The cow is sacred to Hindus.
In recent months though, the reverence has turned deadly, threatening to destroy the country’s social fabric. The animal has been at the centre of many controversies that have rocked India, including those that had people getting murdered.
In September 2015, a man was lynched in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, after a mob of Hindus accused him of having consumed beef. Forensic reports later proved that it was mutton, not beef.
Last week, two Muslim cowherds—including a 15-year-old boy—were tortured and murdered in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand while they were taking livestock to a weekly cattle fair. Of the five suspects arrested, one is part of a cow protection group, the Indian Express newspaper reported.
While cow vigilantes have menaced parts of India for years, they have been emboldened under the current regime of Narendra Modi. The Indian prime minister has himself claimed in the past that cow slaughter “saddens” him. During the campaign for the 2014 Indian general elections, he had repeatedly appealed to extremist sentiments by accusing the then Congress-led government of having nurtured a “pink revolution”—euphemism for India’s high meat exports.
Despite the government clamping down on cow slaughter, cattle still remains an important part of the Indian economy. For one, India is the biggest exporter of beef, and the production is only inching up. Cow trade has now even gone online. India is the world’s fifth biggest beef consumer.
These six charts show the economic importance of cattle in India:
Although India’s cow population has increased according to the latest livestock census, the number of bulls—male cattle—has dropped. This indicates that perhaps more bulls are being slaughtered compared to cows. The number of bulls dropped 19% in 2012, compared to 2007.
Overall, the cattle population fell 4.1% in the five years since 2007.
India is the fourth largest producer of beef, only behind Brazil, the European Union and China. Beef forms the second biggest chunk of meat production in Asia’s third largest economy. Most of it comes from buffaloes and the rest from other cattle, according to data from the department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries.
Until 2013, Brazil was the world’s largest beef exporter. Now, India is at the top, and exports are only inching up. Most of the beef India exports is that of the water buffalo, which is cheaper than cow meat. The exports give India more foreign revenue than even the aromatic basmati rice, CNN Money reported in August 2015.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are some of the top importers of Indian beef.
India is the world’s fifth largest beef-eater, and consumption has been rising steadily over the past few years. Muslims form the bulk of beef consumers. According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), one out of 13 Indians currently eat beef or buffalo meat. Among the Indian states with the highest beef consumption, the northeastern state of Meghalaya and coastal union territory of Lakshwadeep top the list.
Around 40% of Indian Muslims currently consume beef, while among Hindus, it is a little less than 2%. Over 26% of Indian Christians eat the meat.
Cows go online
Over the past few years, since India’s e-commerce boom began, a number of farmers have also taken to popular online market places such as OLX and Quikr to sell their cows and buffaloes. A substantial number of them came from India’s tier II and tier III towns. Last year, even goats were sold online during the Muslim festival of Bakra Eid.
Here are the number of search results that online marketplaces showed for the sale of cows and buffaloes:
This article was originally published on Quartz.