There has been confusion ever since new rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act were notified on Thursday, May 25.

These rules disallow the sale of cattle – cows, buffaloes, bullocks, calves and camels – for slaughter in animal markets .

Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, one of the few states that does not have any restrictions on cow slaughter, called the rules “an effective ban” on cattle slaughter.

Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan, on Friday, May 26, defended the new reules and said they simply aim to “regulate the animal market and the sale of animals in these markets” and “strengthen the movement for prevention of cruelty to animals”.

“That’s it. There’s nothing more to this,” he said.

While Vardhan is technically right in his claims that the rules do not amount to a ban on cattle slaughter, a close reading makes it clear that the law makes it as hard as possible for anyone wishing to send his or her cattle to the abattoir.

Here’s why.

Restrictions on both sellers and buyers

The rules impose restrictions not just on the seller but also the purchaser, leaving it open for interpretation on whether the ban on selling cattle for slaughter applies only to market places or covers sale everywhere.

Section 22 of the new rules states that the seller has to give an undertaking to the market committee that the cattle has not been brought to the market to sell for slaughter.

Once this is obtained and the sale documents are filed, the law now moves to the purchaser of cattle. Here, three important restrictions are imposed:

  1. The purchaser can only be a farmer; 
  2. The purchaser should give an undertaking that he will not sell the cattle for six months from the date of sale; and
  3. The purchaser will not sell the cattle for slaughter.

The third rule is what makes the entire regulation, whose primary aim is to govern cattle trade in livestock markets, ambiguous. While it makes sense to say that the seller should not sell the the cattle for slaughter, when the same restriction is applied to a purchaser, it immediately takes the regulation outside the ambit of the market. The rules plainly say that the purchaser of the cattle shall “not sell the animal for purpose of slaughter”. Here there is no qualifying provision clearly mentioning that the restriction is only inside the market.

Once the cattle is bought and taken possession of from the market, the rules seem to suggest that it cannot be sold again for slaughter for perpetuity. In any case, such a sale is prohibited for six months and authorities have the right to inspect the cattle bought anytime during the six months.

Another aspect pointing to inefficient lawmaking is the fact that the definition clauses in the rules do not define seller and purchaser. Given that these two are the main subjects of the law along with the cattle, leaving them undefined leaves the door open for disputes. Had the law defined the purchaser within the precincts of the market, this confusion wouldn’t arise. It is pertinent to note that the parent Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act also does not define these terms for these rules to borrow the definition. The main law only defines an owner.

Wide definition

The definition of animal market in the rules is extremely wide.

(b) “animal market” means a market place or sale-yard or any other premises or place to which animals are brought from other places and exposed for sale or auction and includes any lairage adjoining a market or a slaughterhouse and used in connection with it and any place adjoining a market used as a parking area by visitors to the market for parking vehicles and includes animal fair and cattle pound where animals are offered or displayed for sale or auction;

It covers not just animal markets and fairs but also lairages which are resting space for animals before they are taken for slaughter. Large meat processing units source animals directly from farmers and keep them in lairages. Harish Damodaran points out in the Indian Express: “If a lairage is also considered an “animal market”, it rules out the possibility for slaughter of even livestock sourced directly from farms.”

No markets in border areas

Another significant restriction placed is that there should be no cattle markets in 25 km distance from the state borders and 50 km from the international border. On either side of the state borders, this will cover 50 km distance. This means, thousands of villages across the country would now be unable to hold a village cattle fair and thereby limiting the slaughterhouses’ pool of cattle.

According to this article in Business Standard, India is a global leader in buffalo meat trade. Exports grew at a compound annual rate of 29 per cent between 2007-08 and 2015-16 to Rs 26,685 crore, from Rs 3,533 crore. The country is also the largest producer of milk, of which over 50 per cent comes from buffaloes.

Given how the new rules place severe geographical restrictions on sourcing cattle, the export growth figures may come under strain.

Bureaucracy and arbitrariness

The owners of meat processing units said that sourcing cattle for meat will now become an almost impossible task. The rules create a complex web of bureaucracy that will eventually lead to arbitrariness in certifications at the market. The rules, for instance, ask for five copies of the proof of sale.

Section 22 (f) of the Rules states:

“where a cattle has been sold and before its removal from the animal market, the proof of sale shall be issued in five copies, out of which first copy shall be handed over to purchaser, second copy to seller, third copy to tehsil office of the residence of purchaser, fourth copy to the Chief Veterinary Officer in the district of purchaser and last copy to be kept intact in the record by the Animal Market Committee.” 

This provision has been included to trace the owner in case the cattle ends up in a slaughterhouse in violation of the law.

Kapil Verma, who runs a meat processing unit near Delhi, said such units get the animals from suppliers, who act as middlemen between farmers and the units. The suppliers primarily source the animals from markets and village fairs. “If you say we cannot source cattle from markets, how else do we source it?” he wondered aloud.

Speaking to The Hindu, DB Sabharwal, secretary general, All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, said 90% of buffaloes are sourced from mandis (markets) by middlemen for sale in slaughterhouses against a mere 10% bought directly from farmers – this roughly translates to mean, using the estimates provided by the Indian Express, that as much as of 14 million of the 16 million slaughtered buffaloes annually may be sourced through the markets.

An abattoir owner in Uttar Pradesh, requesting anonymity, said the units will now have to engage farmers to source cattle as the rules mandate animals could only be sold to agriculturists. In order to get around the problem of buying the cattle for slaughter within six months of the sale in a market, he said officials will have to be “gratified”.

“This will only increase the cost of producing meat,” he added. By prescribing extensive paperwork and giving officials the right to decide the nature of cattle sale in the market, a complex web of new cattle bureacracy has been formed. “The officials will now be all powerful,” he claimed.

Both these businessmen said cow vigilantes will have great opportunities to extort once the rules come into play. “If they manage to get even a single official on their side, which is possible given the new government in Uttar Pradesh, we would be at their mercy,” the slaughterhouse official added.