On June 7, the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying announced a proposed change to the colonial Livestock Importation Act, 1898, to include the “export” of live bovines, sheep, goats and pigs. The draft Live-stock and Live-stock Products (Importation and Exportation) Bill, 2023, would now include horses, donkeys, cats and dogs.

The proposal triggered an immediate outcry. In response, the bill has now been withdrawn, which might seem to show a commendable – even, unusual – willingness to listen to wider social views.

But this does not quite close the matter. The fact that it was proposed at all inadvertently draws attention to the growing importance of India’s export of live animals for slaughter. A cursory search through trade data across the internet shows that a multi-million dollar export of live animals from sheep, goats and bovines (buffaloes and cattle) to geese, chickens and turkeys takes place annually through various export-import policies from India.

World Bank data ranks India as the second largest exporter of live goats, mainly to the Middle East. Indian ports proudly report export of live farm animals alongside mining products as evidence of their success, seeing no difference between inanimate resources of trade and sentient animals.

Reports by Brooke India and Donkey Sanctuary confirm widespread illegal trade in donkey meat, skin and live donkeys from Andhra Pradesh to China at an alarming rate. India remains the second largest exporter of bovine meat, with a $2-billion export trade with Vietnam alone.

The bill, which for now stands withdrawn, is no mere accident, but an attempt to consolidate and strengthen an existing trade regime in live animals and products derived from them.

As a country rich in biodiversity and culture, India is in a unique position to set the stage for ethical, sustainable practices. The live export of animals from India is an abhorrent practice that must be vehemently opposed on multiple fronts.

Not only does it perpetuate unimaginable cruelty against sentient beings, but it also exacts a heavy toll on the environment and poses significant risks to public health. It is time to confront the inherent moral, ecological, and health implications of this trade and take decisive action to end it.

Central to the concerns raised by this proposed legislation are animal welfare issues. The live export industry has a disturbing track record of creating conditions for the extreme suffering of animals. Animals have to endure long and painful journeys, packed tightly into cramped, unsanitary conditions. The overcrowding, inadequate ventilation and lack of access to food, water, and rest lead to immense stress, injuries, and compromised welfare.

A protest against the export of living pigs from Ireland to China, in Dublin in October 2021. Credit: Reuters.

Live animal export has major environmental implications. It requires substantial energy resources, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and the realities of dealing with animal wastes mean pollution and waste issues at both the departure and destination points.

The live export trade also poses significant risks to public health. The close proximity and confinement of animals during transportation create ideal conditions for the rapid spread of infectious diseases. As the pandemic years have shown, the potential transmission of zoonotic diseases from animals to humans is a real and pressing threat.

Past instances globally have shown that live exports contribute to the spread of diseases such as avian influenza and foot-and-mouth disease, putting not just the livestock but human lives at risk as well. These diseases can jump borders and seas, potentially leading to global outbreaks.

It is important to acknowledge that much of the public outrage against the current bill has emerged from inclusion of dogs and cats, seen as household pets, in the definition of livestock. Some, more worryingly, have described it as a panacea to India’s stray animal problem – don’t kill them at home, but “export” the problem (and the sin associated with its slaughter) and profit from it.

While the angst over potential feline and canine suffering is wholly understandable and justified, it prompts a larger ethical inquiry. Are we prepared to delineate which animals are deserving of protection and which are not?

The distress faced by cows, pigs or goats during live exportation is no less poignant or severe than the afflictions suffered by dogs or cats. It’s high time that Indians abandon the unjust practice of appraising the worth of one species against another, and instead confront the core issue at hand – the very concept of live export itself.

No creature, irrespective of its species, should ever endure the terrifying ordeal of being transported overseas like an inanimate object. All animals, from beloved companion animals in homes, to farm animals traditionally seen as commodities, share the same capacity for fear, pain, and stress.

Insisting on their equal consideration challenges the conventional perception of animals as merely resources for human use. This acknowledgment of their intrinsic worth provides the foundation for a more compassionate and ethical stance towards all living beings.

A villager drives home his cattle after grazing them on the outskirts of Bengaluru in September 2021. Credit: AFP.

The objection should not just be against the possible inclusion of cats and dogs in the live export trade, but rather, against the very idea of live export as an industry. It is a harsh reminder that decisions and policies should not be dictated by species but by respect for life in all its forms. The resistance against this draft bill then becomes more than just an act of opposition. It becomes a call to redefine our relationship with animals, our stewardship of the planet, and indeed, the very essence of our humanity.

The withdrawal of this bill has not altered existing policy. India continues to be a major player in the export of live animals and livestock products. This is happening even as consumption of red meat at home is being weaponised at unprecedented levels, against the marginalised and the poor, especially Muslims and Dalits.

To truly create an ethical political ecosystem for protection of animals, the weaponisation and commodification of animals needs to stop. What is needed are pro-people, pro-farmer, policies permitting a safe democratic space for discussions around animal rights to take place in a civilised manner.

The government should actively promote and support alternative industries that do not rely on live animal export. The animal rights movement can only effect change on the ground through dialogue and not a gun to people’s head. By emphasising plant-based food production, sustainable farming practices, and cruelty-free materials, India can lead the way in building a compassionate and ecologically conscious society.

The fear remains that the bill is likely to be reintroduced with more time for dialogue without canines and felines in the definition of livestock. There is sincere hope that a similar, robust nation-wide opposition will oppose it and stand up for farm animals and equines as they do for beloved cats and dogs.

Varda Mehrotra is an animal and climate activist and founder of Samayu.

Alok Hisarwala runs the Centre for Research on Animal Rights.