cows in line with Article 48 of the Constitution. All states and union territories, except Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Lakshadweep have laws on cow slaughter. Laws banning cow slaughter in nearly half of the states are roughly 50 years old, and were enacted during the tenure of the Indian National Congress, IndiaSpend reported in April 2017.
“We will also ensure that in states where cow slaughter is still legal, (it will be) shut down,” Vallabh Kathiria, chairperson of the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (National Cow Commission), had told IndiaSpend in 2019.
The BJP-led government had introduced two Bills in 2010 and 2012 (amending a 1964 Act). The bills were withdrawn in 2014 after the change of government in the state. The law currently in effect was passed in 2021. Unlike Karnataka’s 1964 Act, which allowed the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and buffaloes, the new law bans the slaughter of “cow, calf of a cow and bull, bullock of all ages [completely], and buffaloes below the age of thirteen years”.
While the Act envisions the preservation and improvement of indigenous breeds of cattle, the provisions of the 2020 Act will not only “irreversibly destroy the meat industry in the state but also accelerate the decline in the population of indigenous cattle”, said a November 2021 report by researchers Sylvia Karpagam and Siddharth K Joshi.
With the new law increasing punishment and penalties for violating the law, expanding the definition of beef, imposing restrictions on inter- and intra-state transportation and widening the search and seizure authority of the police and other officials, livelihoods have been impacted and communities in the cattle meat business are being criminalised, stakeholders in Bengaluru told IndiaSpend.
For close to a year after the new law was passed, Shahid earned around Rs 300 to Rs 400 daily when he found work in a meat stall in Shivajinagar. This was less than half his daily earnings at the slaughterhouse. With inadequate earnings, he is struggling to pay a monthly rent of Rs 2,000. “There was no ban on bull and bullock slaughter before, and we would slaughter around two animals a day, sometimes more, based on demand.”
While some states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala restrict the age when cattle and buffalo can be slaughtered, most states have no restrictions on the slaughter of buffaloes, said Sagari R Ramdas, a veterinary scientist, adding that it is completely “bizarre” for Karnataka to increase the age of slaughter of buffaloes to 13 years, when a buffalo is way past its productive life. “The states with the most stringent laws on cattle slaughter have nothing to say about buffaloes at all. In fact, buffaloes can be freely slaughtered in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana.”
There is no demand for buffalo meat, called carabeef, in Karnataka, and in Bengaluru in particular, said Khasim Shoaib-ur-Rahaman Qureshi, president of the All India Jamiatul Quresh, Karnataka, a Qureshi community organisation. “In one night, our community has been impacted and daily wage earners are struggling,” he said.
In 2021, India was forecasted to have produced 24.1 lakh tonnes of bovine meat, the second-highest in Asia after China. In India, in 2019-’20, cattle meat constituted 3.6% of all meat production, while buffalo meat contributed 18.4%. In Karnataka, cattle meat constituted 6.8%, while buffalo meat was 2%, of the total meat production.
Of southern states, Karnataka has the highest number of milk and young cattle relative to the population, between 18 months and 24 months. For every 100 households, there are 28.8 “in-milk” and 29.9 young stock cattle, show government data. Since at least 1986-’87 cow milk has contributed to more than half of the state’s milk production and has grown, with the highest in 2019-’20, at 76%, indicating the significance of cow and other cattle in the agrarian economy.
The higher demand for cattle meat compared to buffalo meat is true for most states in the Deccan, including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, as food preferences were linked to livestock rearing, said Ramdas. “Indigenous cattle breeds thrived on these perennial grasslands of the Deccan that grew in dry, semi arid terrain and ecologies, while buffalo breeds thrived only near perennial water bodies.”
IndiaSpend has asked officials at the department of animal husbandry and fisheries in Karnataka for comments on the decision to limit the slaughter of buffaloes to those above 13 years, and about compensation and support for livelihood loss. We will include their response when we receive it.
Cattle beef is much more tender than buffalo beef. “So telling people ‘you can make do with buffalo beef’ just because of Brahminic ideology and non-science is definitely an imposition,” said Ramadas.
Most areas in Bengaluru have reported a drop in sales in meat and even closure of shops. In the Shivajinagar area, the sale of beef, which used to be around 5,000 kg daily, has come down to 2,000 kg according to the local merchants association, said Siddharth Joshi, an independent researcher and one of the authors of the November 2021 report. “The beef merchants are the group most affected since their occupation has been criminalised overnight,” he said.
Besides being an imposition on the eating habits of various communities, the ban has limited employment and livelihood opportunities of not only marginalised groups like the Qureshis, but also Dalits, who are involved in the cleaning and curing of cattle hide and skin. The leather industry employs 25 lakh people nationwide, most of them Muslim or Dalit. In 2018-’19, the estimated value of cattle and buffalo skin produced in Karnataka was pegged at around Rs 8.3 crore and Rs 4.8 crore respectively.
Shahid and Badar Qureshi, both of whom are uneducated, migrated to neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in July 2021 to earn a livelihood.
But they were unable to cope, they said. They were relegated to cleaning work at the slaughterhouses, a job they said was done by workers under them at the slaughterhouse in Bengaluru. It was a job for “labourers and not skilled butchers, and we did not feel valued”, said Shahid. Slaughtering an animal was work for four people, including cleaning, and, in Bengaluru, the two would manage the others and split the money they got for the work, the cousins said.
