The Environment Ministry last week notified new rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, banning the sale of all kinds of cattle for slaughter at animal markets nationwide. In one fell swoop, the Centre has attempted to change the way the meat network in India operates. The new rules make it illegal for any animal passing through an open market to ever be sold for slaughter. Instead, it mandates that animals on the open market can only be sold for agricultural use, and requires the market authority to collect undertakings from the sellers and buyers of the animals asserting that they are not being traded for slaughter.
The rules were immediately criticised. The chief minister of Kerala called them draconian and said the move intruded on federal rights. Representatives of livestock trade bodies condemned the rules. The West Bengal government said they would seriously jeopardise the jobs of millions of people in the state’s thriving leather industry. Many, particularly in South India and the North East, took to the streets to criticise the government for attempting to regulate what people can eat.
That might be a natural reading of the government’s intentions with the rules, considering its willingness to push support for state-level anti-beef laws as well as its close association with numerous gau rakshak cow protection groups that have indulged in horrific violence.
But the Environment Ministry, in a press release issued on Saturday, insisted that the rules had nothing to do with what Indians eat. “The prime focus of the regulation is to protect the animals from cruelty and not to regulate the existing trade in cattle for slaughter houses,” the release said.
Is this about animal cruelty?
The government insists this is about animal cruelty. The rules come under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. And indeed, many of the provisions do actually have a direct bearing on animal cruelty. For example, the rules mandate veterinary inspectors at animal markets, prohibit the use of chemicals on the animals, require poultry cages to be large enough for the birds to turn around and so on. The rules have titles like “handling and tying of animals” and “penning and caging of animals”.
Rule 22, however, is different. While the title of every other rule refers to all animals, this one is titled “restrictions on sale of cattle” – not animals, just cattle. If the concern is the welfare of animals, why does this section single out only cattle?
Is this about cruelty?
Rule 22, among other things, requires both the seller and the purchaser to provide an undertaking that they are not trading the animal for slaughter. This is the most controversial portion of the rules, the one that has been singled out as effectively being a backdoor ban on cattle slaughter. But why does slaughter make its way into this provision at all?
Is slaughter cruel? Individuals might have many opinions on this, but the government is clear. Indeed, the official position on slaughter – specifically the killing of animals for food – is established in the very Act that these rules are based on.
Section 11: Treating animals cruelly
(3) Nothing in this section shall apply to–
(e) the commission or omission of any act in the course of the destruction or the preparation for destruction of any animal as food for mankind unless such destruction or preparation was accompanied by the infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering.
In other words, the law states that killing any animal for food cannot be considered cruelty, unless those actions involve unnecessary suffering. Rule 22 does not point out any such unnecessary suffering, it simply bans the sale of all cattle meant for slaughter at open markets.
Which part involves cruelty? It can’t be the slaughter itself, since the law expressly establishes that killing of animals for food is per se not cruelty. Is it the government’s claim that simply taking cattle to an open market for sale constitutes “unnecessary suffering”? If that were the case, then the rules should be banning these markets and preventing animals from being brought for any purpose, whether agricultural or for slaughter. Instead, the rules actually lay the groundwork to legalise, notify and regulate animal markets. So where is the cruelty?
Why is this about cruelty?
It’s clear that Rule 22 has several problems. It selectively picks on cattle, instead of covering all animals. It doesn’t establish what cruelty is involved when it bans the sale of cattle for slaughter at open markets. Yet the government felt the need to include this under rules related to the Prevention of Cruelty. Why?
The answer is quite simple. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has been calling for a blanket ban on cow slaughter across the country. Yet this cannot be done at the Centre, because the Constitution gives exclusive powers to the states to make laws regarding livestock. Any decision to ban the slaughter of cows or other cattle, like the cow-slaughter bans that exists across much of India, has to be taken at the state level.
However, the Constitution does put the question of preventing cruelty to animals in the concurrent list. This means both states and the Centre can make laws, and if there is any conflict between the state and Central law, the latter will override the former. So the Centre seems to have tried to use its powers under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to regulate sale of cattle, even though it has not established any cruelty involved. This is why the ministry, in its statement, had to insist that the law was about cruelty, not slaughter.