The genesis of the Centre’s controversial new cattle trade rules that ban the sale of cattle meant for slaughter at markets is only just starting to become clear. Though the rules themselves have been quietly in the public domain for months now, it is now evident that the policy snowballed from attempting to contain cattle smuggling on the Nepal border to effectively changing slaughter rules nation-wide. And, as Vivian Fernandes points out, the spirit of the move seems similar to Narendra Modi’s demonetisation announcement in November.

The government’s decision to withdraw all currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 in order to combat black money, counterfeit notes and terror funding resulted in widespread economic distress. Though the government has yet to provide official numbers about the impact of the move, it was always evident that a very small portion of notes in circulation were counterfeit and that most black money was not actually held in cash. Nevertheless, the government went ahead with an executive move that affected practically every Indian, in order to punish a small subset.

Border trouble

The new rules on trade of cattle slaughter also began with illegalities. A Public Interest Litigation filed by an animal rights activist in the Supreme Court pointed out that a large number of the buffaloes being slaughtered at Nepal’s Gadhimai festival are illegally transported across the border from India. The PIL argued that both the sacrifice itself, as well as the transport of the animals, constituted unwarranted suffering that the Indian government should stop.

As the case proceeded through the judicial process, it got tagged with another PIL, this time from a cow protection group. The group complained about illegal cattle smuggling on India’s Bangladesh border, where thousands of animals are slipped across through territory that has proved to be dangerous for man and animal. Indeed, the Indo-Bangladesh border is one of India’s most deadly borders for humans, despite cordial relations between the countries, in part because of the activities of smugglers.

Two committees set up by the Supreme Court to look into these matters decided that they could not solve the problem right on the border. They noted that animals that reached the border had often been sold multiple times at different markets, most with woeful conditions, and that even those cattle seized by authorities are often recirculated back into the hands of smugglers. They concluded that action had to be taken, and the committees suggested better regulation not just at the border but at animal markets further inland.

Executive move

When the Centre eventually issued its rules, it effectively changed the entire economy of India’s cattle trade. While ostensibly aimed at mitigating cruelty in animal markets, the new notifications actually affect anyone selling cattle across the country, and have left millions of farmers concerned that they will not be able to get a fair price for their animals any more, or that it will no longer be economical to keep cattle. To wit, in order to crack down on cattle smuggling on the Nepal and Bangladesh borders, the government made rules that could have a serious impact on farmers nationwide, from Kerala to Mizoram.

The chart presumes a worst-case scenario, since by definition, illegal activity such as smuggling is very hard to put an exact number on. The Sashastra Seema Bal report to the Supreme Court on Gadhimai listed 500,000 animals beings slaughtered in 2009, and that number coming down to 35,000 in 2014. Other reports have said that as few as 5,000 of those animals were buffaloes, but the graph presumes the numbers were higher and, moreover, that all of them came from India, even though estimates suggest only about 70% or so were smuggled over.

The Bangladesh border data is similar to figures pointed out by NDTV, except that estimate is based directly on the number of cattle seized at the border by the Border Security Force. Seized animals are only indicative of overall figures, so this graph takes the generally accepted factor of 10 from the number of animals seized by authorities at the border.

A few caveats: First, it is generally unfair to calculate and compare suffering in this manner. The government has a mandate to limit cruelty to even one individual if it possibly can, and so, simply because the relative number is small does not mean it should not take action. Second, the activists point out that the smuggling is only emblematic. If animals being transported across the border are treated shabbily, it is quite possible animals staying within the country are getting cruel treatment too, and that is worth addressing.

Ends and means

But the ends have to justify the means. And there is the question of cruelty to another constituency here: Millions of farmers, who depend on a fair open-market price to sell their cattle, as well as those who rely on meat as a source of nutrient-rich food.

The government could have found a way to reduce one type of cruelty, to animals, without bringing in another type, to Indian citizens. Defenders of the law insist that farmers will still be able to sell their animals, although they have no answer on how they are expected to get a fair price without the open forum of a market. The broad definition of animal markets, in particular, leaves discretion to local authorities in a manner that could make life even harder for farmers.

All of this presumes that the government is not being disingenuous when it says the cattle trade rules are only about cruelty to animals and not a backdoor attempt to prevent cow slaughter nationwide.

There are also two big differences with demonetisation. That was, by its very nature, a one-off event. The new animal crulety rules however fundamentally reshape the entire farming and cattle economy in a manner that we still are yet to comprehend. As with demonetisation, it seems as if the government did not have everything in place to implement such a change.

The other difference is the response from authorities. Despite seeing the botched implementation and severe impact of the demonetisation decision, the government did not budge on its intentions or approach. In this case, however, Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan has indicated it is not a prestige issue and the government is willing to reconsider. The softening of stance suggests the administration has heard the criticism of the new rules. But will it really listen?