Meat-eaters in Maharashtra have harshly criticised the state government for imposing a ban on beef. But a bigger, more organised opposition is in the wings as beef traders and retailers across the state prepared on Tuesday to rally against the move.

On March 2,  20 years after the state assembly first cleared the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 1995, President Pranab Mukherjee cleared the way for the act to be passed. Once the state government issues a formal notification about the new amendment, the act will impose a blanket ban on the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves, in addition to cows (whose slaughter has been banned since 1976). Even the mere possession of their meat will then be punishable by a fine of Rs 10,000 or five years in prison.

The only kind of cattle spared from the ban is the water buffalo, which many Mumbai residents have been getting on their plates for years. But this was no consolation for beef traders when news about the ban broke out on Tuesday. The ban, they say, will spell disaster for lakhs of beef butchers and farmers across Maharashtra.

‘We prefer bulls’

Buffaloes make up 25% of the beef market in Maharashtra but they cannot easily serve as a replacement for bullock or bull meat, traders say.

“Among our consumers, bullock meat is a lot more popular because it is redder,” said Dildar Qureshi, a beef butcher in the municipal market in Mumbai's Bandra neighbourhood. Buffalo meat, on the other hand, is exported in large quantities and tends to be more expensive in the city’s markets.

At Qureshi’s shop, for instance, bull and bullock meat is sold for Rs 160 a kilo, while the rate of buffalo meat – when sold at all – can go up to Rs 300.

While many beef-serving restaurants in Mumbai claim they typically use buffalo meat, many discerning consumers who buy meat themselves are clear about their preferences.

“My mother can tell the difference between bull and buffalo meat, and we prefer bull,” said Amin Furniturewala, a banking professional who consciously chose to go beef shopping on Tuesday after hearing about the ban.

Loss of livelihood

Intezar Qureshi, the vice president of The Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Welfare Association, is waiting to hear from his colleagues about meetings and plans to counter the state government’s beef ban. “Associations from every city in Maharashtra are now banding together to come up with a good plan of action against this ban – preferably going to court,” said Intezar Qureshi.

Like most butchers across the city, he hails from the Qureshi caste that has been traditionally involved in butchery for several generations. “Now this ban is threatening to take the only work we know away from us,” he said. “Is it human to snatch someone’s rozi roti [livelihood] without a proper notice?”

There are at least 900 licensed beef dealers in Qureshi’s welfare association, and if each employs at least five labourers, thousands of families would lose income, he said. “Besides us, there are tanners selling hide and entire industries that use cow and bull by-products for making medicines and other consumer goods," he said. "What about them?” Traders are concerned because so far, the state government has made no mention of compensation to those who lose their livelihoods.

Another group who will be severely affected are farmers, who will now no longer be able to sell old, ageing cattle to the meat industry. “Farmers in Maharashtra are already killing themselves because of frequent drought conditions – will they be able to support old animals who eat more and drink several litres of water a day?” said Intezar Qureshi.

Illegal trade flourishes

Most beef traders cannot understand the logic behind banning bull and bullock slaughter at a time when cows are protected anyway.

“For generations, many of us have never had the culture of slaughtering cows, because we respect Hindu religious sentiments,” said Irfan Qureshi, co-owner of the Bismillah Beef Shop in south Mumbai’s Null Bazar area. “But why ban bulls and bullocks too? Specially when our Hindu clientele is as big as our Muslim one?”

A beef retailer, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out another irony – Maharashtra’s illegal industry of slaughtering, importing and exporting cow meat has been flourishing for several years through corruption and bribery. “With the ban, legal businesses will face tremendous consequences, but illegal businesses are likely to continue with few hiccups.”