“There was no one to check on my health when I fell sick,” said Badar Qureshi, who returned after less than a month in Andhra Pradesh’s Hindupur, 130 km from Bengaluru. “I was promised around Rs 400 [per day], but payments were not made properly. Although they provided food, I could not sleep properly because there were six people in a tiny room.”
In Bengaluru, they could also take some meat of the slaughtered animal home. Now, this source of free meat is gone. About 18 crore, or nearly 15% of the population, including Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Other Backward Classes and Adivasis, consume beef which forms one of the cheapest nutrient-dense foods.
The impact of the ban has not just been felt by uneducated workers like Shahid and Badar, who do not have the option of shifting to other professions. M Abdulla, 24, the eldest of four siblings, and from the Qureshi community, had to drop out of college to help his father Imran Uddin run their meat stall in Frazer Town. Both his teenage brothers had to delay their school education by a year due to the financial constraints brought on by the new law and the pandemic.
The family lost more than 60% of their income, and currently earn Rs 1,000 a day for a six-member household. They make no sale when customers who prefer beef reject the option of buffalo meat.
While Abdulla is now used to the monotony and rigour of cutting buffalo meat, when he had an option, he did not want to get into this business. “You know, I started a small business selling biriyani before the lockdown, but it did not work.”
“I have totally blocked my aspirations. My friends are doing other things, and I feel desperate sometimes,” said Abdulla, who begins work at 8 am and closes the shop more than 12 hours later. “I have to keep this going because my family survives on this.”
Some of those who are relatively better off financially are trying to meet the market demand by shifting online. Suhaib-ur-Rahaman Qureshi, a 30-year-old college graduate who is the son of the Karnataka head of All India Jamiatul Quresh, Khasim Qureshi, sells meat online. “Our community prefers earning ‘instant money’, which is how we have earned our living for years,” he said, citing one of the reasons he chose not to take up a corporate job.
Despite the cattle slaughter ban being a religious issue, “a lot of our customers are Hindu”, said Suhaib. “We have completely moved to selling buffalo meat online…The law is shrinking our market, and this is our professional right.”
Economic cycle impacted
The government focus on intensifying dairying has resulted in farmers adopting crossbred cows as the primary breed to produce milk. The expansion of the crossbred milking herd has been particularly rapid in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as well as in Gujarat and West Bengal, according to a March 2017 United States Department of Agriculture report.
Cumulative growth of crossbred cattle over a seven-year period to 2014-’15 was 71.2% in those that were giving milk and 62.6% in milch animals, according to a Karnataka government evaluation report. But the male crossbred animal is a very poor work animal, and farmers prefer to sell their male calves as early as possible to reduce the economic burden of maintaining the animal, said Ramdas, the veterinary scientist. “With the new slaughter ban, the farmers are facing huge difficulties in disposing off these male crossbred calves.”
The ban impacts the economic cycle of demand in urban and peri urban areas where slaughterhouses, tanneries, hotels, beef stalls are located, leading to unemployment in urban areas and loss of income in rural agricultural households.
The cattle slaughter ban was promulgated as an ordinance by the Governor of Karnataka in January 2021 before it was passed as a law by the state legislature. The 1964 law had imposed a fine of upto Rs 1,000 and a six-month imprisonment, while the new law has extended imprisonment for a minimum of three years and a maximum of seven years, with a fine of between Rs 50,000 and Rs 5 lakh.
The beef merchants IndiaSpend spoke to were concerned about how right-wing vigilantism has taken advantage of the law. “We are being looted when vigilantes take away cattle which we purchase,” said Khasim. “They should purchase the animals from the farmers, like we do, instead of looting us.”
While both the legislations, of 1964 and 2020, violate Article 19 (1) (g) and Article 21 of the Constitution, said Basawa Prasad Kunale, an advocate in the Karnataka High Court, the 2020 law empowers executive officers, such as police officers and tahsildar-level officers, to harass and intimidate traders and butchers by giving the officials additional powers to search, seize and dispose of the seized materials.
“The way the bill has been drafted, one gets the sense that the government is less interested in securing a conviction than turning ‘cow protection’ into an excuse for state-sanctioned violence,” said a December 2020 Economic and Political Weekly analysis by Alok Prasanna Kumar, a senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, before the law was passed. No other law gives the executive such wide, uncontrolled authority to seize and dispose of citizens’ property, Kumar argued.
The police officer or competent authority does not require any authorisation for the search and seizure, which “will lead to arbitrary exercise of powers in the absence of clear guidelines”, said Kunale.
Eight petitions, including those by farmers’ organisations, individual butchers, Dalit organisations and individuals have challenged the law. The petitions seek to hold the 2020 law unconstitutional and in violation of Article 14, 19 (1) (g) and 21 of the Constitution and hold that the Governor had no power to promulgate an ordinance.
IndiaSpend has asked for comments on the government’s position on the petitions that have been filed against the law. We will add their response when we receive it.
But, even as the litigation proceeds, Abdulla is worried about how long they will be able to continue the business, and whether government support will be available. “If the government asks us to shut down, we have no choice,” he said. “We have no other options.”
There are allegations that “we slaughter gau mata. We do not do that”, said Shahid.
All we want is our livelihood back. Otherwise, we will be on the road soon without a home, said Badar.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.